How Fares the Vision for the Great Sandy – Sixteen Years On?

By Geoff Mosley. Review completed on 31st December 2020.

Conservation is surely one of the most unselfish of human behaviours. What is being protected for the future is often a heritage from the past, in some cases a result of past conservation efforts that have the potential to inspire others. What better reason can there be for us also being conservationists. One brilliant example of this is the Great Sandy Region in Queensland that includes Fraser Island (K’gari), Cooloola and adjacent marine and littoral areas. There, conservation efforts over six decades have helped maintain landscapes that potentially have infinite value for the future. That is if we give this linkage the full recognition it deserves and if we complete the conservation task they began. Regrettably, the conservation of the wider Great Sandy area is incomplete. To what extent does this example reflect an overall decline in Australia’s commitment to its World Heritage mission?

The ‘Fraser Island 20-20 Vision Conference’ organised by the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation in August 2004 provided an opportunity to assess where we stood at that time with regard to that conservation task and particularly what were the choices and challenges ahead. At the end of my keynote address

I summed the situation up with the following conclusion:

I have tried to sketch out for you my vision for 2020: a much larger World Heritage Area; a less invasive approach to management of the natural environment; recreational activities which are less dependant on motor vehicles; and greater use of the Region for education. In 2020, in my vision: shanks pony is king; the Great Sandy Walk runs from Noosa to Sandy Cape and is one of a network of walking tracks.

We are nearly two-thirds of the way through the intended 16 year lifespan of the Plan of Management. Would it not be good if the deliberations at this conference led to the development of a new manifesto or grand plan to guide our efforts for the Great Sandy over the next 16 years? To that end, looking forward, I will conclude by spelling out the three main things I believe should happen in order to achieve the 2020 vision (but, in most cases, well before 2020):

  • The first is very obvious. We have made a good start on getting the World Heritage Area established but we are only one fifth of the way there. SO, FINISH THE JOB OF ESTABLISHING THE WORLD HERITAGE AREA TO ITS APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES and, as part of this, MAKE SURE THAT THE EXTENDED AREA IS NOMINATED FOR ALL ITS WORLD HERITAGE VALUES. The extension on the basis of the broader range of values would be a renomination. Similar studies to those made by the Scientific Advisory Committee for Fraser Island and Cooloola are needed. Their brief should include the examination of the close relationship between the different sub-regions;
  • In the meantime, TREAT THE PROPOSED EXTENSION TO THE WORLD HERITAGE AREA AS THOUGH IT WERE ALREADY WORLD HERITAGE. For instance, the marine areas should be out of bounds to damaging aquaculture projects; and
  • CARRY OUT A POLICY AND STRATEGIC REVIEW OF THE GREAT SANDY REGION MANAGEMENT PLAN TO MAKE SURE THAT THE PROTECTION AND ENJOYMENT OF THE AREA’S NATURAL ENVIRONMENT ARE COMMENSURATE WITH ITS UNIVERSALLY OUTSTANDING VALUES. In particular, the review should ascertain how to further reduce interference with natural environmental processes and evolution and, consistent with this, optimise the recreational and educational use of the natural environment. The focus should be on fire management, reducing vehicle use, creating a comprehensive system of walking tracks, improving camping arrangements and developing an overall interpretation strategy. Where there is any divergence from the optimal approach, such as any departure of fire management from the aim of a natural fire regime, the reasons for this need to be very clearly spelled out.

The Great Sandy Region is well and truly appreciated by many. That is what makes it all worthwhile. But there is a long way to go, and for those just joining the fight, I say: SURPRISE US WITH YOUR IMAGINATION AND TENACITY.

We badly need a new environmentally-based vision for a future world. The Great Sandy Region can help point us down that long track.

