The Dunghutti and Birpai people of the mid-north coast of New South Wales continue to fight against plans to tar a stretch of road that leads to a secluded beachside campground for fear that it will lead to the destruction of culturally significant sites.
The Point Plomer campground, which is located on the coast between Port Macquarie and Kempsey, is accessed by a stretch of almost 12 kilometres of road.
Currently, around half the length of the road is sealed, around Crescent Head and Racecourse Head, while the remainder remains graded gravel.
The Kempsey Shire Council (KSC) intends to tar the final stretch early next year.
In 2003, similar attempts to tar the road by KSC were thwarted by community protests.
Now, the council has secured $2.88 million in funding from the NSW Government’s Regional Growth, Environmental and Tourism Fund to complete the job.
The overall cost is predicted to be $3.6 million.
Tarring the road has been identified as a top priority in the council's 2017-21 delivery plan, which it claims is to improve local transport.
Concerns for cultural sites
Local Elder, James Gurri Dungay, told NITV News the KSC has not consulted with Traditional Owners or the Dunghutti Elders Council before the funding to progress the plans was finalised.
Mr Dungay said he rejects developing the road because it would impact around 100 sensitive Indigenous sites, including an important men's site, and endanger local flora and fauna.
"I have written to the mayor twice," he said. "I don’t know what else to do to convince the KSC.”
At a council meeting in December 2018, Mr Dungay attempted to return a certificate of appreciation that he had previously been awarded by the KSC in a demonstration of his – and other Elders– objections to the plan to upgrade the road.
Mr Dungay said he was also considering taking the fight to the NSW Land and Environment Court to have the KSC decision overturned.
Mr Dungay is also concerned that a tarred road would directly lead to an influx of tourism to the pristine bushland and coastline area.
He claimed the KSC is prioritising the opportunity to profit off tourism before respecting the area's First Nations culture and heritage and said that he felt his voice as a Native Title holder and an Indigenous local Elder is “being ignored”.
Safety first, says Council
However, the KSC’s general manager, Craig Milburn, said the main priority for tarring the road was for driver safety.
“From a safety perspective, council has no choice but to seal the road. [The KSC] just simply has to do [it],” he said. “It should have been done ten years ago.”
“If you are having nearly 2000 cars down there a day, we have to make sure it is safe for them and with a gravel road we can’t do that.”
Mr Milburn said a cultural impact assessment was currently underway, but the process had been "pushed back" due to the recent bushfires on the mid-north coast.
He also said KSC had been in "extensive consultation" with the Kempsey Local Aboriginal Land Council (KLALC) for several years.
Land Council remains neutral
Chief executive officer of the KLALC, Greg Douglas, said it has adopted "a neutral position” in regards to sealing the road.
“KLALC is neither for nor against the issue of tarring Point Plomer Rd," said Mr Douglas told NITV News.
"… [we] accept, respect and support the Dunghutti Elders Council’s position and stance.
“Whilst KLALC has remained neutral to the issue of tarring, it has never shirked its responsibilities to and for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.
“KLALC has expressed its concerns regarding Aboriginal Cultural Heritage to Kempsey Shire Council and has indicated to KSC that should harm, damage or worse destruction of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage eventuate then KLALC will take appropriate action to remedy and/or rectify.”
Birpai woman, Rhonda Radley, said that the issue is not so much the tarring of the road but what the outcome of a more developed road could result in.
“It’s creates a larger footprint, so more people are coming into the area [and] there is more desecration of the flora and fauna around,” she said.
“Plus it’s hard to manage a site, like Indigenous cultural sites and camping areas, when more people are going in and out.
“We want to keep it as natural as possible for future generations, and my grandfather always said, 'leave a place better than you found it.'”
Ms Radley said she also feared the road could become more dangerous if it was tarred.
“The younger people are driving faster because there is no gravel anymore… It’s not the road that causes it to be unsafe, it is actually the drivers,” she said.
Ms Radley said an alternative to developing the road would be to add signage warning drivers to slow down.
“I’ve been going to that area since I was a baby, I’ve seen it change over that period of time. All the locals slow down, they know the conditions of the road,” she said.
“But for others, they don’t know. So, for a safety thing they need to put signs in because there is no signs at the moment.”