A resounding “no” is the message a packed town hall at Georgetown gave the Etheridge Shire Council at the end of a forum held last Friday to debate a plan to list the shire as a global geopark.
Convened by AgForce following a month of rumour, confusion and apprehension when news of the idea was first aired, regional director, Russell Lethbridge said the strength of feeling against the listing surprised him.
“People drove up to four hours to get there, and they spoke their mind,” he said. “They listened but their minds were made up. They’re just not prepared to accept regulation, especially from a foreign controlling body.”
The shire has been working toward UNESCO accreditation for the shire, due to natural features such as Cobbold Gorge, Undara Lave Tubes and Copperfield Gorge, which the mayor, Warren Devlin said would put Etheridge’s brand on the world tourism stage.
While he and the Australian Geoscience Council have assured residents there was no governance overlay from UNESCO or other government departments, people at the meeting were not convinced.
“People just don’t trust conservation organisations,” Mr Lethbridge said.
“The big thing is, this is the first time this would be done for Australia.
“People fear it could be used as leverage against development down the track.”
Five resolutions were put to the vote at the meeting, encompassing a range of options, from approving the current plan to agreeing to a mosaic of geoparks in specific locations, to rejecting the idea altogether.
It was the latter, “that the Etheridge community does not support a global geopark in any instance and calls on the mayor and local government to immediately cease all efforts to create a global geopark”, that received the large majority of 61 votes.
This was a surprise to Mr Lethbridge.
“I thought people would support a voluntary arrangement, which was a resolution I put up, but they didn’t want a bar of it.”
While AgForce will now provide the council with a written report and “see where they take it”, Cr Devlin and all but one Etheridge shire councillors were present at Friday’s meeting.
Cr Devlin said he saw the fear around the room and totally understood where people were coming from.
He said he had been invited to come and listen and that’s what he’d done.
“To try and speak without the full understanding of people’s wishes wouldn’t have been productive.
“Council is definitely not rushing into anything. We want to keep communications open with everyone, including AgForce.”
He said an advisory committee would still be set up and invitations had gone out, to undertake community consultation.
“One of the council’s objectives is to give the area branding, like the Dinosaur Trail.
“It doesn’t have to be by a UNESCO geopark. That was an option put to the community, that we got feedback on.”
Cr Devlin said there were stages to go through to receive geopark accreditation, and pre-aspiring, where you indicate that you’d like to look at the idea, was where the council was at.
“You have to register interest before you start – full community engagement is now the next step, as well as working with geoscience people to make sure we’ve got something.
“To throw the baby out with the bathwater...”
Cr Devlin said there had been valuable outcomes from the meeting, in gaining a full understanding of community feelings based on the information they’d been given.
“We can address the issues raised, and it gives us a direction to move forward.”
He said council’s main focus was now to develop the Gilbert River Irrigation Project, but it would continue to support ideas that offered diversification for the shire through mining and tourism.
“UNESCO certification is nowhere near as important – I don’t mind if it turns into a geotrail after consultation.
“But we need to do something to support tourism in our shire. It’s our responsibility.”