CHRIS Barrett has been shooting for more than 25years.
The Thornton gun shop owner and NSW Firearms Dealers Association president has also been hunting many times on public lands since the former Labor government began opening up state forests to recreational shooters in 2006. Many people don’t comprehend the attraction of the activity that for him is a sport and a business pursuit. Some find it repugnant.
‘‘An accountant of mine some years ago said to me ‘was I not concerned about selling firearms to people because of what they might do with them?’’’
‘‘I said ‘well not really, because they have to get a licence, they have to join a club and if people from the club see them doing the wrong thing they get ousted straight away’.
‘‘I said I would be a lot more concerned if I was selling used cars because people buying cars aren’t checked to see if they’re sane, and there’s a lot more people killed on the roads than there are by firearms.’’
Contrary to popular misconceptions, hunting is not about ‘‘shooting everything that moves’’, he says.
‘‘Hunting is like fishing, you can go out for an entire day and never shoot a thing. I have been personally into state forests many times and come away without firing a shot,’’ he said.
‘‘I enjoy being out in the environment, out in the bush. I enjoy what goes with it, the camaraderie because you always go out with some friends.’’
But the brakes have been applied to plans to allow hunting in national parks.
Premier Barry O’Farrell told parliament on Thursday he had received a report into allegations of illegal hunting against Greg McFarland, the NSW Game Council’s acting chief executive.
As a result, Mr O’Farrell said hunting national parks would be put on hold while former-director general of NSW Fisheries Steve Dunn carried out a review of the Game Council’s governance.
Recommendations are due to the government in late May.
The Game Council NSW responded in a statement, saying it welcomed the Premier’s announcement and would co-operate with Mr Dunn’s review.
‘‘The Council looks forward to an outcome that further enhances its services and ability to meet its statutory obligations while ensuring ongoing public confidence in the regulatory process.’’
There are about 20,000people who hold restricted licences issued by the NSW Game Council for ‘‘conservation hunting’’ of feral animals on declared public lands.
If there are no issues with Mr Dunn’s review, they will have new hunting grounds. In a few months, the plan is that the state government will begin opening up about 79national parks and conservation areas to recreational hunters.
This is unprecedented access to millions of hectares of public land. Some of the region’s and state’s most popular parks are on the list; Myall Lakes, the Watagans, Barrington Tops National Park and the Barrington Tops State Conservation Area.
But while shooters are relishing the prospect, National Parks and Wildlife Service staff, hikers, campers and other visitors are ducking for cover.
Leaked copies of the government’s draft risk assessment warn that groups of park users will face a major risk of ‘‘projectiles causing death and serious injury to people (bullets and arrows)’’.
It also anticipates park visitor numbers will fall with people put off by safety concerns, and feral animal carcasses could contaminate waterways.
The government says the risks will be properly managed and the program is a logical extension of control programs for feral pests that can wreak havoc in national parks and surrounding properties.
But undeniably at the heart of the decision is a political deal.
THE 43rd Premier of NSW is nothing if not a pragmatist. Barry O’Farrell’s background is that of political staffer – a true politician by trade.
Before the election he had ruled out hunting in national parks. But that was abandoned when he needed the support of crossbenchers in the NSW upper house to push through legislation to enable the sale of the state’s electricity generators in the face of opposition from Labor and the Greens.
The sale, which encompasses the Hunter’s power stations, is expected to raise about $3billion that the government will pour into the state’s infrastructure backlog.
The Shooters and Fishers MPs, Robert Borsak and Robert Brown, share the balance of power with the Christian Democrats. In return for their votes, they demanded parks be opened for shooting, and that permanent workers at power stations be given a four-year job guarantee after the generators were sold.
Announcing the deal in May last year, Mr O’Farrell acknowledged he would not otherwise have approved the hunting measure had he not needed the support, saying the government had to ‘‘live with the parliament that the people of NSW have given us’’.
For their part, the Shooters have been accused of literally holding the state to ransom.