Extending the World Heritage Area

The World Heritage nomination proposal in the report of the Fitzgerald Inquiry released in May1991 was for an extended Great Sandy area covering 860,000 hectares. Following a field visit in January 1992, IUCN officer James Thorsell recommended the listing only of Fraser Island. The Australian Government got cold feet and contracted the nomination to Fraser Island and Cooloola and, in December 1992, the World Heritage Committee listed only the 181,85 hectare Fraser Island National Park (the whole Island minus some freehold areas), 21% of the original proposal. This area was added to the National Heritage List in 2007. In September 2004 the State of Queensland Environment Protection Agency published two important reports. The first, for the Fraser Island World Heritage Area Ministerial Council, prepared by the Fraser Island World Heritage Area Scientific Advisory Council was Fraser Island World Heritage Area Review of Outstanding Universal Value. The second, a report for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Heritage, also prepared by the Fraser Island World Heritage Area Scientific Committee was Cooloola Assessment of Potential Outstanding Universal Value. In July 2005 the Queensland Government published a map prepared by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service of the ‘Proposed Extension to the Fraser Island World Heritage’. In 2017 the Fraser Island section of the Great Sandy National Park was renamed K’gari but this has not been applied to the Fraser Island World Heritage Area. A proposal to change the name of the World Heritage Area to ‘K’gari (Fraser Island) World Heritage Area’ may be progressed at the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee tentatively set for mid-2021. A change of name would be supported by the Butchulla people and would also be in accordance with the recommendations of the sixteenth session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at the time of the inscription of the property in 1992.

On the 4th January 2010 the Australian Government submitted to the World Heritage Committee an extended area for its Tentative World Heritage List that included: the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park; the Breaksea Spit (north of Fraser Island); the Great Sandy Strait/Tin Can Bay Ramsar Area; and the Wide Bay Military Reserve. The proposed extension includes one third of the Noosa Catchment within its boundary. No map of the areas under consideration by the Australian Government was included with the nomination and in late 2020 there was still no map available from the federal Government. In April 2010, John Sinclair on behalf of the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation, wrote to the federal Environment Department to urge that the proposed extension be further extended to include parts of the off shore marine environment off Breaksea Spit because this was vital to the understanding of the region’s geological evolution. He also recommended the inclusion of the Wide Bay Bar.

In June 2016 the Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Steven Miles announced funding to progress the new World Heritage nomination, only with the consent of the traditional owners. The plan was for the new nomination to be prepared and provided to the Australian Government after June 2017. In late 2016 The Queensland Department of Environment and Science conducted two expert panel workshops to review and confirm the Outstanding Universal Value and boundary against the existing selection criteria. In terms of integrity it is clear that the extension would complement, protect and enhance the integrity of the existing World Heritage Area. Regrettably, there has been no sign of the Australian Government proceeding to the stage of actually making a new World Heritage nomination. The main obstacle is the requirement in the revised World Heritage Operational Guidelines that requires consent from the region’s three first nations people prior to progressing new World Heritage nominations or extensions. Resolution of native title claims has slowed progress while there are hopes that this will be resolved by the end of 2020. The Butchulla first nation people have stated that they would not support an extension of the World Heritage Area without a range of commitments by Government, including funding for management, a percentage of permit fees, commitment to work towards recognition of cultural heritage values and support for development of ecotourism or cultural tourism ventures.

The ‘Queensland Wetlands Team’ in cooperation with the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation has been mapping the habitat of the Great Sandy Strait and is also working on the Great Sandy Ramsar Wetland to review the ecological character description to ensure that Ramsar criteria are still being met. The matter is complicated by the existence of two Butchulla Corporations.

Extending the World Heritage Values

In 1992 Fraser Island/Kgari was nominated for all four of the World Heritage List’s natural selection criteria for Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) but was included on the World Heritage List in 1992 only for criteria (vii) (“ to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and areas of aesthetic importance”), and (ix) (“to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and geological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals”). It was not accepted for criteria (viii) (“to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the evolution and development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”) and (x) (“to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”). The 2004 report of the Fraser Island World Heritage Area Scientific Advisory Committee Cooloola Assessment of Potential Outstanding Universal Value concluded that none of the other existing WHAs has landforms, soils and vegetation features of the kind seen in the area proposed for nomination. It is worth noting that in 2012 at its 36th Session the World Heritage Committee in a Retrospective Statement of OUV for Fraser Island stated that the World Heritage Area also met criterion (vii).

