Review of environmental carrying capacity in Kosciuszko alpine resorts

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is considering a framework for applying environmental carrying capacity to future development proposals within the alpine resorts areas of Kosciuszko National Park.

Environmental carrying capacity

Environmental carrying capacity is the scale of human activity that can take place in an area without degrading its environment below an acceptable level.

The review in Kosciuszko

NSW alpine areas are popular winter destinations The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) manages the alpine resort areas in accordance with the Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management. These areas include the resorts of Thredbo, Charlotte Pass, Perisher Range and Selwyn, and the lodges within some of these resort footprints.

The plan of management limits the number of beds each resort may provide for visitor accommodation. However, NPWS is looking at better ways of measuring and regulating the environmental carrying capacity so is carrying out a review with public consultation.

This review may lead to an amendment to the plan of management and different ways of handling development proposals.

NPWS recognises that the alpine resort areas are unique. For this reason, it places a high value on conserving natural and cultural heritage while also managing the resorts for recreation and tourism.

The Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management recognises the need to protect environmental values and to provide opportunities to modernise the resorts and improve visitor facilities.

The plan of management commits NPWS to looking at alternative ways to measure and regulate carrying capacity in the alpine resorts.

This is because bed numbers are not considered the most effective way to manage environmental issues caused by resorts, for the following reasons:

  • Bed numbers influence the physical size of the resorts and required infrastructure, but they may not be the best indicator of the actual environmental footprint.
  • Instead, this is influenced by resort design, operational management and visitor and staff behaviour.
  • A bed number limit does not address the impacts of large numbers of day visitors.

Bed numbers on their own do not tell us about the factors such as the following:

  • quality of water in streams
  • the impacts of visitors on native plants and animals
  • the condition of walking or cycling tracks
  • the way a resort or an area looks (its ‘visual amenity’)
  • the quality of visitors’ experiences.

Environmental carrying capacity is the scale of human activity that can take place in an area without degrading its environment below an acceptable level.

Different thresholds are also set by other legislation for specific issues, such as threatened species management, water use and pollution prevention.

The community, resort operators and government have all contributed to initial discussions about what threshold levels are considered appropriate and sustainable, and other complimentary management mechanisms.

Other measures

In addition to carrying capacity, other measures limit specific visitor and development impacts. These measures include:

  • licences for high-risk activities such as water use and sewage treatment
  • environmental impact assessment and planning legislation
  • general national park rules and policies.

Each resort also operates under environmental management systems (EMSs). These systems support the address of issues such as sustainability, energy and waste management and land, water and biodiversity issues.

Current best practice approaches establish carrying capacity ‘frameworks’. These balance acceptable social outcomes (or goals) with conservation outcomes. They also put in place a system for monitoring, reporting and regulating to ensure these goals are achieved.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends that these frameworks should:

  • suit local conditions
  • include stakeholder views
  • overcome information gaps
  • be adaptable to changing conditions.

Based on current best practice, NPWS is looking at introducing a performance-based approach to measuring and managing environmental carrying capacity in the alpine resorts.

This approach focuses on the condition of the environment. It places an emphasis on flexible methods to achieve this goal rather than rules around what can and cannot occur.

For example, it would specify the required outcomes for native vegetation condition and extent. 

Establishing an environmental carrying capacity framework requires key decisions on:

  • social outcomes such as economic benefit, visitor experience and sustainability
  • conservation outcomes such as water quality, biodiversity, landscape and heritage
  • what environmental factors are to be monitored and who will do the monitoring
  • mechanisms needed to address situations where the outcomes are not being achieved.

A key challenge is to identify a set of factors that represent the environmental health of the resort area, and which can be monitored against acceptable outcomes.

These factors could include:

  • water quality and stream condition
  • soil and landscape condition
  • native plants and animals
  • Aboriginal and historic heritage
  • aesthetic and amenity values
  • park visitor enjoyment
  • infrastructure capacity
  • sustainability, including waste, water, energy and transport.

It is likely that bed numbers will continue to form part of a system for managing carrying capacity.

This is because taking account of bed numbers is important for various issues. These include:

  • development planning
  • licensing and leasing
  • transport and utilities management
  • public safety.

The Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management commits to ensuring that future development occurs in a way that protects the exceptional natural and cultural values of the park.

The review may result in amendments to the plan of management.

Any future development proposals will need to be in accordance with the adopted plan of management and will also be assessed in accordance with requirements of NSW environmental planning legislation.

The quality of the resort environments has been relatively stable for some time, but climate change is a growing concern in alpine environments worldwide.

A revised environmental carrying capacity framework would aim to improve the way environmental risk is managed in the resorts.

Examples of how this would be done include targeted monitoring and adaptive management of biophysical and social conditions.

It may also support greater opportunities for ongoing repair and rehabilitation and to promote natural and cultural values in and around the resorts.

The consultation process

NPWS understands that various stakeholders may be affected by or react differently to the review.

  • Resorts may be concerned at implications for their operations and future development.
  • Community members may be concerned the review could result in greater impacts to the environment.
  • Local accommodation and other businesses will be interested in the consequences for them.

NPWS is committed to fully understanding stakeholder concerns, looking for ways to accommodate and adapt to these concerns, and communicating them to the Minister for the Environment and other decision makers.

A background paper (PDF 310KB) sets out the issues involved in developing an environmental carrying capacity framework for the Kosciuszko alpine resorts.

It includes current best practices and looks at how these might apply in Kosciuszko.

NPWS is seeking feedback from those with ideas and concerns. This is taking place in several stages:

  • Stage 1 public consultation is now complete and submissions are being considered. A summary of submissions (PDF 1MB) is now available.
  • Stage 2 of the project is currently under way.
  • Further consultation is planned.