Munga-Thirri-Simpson desert declared Australia’s biggest national park after 10-year campaign

January 6, 2022
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The Munga-Thirri-Simpson desert has been declared Australia’s newest and biggest national park after a decade-long campaign to protect the area from exploration by fossil fuel companies.

The desert stretches into Queensland and the Northern Territory but the area covered by the new national park lies within the Lake Eyre Basin in South Australia and spans 3.6m hectares.

The new park is double the size of Kakadu – the next biggest national park in Australia – and four times the size of Yellowstone national park in the US.

The desert is a sanctuary to more than 900 species of plants and animals, including dingoes, thorny devils and wedge-tailed eagles, and is the site of spectacular scenes during the rainy season when water becomes trapped in the dunes.

Temporary wetlands spring to life attracting migratory birds and causing native flowers to bloom in the usually dry and arid environment.

Several First Nations groups maintain a connection to the area with uninterrupted custodianship stretching back thousands of years. Peter Owen, the director of the Wilderness Society of South Australia, hopes that legacy can be continued.

“As far as desert systems go around the world, this one is in pristine condition,” Owen said on Thursday.

“The Simpson desert is a huge, intact desert system with some of the longest parallel dune systems in the word. It’s an intact wilderness and a credit to the custodianship of First Nations people over thousands of years. This type of thing is not common in the world any more.”

The South Australian environment minister, David Speirs, said the official proclamation marked the “biggest expansion of national parks in the state’s history”.

“It is truly exciting that South Australia is now home to Australia’s largest national park and along with our other changes, this provides a significant boost to conservation as well as enhance our reputation as a world-class eco-tourism destination,” he said.

The announcement means the total area protected under national parks legislation in South Australia has doubled to 7.9m hectares.

Speirs said the government would set aside $130m in funding to help conserve “vitally important ecosystems” that provide “a wide range of environmental, social and economic benefits”.

The Wilderness Society first began seeking protection for the area in 2010 but efforts stalled when it was opened up to oil companies seeking to explore for gas deposits.

While one company interested in the region abandoned plans after community pressure, Tri-Star Energy, an oil company based in Tennessee, took over the lease in 2017 and announced its intention to explore for gas in the area in 2020.

In response the Wilderness Society met with the company and accelerated its campaign to have the area protected.

Owen hopes the new national park will make the prospect of massive groundworks required during exploration – where grid patterns are bulldozed into the landscape – and the potential construction of gas pipelines unthinkable.

“It’s going to be a very odd situation if we’re announcing a huge new national park and then in go the bulldozers. That won’t be satisfactory at all and I can’t see that happening,” Owen said.

“We’ll be hoping that this is a very strong message that the community here wants to see this area protected.”

Comment is being sought from Tri-Star Energy.

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