The Tentative List nomination of submitted by the Australian Government in January 2010 indicated consideration being given to an extended area, inscribed for natural selection criteria (vii), (viii) and (ix). The extent of the evaluation of the proposed World Heritage Area post 2010 in relation to the World Heritage List six cultural values ((i) to (vi) is not entirely clear. The 2015 Australian Heritage Strategy has an action to “progressively review existing World Heritage places that have been listed for natural values only to identify whether the areas may contain internationally significant cultural heritage”. Obviously the issues of the resolution of the Area’s World Heritage values and extension of the World Heritage Area are closely connected as is the consent required from native title-holders. Without this consent the renomination of the area for cultural criteria is unlikely to go ahead. With regard to the integrity criteria of the proposed World Heritage Area extension it was noted that all of them were situated in a national park, marine park or conservation area.

The World Heritage Advisory Committee for the region made a strong push for getting ‘The Cooloola Extension’ progressed through the Australian Government’s process for a National Heritage listing which was put out for consultation in 2015. It is federal government policy for an area to be included on the National Heritage List before being nominated for World Heritage listing. In 2020 Cooloola has yet to be included on the National Heritage List. The Australian Government was supportive of the National Heritage list nomination but was unable to get a ‘sign off’ by the Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi people who do not yet have a determination of their Native Title bid. The Butchulla people, although able to speak for the Great Sandy Strait (the subject of a second Native Title claim determined in their favour in December 2019), were unable to speak for the Cooloola area and deferred this to the Gubbi Gubbi nation. If the Fraser Island World Heritage property was extended to include the Cooloola extension it may need to be renamed ‘Great Sandy World Heritage Area’ as ‘Fraser Island/K’gari World Heritage Area’ would not recognise the area’s association with the Gubbi Gubbi nation. Given the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)’ principles of  the United Nations Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous Peoples which was adopted by the Australian Government in 2009, the Queensland Government has to have the consent of the Gubbi Gubbi nation to progress the nomination. So far the Queensland Government has not been able to engage the Gubbi Gubbi people to obtain that consent.


The 2004 address raised the important questions of whether the management of the region was ‘of a standard appropriate to the values and world heritage status?’ and whether ‘full advantage is being taken of this great resource?’ The main management tool for the region in 2004 was the 1994-2010 Great Sandy Region Management Plan. The World Heritage Advisory Committee has been promoting the need for a Strategic Plan for the World Heritage property and this has been supported for an action for the next term of the Advisory Committee. In addition the 1989/99 Comprehensive Regional Assessment for the Regional Forest Agreement process and the Commonwealth Wilderness Program had both confirmed the existence of wilderness areas at both Fraser Island and Cooloola. The zoning plan in the Plan of Management provided for a remote zone over the northern part of Fraser Island. The primary management principle aim as the Minister’s message in the Foreword to the Plan of Management put it was for the area to be a place where the evolutionary processes can continue unimpeded.

The 1994-2010 Great Sandy Region Management Plan was not a statutory management plan under the Nature Conservation Act 1992, the Recreation Areas Management Act 2006, or the Marine Parks Act 2004. It was considered to be a management statement for the purpose of providing management direction for the region. The Plan was revised in 2005 and 2011. The September 2011 Plan stated that the Plan does not intend to affect, diminish or extinguish Native Title and associated rights. In 2020 the Plan is currently being reviewed. Since 2016 the Queensland Department of Science has been developing a new Values-based Management Plan for the Great Sandy. Unfortunately the process has stalled partly as a result of the major issues including adequate consultation with the Native Title owners for the Cooloola section and the lack of specific focus on the Outstanding Universal Value of the area.

With regard to the possibility of the use of the area for recreation damaging the natural environment the same Minister’s Foreword message stated that the aim was for the Great Sandy to be a place wheretourists can enjoy its splendour and tranquillity and return home without having marred their priceless heritage. The 2004 vision referred to the several potentially conflicts between protection and visitation including the damage caused by four-wheel drive use. One of the concepts explored in the 2004 vision paper with the goal of enabling visitors to have a closer connection with the natural environment was the establishment of a walking trail running from Noosa at the south end of Cooloola to the north end of Fraser Island with no man made track in the remote/wilderness zone at the northern end of Fraser Island. Unfortunately, the development of this major track proposal has stalled half way at Happy Valley.

With regard to the development of World Heritage Area’s considerable educational resources work on a K’gari World Heritage Discovery Centre was well underway near the end of 2020. A joint initiative of the University of Sunshine Coast and the Kingfisher Bay Resort and supported by the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation the Centre will focus on the area’s World Heritage values including the it’s lakes, shifting sands, beach magic, animals, and birds.

The Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation (BAC), one of the three native title claimants, is undertaking heritage studies and is seeking funding for a ‘Healthy Country Plan’ that will also consider heritage protection. There have been unresolved native title claims involving three native title claimants including the Butchulla people and the Kabi Kabi First Nation and this has slowed the development of the revised Great Sandy Region Management Plan. In October 2014 the Federal Court recognised non-exclusive Butchulla Native Title rights over 164,000 hectares, the majority in Fraser Island/K’gari. In December 2019 the Court granted the Butchulla people exclusive rights over one fifth of the granted land. The Butchula Aboriginal Corporation is focussing on managing the Butchulla Peoples’ Native Title Rights and is currently developing Cultural Heritage and Strategic Business Plans. Cultural Heritage mapping has been carried out by the Fraser Island World Heritage Advisory Committee. The Butchulla Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) also has administrative responsibilities including for all of the beaches surrounding Fraser Island/K’gari from the spring high tide mark down. Also relevant to future cooperation of the Queensland Department of Environment and Science with the traditional owners is ‘The Gurra Gurra Framework 2020 (   whose aim is to reframe relationships with First Nations people to achieve stronger outcomes for all.

The draft of the Great Sandy Region Management Plan will not be available for public comment until this is approved by the Butchulla people. Resolution of native title provides certainty as to the persons who are able to provide consent. One potential clash re values and management is that between the current aim of maintaining a situation in which the natural environment and natural processes can continue to evolve and the management of country approach of the traditional owners possibly including burning.

One continued management constant over the last 16 years in the Great Sandy region has been the involvement of volunteers (citizens) in the removal of weeds and the blocking of the introduction of exotic plants, with the aim of improving the region’s natural integrity. The volunteer effort has including many weeding expeditions and the eradication of 18 weed species but, probably as a result of increased visitation, weed species have been spread more widely on the Island and, in spite of increased efforts to control them, they jumped in number from 43 species in 1992 to 80 species in 2010. Members of the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO) have continued to play a central role in these efforts. Included has been the work of the Fraser Island Natural Integrity Alliance (FINIA) that has developed a ‘Landscape Weed Management Plan’ for Fraser Island.  Unfortunately this major effort over many years has been countered to some extent by the increase in public visitation that resulted from World Heritage listing and the opening of the Kingfisher Resort in 1991 and World Heritage listing in 1992. These events saw visitation jump from about 200,000 in 1992 to about 340,000 in 2002. The Queensland Government estimated the annual number of visitors to  Fraser Island before 2020 at 600,000.The greater use of the dirt roads has hardened their surface and created sludge and sediment run off into Lakes, including Lake McKenzie (Boorangoora) and appointment of a new FIWHA co. This and increased visitation (225,000 annually at Lake McKenzie in 2012) threatens water quality in the Island’s many lakes. Concern about the extent of degradation on the Island and whether World Heritage listing has resulted in an appropriate response continues.

The management situation is complicated by the simultaneous development of a number of other management plans. This includes the development of a management plan for the Great Sandy Area National Park. The plan for this area incorporates Great Sandy National Park, Fraser Island World Heritage Area, Fraser Island Recreation Area, Cooloola (Noosa River) Resources Reserve, Great Sandy Conservation Park, Great Sandy Resources Reserve, Sandy Cape Conservation Park, Double Island Point Conservation Park and Womalah Resources Reserve. A draft World Heritage Strategic Plan is also being developed, but is on hold awaiting appointment of a new FIWHA Committee which will include representation of the Butchulla people. Also assisting with the development of this Plan is the Fraser Island World Heritage Advisory Committee. Planning under the ‘Queensland Recreation Management Act’ 2006 is also underway for the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park in collaboration with the Kabi Kabi First Nation people and is expected to be completed by June 2021.

The 2004 address referred to the delay in the development of a new Marine Park for the Great Sandy Region. In 2006 the Great Sandy Marine Park was declared under the Marine Parks Act 2004 covering some 6,000 square kilometres and extending from Baffle Creek to Double Island Point. It incorporated the former Hervey Bay and Woongarra Marine Parks as well as the waters off the east coast of Fraser Island/K’gari three nautical miles seaward to the limit of Queensland waters. The new Marine Park is a multiple use area and a management framework for the Park including a zoning system is set out in Marine Parks (Great Sandy) Zoning Plan 2017. The zoning plan identifies 5 different zones within the Park and sets out objectives for each, including the level of protection afforded. Also included are nine designated areas allowing for the management of their different conservation issues. A discussion paper was released in Jan/Feb 2019. Completion of the review has been plagued by delays and in mid 2020 the zoning plan was still under review. Until the new plan is approved by the Governor in Council 2006 zoning plan remains in place.

