The beloved Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park is “underfunded and under resourced” and continual promotion of the park without significant investment in its protection and restoration is “inappropriate”.

That’s the message more than 200 people heard at the latest in Nature Conservation Margaret River Region’s Environmental Sundowner Series, which put the spotlight on the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park at the Margaret River HEART on Tuesday night.

Member for Warren-Blackwood Jane Kelsbie sat on a Q&A panel during the evening and answered questions from the audience – and she acknowledged the need for additional funding to protect the park and vowed to lobby Environment Minister Reece Whitby to visit the region and meet with stakeholders.

Nature Conservation general manager Drew McKenzie told the audience the national park is home to rare and threatened flora and fauna, hugely significant cultural sites, incredible coastline and outstanding environmental values, and deserves “best practice management”.

Yet he said it is being swamped as WA’s most visited national park with an annual visitation rate at 5.5 million, and complicated by major issues around pedestrian and vehicle access, toileting, weeds, feral animals, growing population, increasing tourism, dogs impacting shorebirds, and many locals who treat it like their backyard rather than a national park that is an “absolute privilege” to have on their doorstep.

Despite the pressures, Mr McKenzie said the park was patrolled by just five rangers, whose numbers have not gone up in decades and whose time includes fire response and management duties. He said, despite the dedicated work of Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions staff, the department had a minuscule budget for issues like weed management, while large parts of the park are virtually “open slather” for feral animals.

Meanwhile, he said State Government funding allocations in the last two Budgets focused on track upgrades and campgrounds which, although very welcome, did not address the key threats to the environmental values of the park.

Despite the “mammoth effort” from the many volunteers and community groups that pour $250,000 worth of voluntary labour into the park annually, combined with the hard work of many landholders adjoining the national park, he said there is a “growing frustration at the lack of resourcing and support”. Mr McKenzie said it was “inappropriate” to continually promote the park without significant investment and resourcing into its protection and restoration. He warned the park is “underfunded and under resourced”.

Also speaking on the night was Karri Karrak Aboriginal Corporation lands manager Ben Tannock, who said the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park offers “an incredible opportunity” for joint management with traditional owners and “it is the vision of the corporation that it be the first reserve to be jointly managed in the region”. He said that would mean more indigenous rangers on the ground.

Mr Tannock also said there was a need for more infrastructure to deal with rising visitation and to “find an equilibrium between us and nature that allows for the coexistence of both”.  He also agreed the park warranted “world class” management.

The third presenter, Margaret River Discovery Company owner and ecotourism identity Sean Blocksidge, told the audience the park’s high visitation rate was largely driven by locals using the national park, and he said there was a danger of demonising tourism when locals had a large role to play. He also flagged climate change as a major threat to the park. And he agreed that DBCA staff did a fantastic job with the resources they had, but there was a need for “urgent, sustained investment from government”.

Questions from the audience touched on the prospect of funding the park through a national park entry fee, visitor contribution or a greater financial contribution from tourism authorities.

Margaret River-Busselton Tourism Association chair Stuart Hicks – who joined the Q&A panel – said the region’s community leaders had devised a “six-point plan to propose a course of action to government that will underpin the long-term protection of the unique and fragile Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park”. He joined Ms Kelsbie in urging the Environment Minister to visit the region and see first-hand the urgent need for resourcing the park.

Also on the panel was Undalup Association Wadandi ranger Meeka Reese, who urged locals to walk softly on country and said she was excited by the prospect of joint management of the park because it would combine traditional knowledge with modern management. Ms Reese said Undalup’s current ranger program was already making a strong contribution through education and awareness and bringing new capacity.