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Loophole opens parks to land claims in Northern Territories

Published by MAC on 2002-10-26

Loophole opens parks to land claims

The Australian

By Paul Toohey

26 October 2002

The Northern Territory Government is in crisis after making the stunning discovery that every one of its 50 parks and reserves has been invalidly declared and has no legal status.

Territory bylaws and management plans over an estimated 4 million hectares of land are now considered worthless.

This means all territory parks including Litchfield, Gregory and Kings Canyon ­ but not the federally managed Kakadu and Uluru ­ are now available for claim under the Land Rights Act or the Native Title Act.

The situation arises out the High Court's decision in the Ward case in August when it held that the 1981 declaration of the Keep River National Park, on the West Australian border, was invalid.

The Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act only allowed for the declaration of parks and reserves if there were no "interests" ­ which the court held included native title interests ­ in the land.

All parks created between the time of self-government in 1978 and the bill's amendment in 1998 are invalid.

Realisation of the legal defect apparently dawned on an unidentified public servant when he was reading the Ward judgment several weeks ago.

It means that 11 dormant land claims in the central Australia area, including the iconic Devils Marbles, have been instantly activated. Traditional owners have long sought ownership of the Devils Marbles in two unsuccessful High Court cases in 1984 and 2000. They will now succeed in their claim.

Government advisers said yesterday that if Aborigines wanted to test native title in any of the parks, they would almost certainly win. Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin has immediately gone on the front foot, laying out a set of negotiation guidelines to land councils.

Ms Martin warned her Government would tie up the land council in decades of litigation unless they agreed to these principles:

That parks remain accessible to visitors on a no fee, no permit basis. That Aborigines immediately lease back all parks for a minimum of 99 years.

That parks maintain business as usual while negotiations are completed.

That mining and exploration leases and tourism operator concessions are guaranteed.

That resolution be by negotiation rather than litigation.

Ms Martin said the points were not negotiable. She is gambling that land councils are sick of years of combat over land title and would not want to spend millions of dollars fighting the Government.

Advisers said it would cost the Government at least $100 million to litigate the cases and compensation would be extra.

The Central and Northern Land Councils reacted with delight yesterday. If they agree to the Chief Minister's conditions, Aborigines will be cut in on the management of every park and will also be paid some form of compensation.

© The Australian

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