‘‘All we’ve done is brought conservation activities in NSW up to the 21st century. We haven’t held anyone to ransom,’’ Mr Borsak, the former head of the Game Council, said earlier this week.
‘‘All we’ve said to the government is ‘well we think you should do the same as what the Labor government did in state forests’. Labor actually under [Nathan] Rees had agreed to national parks until he reneged on the deal.
‘‘We have a policy agenda that we’re working on and this is part of it. Reintroduction of the duck and quail conservation program is another part of it. ‘‘We shamelessly service our constituents. If that’s a bad thing, well then I’m happy to be bad. That’s what we’re here for. But we don’t see this thing as being bad.’’
Mr Borsak says the risks will be ‘‘negligible’’ because of the vastness of parks.
But the stakes are high. In New Zealand, where hunting is allowed in national parks, a school teacher, Rosemary Ives, was shot dead at a camp site in 2010 after a hunter mistook her for a deer.
The government’s risk assessment lists two incidents last year where hunters were found in unauthorised areas, and one where a bow was used in close proximity to a camping area and Forests NSW staff.
According to visitor numbers, about 150,000people visit the Barrington Tops National Park each year and 20,000 go to the state conservation area.
The Myall Lakes attracts 200,000people. The Watagans National Park is visited by about 20,000people a year.
At present, if pest eradication is needed in a park, it is done by professional shooters and areas are closed off.
The government’s plans for recreational shooters will use zonings based on visitor levels to mitigate the risk of visitors or park rangers getting shot. This would physically separate hunters, the assessments say.
Hunters would only be allowed into zone A areas, those most popular, as part of official National Parks and Wildlife shooting programs.
In zone B areas, of low visitor use, hunters would be directed by National Parks and Wildlife staff. They would be unsupervised in zone C, areas of ‘‘low to zero visitor use’’.
BARRY O’Farrell struck the political deal that will put shooters into national parks, but the task of rolling out the program is in the hands of Environment Minister and Maitland MP Robyn Parker.
A committee of staff from the Office of Environment, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Primary Industries and the Game Council has been preparing the risk assessments, and she will send the final version off for a peer review to ensure nothing has been missed.
‘‘What’s currently being waved around in the media is version six,’’ she said. ‘‘I think there’ll be maybe version10 or 11 by the time this is finished.
‘‘To take bits out of something in isolation from what’s a working document is really inflammatory.’’
Ms Parker said the risk assessments would be released when finished. Each park would have specific measures, and the government will spend $19million over five years to ensure the program is properly resourced. But even a medium risk of someone being shot is ‘‘too high a risk’’, according to opposition environment spokesman Luke Foley.
‘‘Mr O’Farrell spent more than a year vowing he wouldn’t open up our national parks to amateur hunters only to break his word and do a dirty deal with the Shooters party,’’ Mr Foley said on Thursday. ‘‘Amateur hunting in national parks – Mr O’Farrell don’t just suspend it, end it. Kill it off completely.’’
Already the Premier has been forced to deny the government may allow hunters to use silencers – a measure discussed in the risk assessments and one the office of Police Minister Mike Gallacher made clear it had not been consulted about. Silencers have been banned to prevent them falling into criminal hands.
There were risks in any activity in National Parks, Ms Parker said.
‘‘There are risks in National Parks of people getting lost, people hurting themselves,’’ she said. ‘‘What you have to have in place are checks and balances to make sure you’ve done the very best you can to address those.’’
Ms Parker said she hadn’t had much feedback from constituents on the political deal, but her electorate had ‘‘a lot of farmers who experience stock loss from a lot of feral animals’’.
‘‘Those people who want to go out into national parks and enjoy the pristine environment also want native species to survive and thrive,’’ she said.
‘‘There is already shooting in national parks with our staff, this is an extra program to get rid of more feral animals.’’
Unions for National Parks and Wildlife Service staff are furious with the policy.
The Public Service Association calls it a ‘‘sop to the recreational hunting lobby groups’’ and a threat to the safety of its members. It is considering whether members should stay out of ‘zone C’ areas or altogether from parks where the zones exist.
