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Traditional Owners at odds with WA Government over historic Cossack development

David Prestipino -

Traditional owners on Monday said they were "stunned" by WA government claims their proposal to turn a Pilbara ghost town with significant Indigenous history into a tourism hotspot in the state's North West was beyond its scope.

Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation (NYFL) last week advised an end to its its plan to develop and manage historic site Cossack, or Bajinhurrba, 1556km north of Perth and 15km from Roebourne, after being left without a contract or legal permission to open and operate there from the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, and repeatedly delaying contracts and licences, forcing its withdrawal.

Cossack's museum, cafe, art gallery, and campgrounds have all been closed and can no longer be accessed by visitors, who flocked to the popular tourist spot abandoned since 1950.

The department responded to the NYFL decision by saying its future management of the historic site was out of its scope, despite naming it as its preferred proponent to redevelop the iconic town after an expression of interest period ended in December 2020, further reiterating its support for their vision after a visit to the site in October 2023.

Chief executive officer Sean-Paul Stephens said NFYL had successfully activated and maintained the historic townsite for almost four years on behalf of the WA Government, and developed plans for Cossack to become an eco-tourism hotspot in line with the EOI, with the redevelopment to be supported by a range of tenure options, including freehold and leasehold.

"This is the first time NYFL has ever heard that the Department of Lands considers NYFL's proposal out of scope," he said on Monday. "It has certainly never been communicated to us formally or informally."

As part of ongoing negotiations the Department of Lands, NYFL further submitted a broader vision document and a detailed development plan in 2021 and 2022 respectively, to support tenure exchange.

"It went so far as to put up 'for sale signs' up around the town. Ultimately, NYFL's vision for tenure and activation was preferred and accordingly announced by the then Minister," Mr Stephens said.

The "out of scope" comments referred to the broader negotiation for tenure activation and development of Bajinhurrba by NYFL, which the WA government announced in 2020.

Lands Minister at the time, Ben Wyatt, said the NYFL had been chosen to "activate and enhance the Cossack townsite to create a tourist destination with unrivalled visitor experiences", redeveloping the remote destination with hospitality venues, a cultural centre and eco-village style accommodation, with a particular focus celebrating its Aboriginal culture, and recent history as the first port in WA's North West.

In 2022, DPLH executive director Darren Corr wrote to NYFL that it would begin preparing documents to facilitate tenure transfers, in line with NYFL's detailed development plan.

"The only area of difference between the Department and NYFL in terms of 'scope' has been in regard to the ongoing services contract, through which NYFL is remunerated for its caretaker and activation services at Cossack," Mr Stephens said on Monday.

"NYFL's position is that this remuneration should continue until the tenure is resolved. It is not a gift or grant funding; it is payment for critical services rendered.

"We consider this position is reasonable and it is a sentiment which is shared internally within the department, but they have struggled each year to receive budgeting support for it.

"Unfortunately, it appears the Director General of Lands did not support the idea, and NYFL was informed about this in March 2024.

"At the same time we were told there was no budget to continue to remunerate us for the services it undertakes at Cossack, on behalf of the state government."

Mr Stephens said Department of Lands representatives told NYFL it believed in its vision but they were not getting support from "higher up".

"When we asked if this meant the State had lost interest in the project, the response we got was 'it appears so'," he said.

"The government's decision is heartbreaking for our community but misleading comments about the process and NYFL's intention are adding to the distress the Traditional Owners are feeling over this situation."

Last week a state government spokesperson said the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage would continue to work with NYFL, despite the setback.

"The original EOI released by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage was very specific about low-impact tourism offerings, activation of the existing heritage precinct, and maintaining the existing caravan park in the Cossack precinct," the spokesperson said.

"The state government is funding conservation works at the Cossack precinct.

"While the proposed project by NYFL at the Cossack site is outside of the existing EOI, there are a number of existing government processes, including market led proposals for proponents seeking to build, finance or operate infrastructure that demonstrates a strong alignment to the government priorities, which NYFL is encouraged to explore."

The Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, which has authority over Cossack, suggested the NYFL's plans for Cossack were outside the scope of the original vision for the site.

"The original EOI [expression of interest] released by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage was very specific about low-impact tourism offerings and activation of the existing heritage precinct, and maintaining the existing caravan park in the Cossack precinct," a spokesperson said.

"While the proposed project by NYFL at the Cossack site is outside of the existing EOI, there are a number of existing government processes, including market-led proposals for proponents seeking to build, finance or operate infrastructure that demonstrates a strong alignment to the government priorities, which NYFL is encouraged to explore.

"The Minister for Lands office only recently received a meeting request in late March 2024, and NYFL will be contacted in due course to arrange a meeting."

WA Premier Roger Cook told the ABC he hoped the situation would be resolved soon, while Pilbara Tourism Association chairman Barry Harrison said the situation had led to tourism operators losing bookings ahead of its bumper season.

NYFL gained the contract to operate Cossack in 2020 after the City of Karratha handed management of the ghost town back to the state government over frustrations with state planning red tape.

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