Outback cattle property to expand national park after ‘environmentally significant’ government purchase

Outback cattle property to expand national park after ‘environmentally significant’ government purchase

An outback Queensland cattle station has been purchased by the state government in what’s been dubbed “one of the largest and most environmentally significant” acquisitions in recent history.

The sale of Vergemont Station, a 352,589-hectare property near Longreach, was purchased in a philanthropic partnership with The Nature Conservancy which brokered an anonymous $21 million donation for the sale.

This latest property sale follows the acquisition of Tonkoro and Melrose stations in January to expand existing national parks and protected areas.

The addition of the three properties adds 555,589 hectares to Queensland’s national parks, reserves and protected areas.

The state govermnet says the majority of Vergemont Station will be dedicated as national park.(Supplied: Queensland government )

Expanding protected areas

In 2023, the Queensland government made a funding commitment of $262.5 million to expand and better manage protected areas.

This landmark deal will see Vergemont Station and neighbouring property Tonkoro combine with a number of national parks and reserves in order to create a protected areas corridor of almost 1.5 million hectares of the Channel Country.

This map shows the locations of Vergemont, Melrose, and Tonkoko stations, as well as national parks.(Supplied: Queensland government)

Melrose Station, south-east of Winton, will be added to the Bladensburg National Park, which will see the park almost double in size to around 150,000 hectares.

Vergemont Station, which is larger than the Australian Capital Territory, sits at the headwaters of the Lake Eyre Basin, one of Queensland’s most important inland river catchments and one of the last free-flowing river systems in the world.

The conservation corridor is a key habitat for endangered and vulnerable species like the night parrot and the yellow-footed rock-wallaby, according to Environment Minister Leanne Linard.

“It really is an area of global significance,” Ms Linard said.

Ms Linard said the government expects a transition period of 12 to 24 months before the property becomes protected land.

The donation brokered by The Nature Conservancy is believed to be the single largest donation for land protection in Australia, according to Dr James Fitzsimons, a senior advisor at the conservation group.

“It highlights the power of leveraged gifts, enabling philanthropists and governments alike to achieve outcomes far beyond what is possible alone,” Mr Fitzsimons said.

“This model will be essential if Australia is to achieve its target of protecting 30 per cent of lands and 30 per cent of oceans by 2030.”

Miners worried

Vergemont Station is a 354,589-hectare cattle grazing property in outback Queensland.(Supplied: Queensland government)

Vergemont Station is located just south-east of the historical mining town Opalton, and while it is primarily a cattle station, it is also home to many opal miners who have mining leases on the pastoral land.

Many of those in the industry fear they will be forced out of their mining leases once the property transitions to a national park.

The opal industry is estimated to generate around $14 million in the Winton area, with the Queensland Boulder Opal Association saying the area has become the boulder opal capital of the world. 

The historical mining town of Opalton is where the first Queensland opals were discovered in 1887.(ABC Rural: Melanie Groves)

President and opal miner Alison Summerville said while the confirmation has ended months of speculation and rumours it has not quelled miners’ fears.

“We’re devastated,” Ms Summerville said.

“This is the national gemstone of Australia and we were just left hanging. The whole industry was left waiting.”

Ms Summerville said there are 60 mining claims on the property and miners who live and work there feel like they are “in a battle to exist” with the government.

“We’ve been given absolutely no information,” she said.

“These people are just hanging by a thread wondering where their future is.”

Queensland Boulder Opal Association president Alison Summerville with French tourists at Opalton.(ABC Western Qld: Dan Prosser)

However Ms Linard said she wanted to reassure miners that their leases will be honoured.

“We will allow small-scale opal mining to continue,” she said.

“We have always that we will work to ensure an ecologically sustainable coexistence between the existing open mining operations and conservation.

“The property itself is about 352,000 hectares … and we intend to dedicate at least 300,000 hectares of that to become national park.

“But the remainder will continue to support opal mining operations.”

Land management an ‘enormous’ job

Now that the protected area and national park will be expanding to more than 1.5 million hectares, Ms Linard said the government was committed to ensuring the land was managed responsibly.

She said it would be an “enormous job” managing that much land.

“Invasive weeds and pests are a massive issue for us,” she said,

“They threaten the health and the biodiversity on our properties and country.

“We have the same challenges that landholders have, so managing that is absolutely part of our everyday work.”

Signage at the start of Bladensburg National Park, which is set to expand by more than 26,300 hectares after the purchase.(ABC Rural: Maddelin McCosker)

Despite the increase in land the government will now have to manage, the minster said the government was not sure how many extra rangers it would need to look after the new land area.

“We’re not only investing in expanding our protected area estate, but also the management of that estate,” she said.

“We know that’s important and we want to protect it for generations to come.”

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