Dozing in the Bush An Australian utility gouges a 42 km path through three national parks-but hardly anyone notices

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There are few parts of australia as heavily regulated as its national parks. Whether vast tracts of desert or small pockets of rainforest, these reserves are the nation's storerooms of rare plants and shy wildlife, of ecosystems and landscapes which have disappeared elsewhere, devoured by agriculture and cities. A plethora of rules are designed to protect them, in tight restrictions on dogs and cars, on bikes and camping and litter. These are places which are precious because they remain untouched.

So there was disbelief last week when TransGrid, New South Wales' state-owned high voltage electricity supplier, confirmed that, without permission, its contractors had cleared land along 42 km of an easement corridor within three national parks in N.S.W. and the Australian Capital Territory. Bulldozers had left behind a 60-m-wide scar under existing power lines, in places scraping away not just all vegetation but also the topsoil and its precious native seed stocks. "It was savage," says Canberra resident Chris Perrers, a member of a bushwalking group that stumbled across the devastation in early April. "I could not believe what I was seeing." In the Brindabella National Park in N.S.W., Sue Swann, of the Tumut Region Ecological Education Society, saw areas razed to bare earth: "It's one of those things where it's hard to believe anyone could be so stupid."

The parks affected-about 35 km in the Brindabella and Kosciuszko parks and about 7 km in Namadgi National Park-make up some of Australia's last remaining stretches of alpine wilderness. The power lines were built several decades ago and their easements are maintained for bushfire control. But not like this. "What occurred here went well beyond the normal definition of maintenance," says Tony Fleming, head of the N.S.W. National Parks & Wildlife Service's southern directorate. Normally taller trees would be lopped or removed but the groundcover of grasses and shrubs-essential for animal habitats and erosion control-would be left intact. "This certainly has been out of the ordinary," says TransGrid's corporate manager Joe Zahra. "It's a shock to us and totally outside our philosophy."

Not only was the clearing excessive-it was also unapproved. TransGrid was required to get the go-ahead from National Parks but both Fleming and his A.C.T. counterparts say they were never approached, despite the existence of long-established protocols. In the A.C.T., TransGrid needed approval under three pieces of legislation for any maintenance work. Which makes the clearing "extremely surprising," says Gary Croston, of the territory's Environment Management Authority. "They know the system exists."

The role of the parks' guardians is also under scrutiny. The work was eventually seen and stopped by Namadgi's rangers. But initially, says Croston, "the activity looked so strange that people assumed they must have the power to do it." Across the border, Fleming says his rangers didn't notice the work in progress-and that, given the parks' size (Brindabella is 20,000 ha. and Kosciuszko 660,000 ha.), couldn't be expected to. Some find that odd. "I couldn't get a 4WD into the joint without someone stamping on me," says Bill Wooldridge, assistant secretary of the N.S.W. branch of the Electrical Trades Union. "You'd be able to hear a bulldozer 50 miles away." Andrew Cox, head of the National Parks Association of N.S.W. and a npws employee until last year, says under-resourced rangers are too busy to roam: "They're doing so much paperwork and working flat out that they don't get out in the parks as much as they used to."

However it happened, the areas have been "profoundly damaged", says Peter Jarman, professor of ecosystem management at the University of New England. The biggest worry, says the N.S.W. Environmental Protection Authority's John Dengate, is the risk of soil washing down the steep slopes and silting up waterways. "The rivers in this area are some of the cleanest and most spectacular in the country," he says. The epa is deciding whether to prosecute TransGrid under the state's Protection of the Environment Operations Act, which has maximum penalties of $A1 million. The state government (premier Bob Carr described the incident as "environmental vandalism"), National Parks and A.C.T. authorities are also investigating the incident.

As Time went to press, TransGrid was yet to say publicly whether its local managers or contractors were to blame. National Parks' Fleming says he's confident the incident won't be repeated. But old notions of security have been jolted. "I just felt sick," says Nicola Davies, head of the Conservation Council of the South-East Region and Canberra. "The environment movement has done a lot of work about clearing on private land, because you assume the areas in reserves are protected." Australians might now feel less confident in that belief.