I recently visited the magnificent Gardens of Stone and Marangaroo and Carne West swamps with colleagues from the New South Wales Parliamentary Friends of Nature. The visit was an unforgettable opportunity to see a rare and precious part of New South Wales that, sadly, far too few people have seen themselves or even know about. The trip was organised by the Nature Conservation Council of NSW and was hosted by the Lithgow Environment Group, the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, the Colong Foundation for Wilderness and the Gardens of Stone Alliance. The Hon. Rose Jackson, the Hon. Catherine Cusack and Mr Justin Field and I saw firsthand the breathtaking Lost City pagodas, which tower over the sandstone valleys and canyons below. The area was badly affected by the bushfires of 2019-20 and again more recently by the storm events in March. It is, however, slowly recovering—the landscape peppered with blackened eucalypts shooting green growth. The contrast of these majestic sandstone cliffs and the gently renewing bush is poignant, underscoring the enduring beauty of this unique landscape but also its fragility.
Our visit also included the beautiful Marangaroo and Carne West swamps. The difference between these two shrub swamps could not be more stark: Marangaroo remains lush and healthy, abuzz with life, while the Carne West swamp falters, its groundwater sapped by longwall mining from the nearby Springvale coalmine. Chris Jonkers, who is a local expert on the plateau, describes these precious shrub swamps as nature's kitchen, where insects, birds and mammals flock for food, water and sustenance. The swamp is around 18,000 years old, and prior to the extension of nearby mining underneath it, it was so dense with ferns that you could not walk through it and it was totally waterlogged. It is now bone dry, relying on rainwater to support its dwindling plant life. Longwall mining from the nearby mine has cracked the surface rock and is leaching water away. The lack of groundwater in the swamp crippled its capacity to recover from the bushfires of last year. Surveys have failed to find a single endangered Blue Mountains water skink in the swamp—just one of the species lost from this precious ecosystem.
Luckily, residents and community groups have been working on a proposal to save this area, campaigning to list the Ben Bullen, Wolgan and Newnes State forests as a State conservation area. It is a testament to the long campaign that has been run that it has won cautious support even of Centennial Coal, which operates the Springvale and Angus Place mines. I note that the environment Minister has also expressed support for the idea, although we are yet to see a firm commitment to make it a reality. Protecting the area as a State conservation area is important, but local residents and the organisations that make up the Gardens of Stone Alliance propose going even further: They have prepared an ambitious plan to invest $32 million over 10 years for tourist facilities, lookouts, road upgrades and trails in what could make the area a world-class tourist destination to rival Katoomba. For me, this is the next Three Sisters.
The area is just two hours' drive from Sydney and 40 minutes from Katoomba and offers an incredible opportunity for a tourist economy. In addition to spectacular views, we could have bushwalking, picnicking, birdwatching, photography and camping, as well as rock climbing, abseiling and canyoning. The list goes on. Economic modelling suggests that protecting and investing in the area could attract up to 420,000 visitors a year to Lithgow, stimulate $40 million a year in economic activity for the local community and create 260 full-time jobs. As mining communities like Lithgow move away from fossil fuels over the following decades, we need the vision and investment now to support local communities and create local jobs through initiatives like these.
The strongest advocate in the Parliament for these proposals is the member for Blue Mountains, who for years has fought alongside community activists, local residents and environmental groups for stronger protections for the plateau and the magnificent pagodas of the Gardens of Stone. The advocates to save this precious and threatened piece of wilderness stretch from MPs such as the member for Blue Mountains to locals including Leo Williams, Nahla Campbell and Penny Easton, who set up a lemonade stall to raise money for the effort to preserve the Lost City. Leo is a passionate young environmentalist, and he sent me a beautiful drawing of the pagodas. I thank Leo, Nahla and Penny for their passionate advocacy and their commitment to their local area. I call on the State Government and the environment Minister to do more than just talk about the proposal. It is time to listen to local residents and get this done. It is more than just doing the right thing for the environment; it is doing the right thing for the people of New South Wales.