In 2007 the whole of Fraser Island was declared under Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act 2005 but this protection did not last long with the Wild Rivers Act being repealed in 2014 by the then Liberal Government. A promise by the Labor Government that won the 2015 and 2020 elections to restore the wild rivers legislation has yet to be met.

While the prospect remains of provision being made for the protection of remote zones in the revised Great Sandy Region Management Plan the attitude of recent Queensland Governments to wilderness protection has not been supportive. The passage of the Nature Conservation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill in 2016 removed the provision for wilderness declaration made in the Nature Conservation Act 1992 with the explanation that no wilderness areas had been declared under this legislation. This resulted in Queensland being the only Australian State without provision for wilderness protection in its legislation.

In July 2011 John Sinclair published as FIDO Backgrounder, No 52 ( World Heritage and FI Backgrounder.pdf) a comprehensive review of management of the World Heritage Area covering all aspects of management including provision for visitors, dingo and fire management and prevention of environmental degradation. He concluded that there was a serious lack of adequate funding for the World Heritage Area, including for the monitoring of water quality in the lakes and less transparency over management than when the areas was included on the World Heritage List nearly 20 years earlier. As a result of these findings he questioned whether World Heritage listing had benefitted Fraser Island.

IUCN’s 2017 Conservation Outlook Report described the overall management system on the World Heritage Area as “good with some concerns”. It listed changing fire regimes and climate change among the current and future threats to the Island’s ecology stating “pressures for tourism and recreational use, as well as climate change, will require continuing monitoring and increased management efforts to ensure preservation of the site’s values in the long term”. With regard to the problem of increased tourism on the Island, the report referred to this as a “High Threat”, stating that this was “ acting as a driver for a number of other threats which include pollution, siltation, disturbance and the introduction of invasive species”. The IUCN 2020 Conservation Outlook Report, published in December 2020, was unchanged as “good with some concerns”. The fires on Fraser Island were not happening when this assessment was finalised.

By December 12, 2020, a fire that had begun at a campfire at the remote northern end of the Island on 14, October, and spread south during extreme heat wave conditions, had burned for nearly two months and affected an estimated 87,000 hectares before it was contained. The Queensland Government claimed that back burning had been carried out over 13,000 hectares before the fire began. The impact of these fires on the area’s ecology, including areas of rainforest, is not yet clear but it is believed that, unlike the sclerophyll species, the rainforest may be relatively unharmed. The Queensland Government announced in early December 2020 that it had ordered a “full review of these bushfires by the Inspector General of Emergency Management”, to be delivered by March 2021.


In spite of the efforts of many, including the State and Federal Governments and the local community, the 2004 vision remains in suspense. There has been major progress with regard to defining the boundaries of a larger World Heritage Area and the January 2010 inclusion of a much bigger area in the potential New World Heritage nomination (the Tentative World Heritage listing) is the main achievement of the last sixteen years. Before an actual World Heritage nomination of the larger area is made, according to current policy, the additional areas may need to be included on the National Heritage List and this is unlikely to happen without the consent of the native title holders. The 2010 Tentative World Heritage listing included the additional value of criterion (viii) (geo-heritage importance) but did not include any of the potential cultural heritage values. Completion of the various management plans for the region has been delayed largely because of the need to first resolve native title claims. Involvement of the community in the development of management plans, native title claims and on-ground management is at a high level but some major parts of the 2004 vision, including the establishment of wilderness areas are unresolved.  Overall the result is disappointing but the good part of this history is that the proponents have not given up. Success will probably require the sort of political campaigning that was so evident in the earlier campaigns for the national parks at Cooloola and Fraser Island and for their World Heritage nomination and listing.

The author is grateful for the information provided by Sue Sargent, Ross Scott, Kurt Derbyshire, Nicola Udy and Peter Shadie but the author is responsible for any errors.