Councillor Gary Verri has secured council support to explore the potential to build a canopy walk and rainforest education centre in world heritage-listed Tooloom National Park in the northern reaches of the shire.
Cr Verri sees the initiative as an opportunity to enhance tourism, provide jobs and educate the public on the value of rainforests.
His fellow councillors backed his bid to start talks with NSW National Parks on the project, and to enlist the support of MP Thomas George in approaches to state government.
Cr Verri hopes a reinvigoration of that end of the shire will go some way towards redressing losses as a result of rationalisation of forest industries under the Carr government, resulting in a loss of 200 jobs out of a population of 700. Compounding the issue was the purchase of large tracts of land by timber companies to grow pulping timber, which provided temporary relief to the jobless but now lie derelict and valueless.
He said a promise was made at the time that tourism would capture all those who lost their jobs with the closure of the sawmills, but to date no jobs have eventuated, leaving the towns of Urbenville and Woodenbong in dire straits.
“When we build a rainforest canopy walk in Tooloom National park, we are not just building a steel platform and creating a few much-needed jobs, we are creating a tourism destination,” Cr Verri said in his report to council.
Cr Verri cited the example of the Dorrigo canopy walk which attracts some 140,000 visitors annually, many specifically to see the 120 species of birds found there.
“In our rainforest in Tooloom, we have 190 species of birds,” he said.
Those that have already experienced the rainforest sing its praises. Cr Verri reported John Mongard of Mongard Associates saying he has worked everywhere from Tasmania to Cape York and yet had never seen anything with as much potential.
The rainforest was quickly on the radar of new council chief executive office Terry Dodds, a strong tourism advocate. He said he wouldn’t have been surprised if dinosaurs had stuck their heads out between the trees when he toured the rainforest early in his tenure.
Cr Verri said that from Tenterfield to Woodenbong there is an extraordinarily large amount of natural attractions: at least eight waterfalls (one of which squirts water out of solid rock), six national parks including the largest granite monolith in Australia (Bald Rock), and an amazing amount of wildlife.
“A number of entrepreneurs have capitalised on this, however there is not the critical mass required to start a major tourism destination,” he said.
“I believe a canopy walk and a rainforest education centre would be the catalyst to start the ball rolling and create some jobs in the area.
If ever there was a shire that was made for ecotourism, this is it.Councillor Gary Verri
“If ever there was a shire that was made for ecotourism, this is it. I believe Tenterfield Shire ranks 17th and Acacia Plateau number one for biodiversity in Australia.”
Cr Verri was backed by one of those entrepreneurs – Stuart Bell – who moved his family to the district from western Queensland in pursuit of better opportunities for himself to pursue an off-farm income and education opportunities for his children.
He and wife Wendy – both former teachers – have operated Cullendore High Country bush camping retreat for the past two years and are pleased with progress to date, but also see great potential.
Mr Bell feels the councils of Kyogle, Southern Downs and Toowoomba along with Tenterfield can all play a part in bringing people to the district, and then operators will feel it’s safer to establish businesses.
He see greater profitability in low cost tourism operations like B&Bs and farmstays, as opposed to agricultural enterprises where profits can disappear down an animal’s throat. He said there’s a lot of land in the northern section of the shire, and apart from agriculture it can an asset on which to base multiple businesses.
“As someone who has taken that leap of faith, the land can become a central pillar on which other things grow,” Mr Bell said.
“But it’s better with more people doing it than less. Then it becomes a destination.”
Mr Bell said a ‘bit of extra bitumen” on Mt Lindesay Rd will drag tourists farther south into Tenterfield proper, with his clients happy to drive those 70 kilometres from their camp site on a day outing. And there are plenty of days to fill, with a budgeted 1.5 days of camping often blowing out to five, seven or even 15 day stays, with a lot of repeat visitors.
“It’s the nature that really attracts them,” he said, “and they will feel it’s more important if a walk is built for them.
“It’s a special place. I didn’t know it was there, and a lot of people don’t.”