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‘A wrong is being righted’: New land to form protective ring around Indigenous site

Auntie Elaine was one of about a dozen elders and Indigenous staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) on hand to attend Tuesday’s handover of the 15,285 hectares on national park and state conservation land to the 1700-hectare Mt Grenfell park.

The park has been managed by the Cobar Local Aboriginal Land Council since 2004, and is known as Kurriyulu, or “place of rocks” in the Ngiyampaa language.

Uncle Peter Harris leads Premier Gladys Berejiklian past rock shelters containing ancient art at Mt Grenfell.

Uncle Peter Harris leads Premier Gladys Berejiklian past rock shelters containing ancient art at Mt Grenfell. Credit:Janie Barrett

Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who flew out from Sydney to attend the handover and help plant a casuarina tree, said: “a wrong is being righted”.

The government was increasing the buffer around the historic rock art site “because not only is this a sacred site used for ceremonies in the past, but many first nations people lived around and among the community”, Ms Berejiklian said.

“Reserving these lands will support the Aboriginal owners to maintain their physical and spiritual connection to country,” she said.

Environment Minister Matt Kean said: “we are doing what we should have done years ago, returning [the land] to its traditional owners, the Ngiyampaa people”.

NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, at the ceremonial signing of over 15,000 hectares to the Mt Grenfell National Park

NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, at the ceremonial signing of over 15,000 hectares to the Mt Grenfell National Park Credit:Janie Barrett

“This is a huge day – with significance culturally and environmentally,” Mr Kean said, adding the expansion of the park was part of his “stretch goal” of increasing the national park estate by 400,000 hectares by 2022.

The area is known to be home to some 130 bird species and 12 threatened species, including the kultarr, yellow-bellied sheathtail-bat, the stripe-faced dunnart and bristle-faced freetailed-bat.

Visitors were taken on a tour of some of the rows of ancient art, including paintings of humans, emus and even fish traps, all protected behind steel cages to eliminate the risk from goats and other animals.

Some of the ancient rock art at the Mt Grenfell National Park, near Cobar in north-western NSW.

Some of the ancient rock art at the Mt Grenfell National Park, near Cobar in north-western NSW.Credit:Janie Barrett

Wayne Brennan, an archaeologist specialising in rock art, said the Ngiyampaa site at Mt Grenfell was “a very, very important site”, notable for its engravings and ancient pigment of the paintings.

The local traditional owners had kept the “whole fleet of sites…in great shape” and preserved their law for themselves and other indigenous communities across the state, Mr Brennan said prior to the visit.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the ceremonial signing.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the ceremonial signing.Credit:Janie Barrett

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“These are really important beacons, highlighting their cultural story,” said Mr Brennan, who had worked for more than three decades with the NPWS in both NSW and Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Uncle Peter Harris, another of the Ngiyampaa elders, said Mt Grenfell was on the path of “walking tracks” that linked vast distances of the inland.

Traditional owners would know the location of rock pools, which they would deepen and also cover, providing Indigenous people with reliable water even during severe drought and heat. Using cultural burning, the animals would be available when the travellers needed them, Mr Harris said.

Several elders said they hoped the Parks Service could create a dedicated Indigenous contingent, hiring young people as they left school and training them for careers as rangers.

“We did have that back in the ’80s,” Phillip Sullivan, an Aboriginal Heritage Officer based in Bourke, said. “Some of our best rangers came from that.”

Uncle Peter Harris and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, walk through the Mount Grenfell Historic Site

Uncle Peter Harris and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, walk through the Mount Grenfell Historic Site Credit:Janie Barrett

“The first part is they learn about who they are,” Mr Sullivan said. “It gives them a purpose”, and then can teach others.

Ms Berejiklian noted the Parks service had lately been hiring more Indigenous staff, such as about 20 per cent of the 120 firefighters recently hired.

Still, the Premier said she “would not have an objection” if a formal program was developed for the NPWS.

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