Association industrial officer Geo Papas said staff ‘‘feel threatened’’.
‘‘[Hunters have] been stalking an animal for two days, there’s a rustle in the bushes, they don’t properly identify the target and bang – they shoot a hunter or they shoot a park ranger or a park visitor, who just like a hunter, may not realise they’ve strayed into a ‘zone C’ hunting zone, which is a killing zone, it’s a death trap,’’ he said.
Not only do staff run the risk of getting shot, but the risk assessment warns of the possibility of confrontations with either legal or illegal hunters, including hunters who have been drinking.
‘‘The spin-off effect [is] that illegal hunters would be emboldened,’’ Mr Papas said. ‘‘They’ll become a lot more brazen. They will go in and shoot under the guise of pretending to be an authorised amateur hunter. That is going to create a whole suite of management and safety issues.’’
Questions have also been raised about how effective recreational hunters will be at pest control, and the extent to which further pest control measures are needed.
At Myall Lakes, management programs do not include shooting by professional hunters. A wild dog bating program has been the only measure warranted.
The Newcastle Herald understands the service also has no plans to begin its own pest control shooting in the area, despite the government’s plans to let in recreational shooters.
‘‘It’s called the ‘supplementary pest control program’. Supplementary to what?’’ Justin McKee of the National Parks Association said.
NEWCASTLE resident Peter Farley has been an avid bushwalker for about 10years. He and wife Grace are members of the Newcastle Ramblers Bushwalking Club, and regularly visit parks in the region. They’re not happy with the idea of shooters being allowed in too, and say there is much disconcertion among walking groups.
‘‘I thought it was a political move,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think it will have much of an impact on feral animals.’’
But at this point, it is not enough for him to abandon the affected parks.
‘‘No, it wouldn’t [be],’’ he said. ‘‘It would make us cautious, though. Some parts of the parks are quite remote. But that is where hikers also like to go. The potential is there for conflict,’’ he said.
Retired police officer and Belmont resident Garry Scow is another who says shooting in parks won’t deter him from visiting. As a recreational shooter, he may take up the opportunity of hunting in them.
But he would think twice about taking his family camping.
‘‘In principle it’s fine, provided you’ve got the right people in there doing it. The problem is, it’s far too easy to obtain a [restricted] licence,’’ he said. ‘‘And I am going on the experience that I had two or three years ago. It was basically a case of here’s your pencil, I’ve got a rubber, we’ll work through it if there’s any problems.’’
He says the test, which can be done by open book, is ‘‘so easy’’ the wrong type of people will end up with licences – ‘‘weekend shooters’’ who are irresponsible after a few days of excitement.
‘‘I’ve been to that many private properties where the farmers have said they’ve had people come onto their property and shoot up everything in sight, and they’ve never let them back on the property again,’’ Mr Scow said.
The taxpayer-funded Game Council issues the licences to members of authorised hunting clubs, but has only a handful of staff to oversee hunting in hundreds of forests.
There are no practical tests for accuracy, and as the Game Council recently told the 7.30 report, one can be obtained without the applicant having to fire a shot.
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the Game Council had been ‘‘little more than a publicly funded lobby group pushing guns, hunting and bloodsports’’ since it was created in 2002, and the government should suspend hunting in state forests.
But Mr O’Farrell said Thursday’s decision to initiate the review ‘‘again confirms the paramountcy of safety as we implement in NSW the type of pest eradication program conducted successfully for many years in South Australia and Victoria’’.
So with hunting seemingly in the bag, what is in the Shooters’ sights next?
‘‘If and when the government comes back and asks for something important we’ll think of something important to ask for in return,’’ Mr Borsak said.
‘‘But we are joined at the hip with the government on this and that’s the way it’s going to be. This program is going to go ahead. It’s going to be safe, it’s going to be run properly, it’s going to lift the bar yet again on what shooters and hunters do in NSW. And much to the bigotry of the Greens, it will be a screaming success.’’