Greater Blue Mountains Area, Australia

Introduction

The Greater Blue Mountains Area (between 32°22’ to 34°23’S and 149° 54’ to 151°07’E) is a World Heritage Site that is 1.03 million hectares (ha) of deeply dissected sandstone plateaus, cliffs and gorges dominated by temperate eucalypt forest. Its eight protected areas preserve a record of the adaptation and diversification of the eucalypts in post-Gondwanan isolation on the Australian continent. The Area has an exceptionally wide range of habitats which contain ninety-two species of eucalyptus, ten percent of Australia's vascular flora and numbers of rare or threatened, endemic and relict species, such as the Wollemi pine, which have persisted for millennia in highly protected micro-sites.

Geographical Location

caption The Greater Blue Mountains Area, Australia. (Source: Australian Government: Department of the Environment and Water Resources)

The Greater Blue Mountains Area in New South Wales consists of eight contiguous parks in uplands which run parallel to the coast behind Sydney. It runs from 160 km north to 65 kilometers (km) south of Sydney and from 55 to 120 km inland of it, between 32°22’ to 34°23’S and 149° 54’ to 151°07’E.

Date and History of Establishment

  • 1867 - Jenolan Caves first opened, the first of many community managed reserves, later consolidated into public parks
  • 1932 - Members of the Mountain Trails Club and the Sydney Bush Walkers leased the Blue Gum Forest in the Grose river valley as a wilderness reserve
  • 1934 - A Greater Blue Mountains National Park proposed, similar to the Blue Mountains National Park section of the present Area
  • 1959 - The Blue Mountains National Park designated (62,000 ha); augmented in the 1970s and 1980s
  • 1969 - Kanangra-Boyd National Park established
  • 1974 - National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974 passed, the basis of the present system
  • 1979 - Wollemi National Park established; Thirlmere Lakes National Park established
  • 1987 - Blue Mountains National Park established in present form
  • 1991 - Nattai National Park established
  • 1994 - Gardens of Stone National Park established
  • 1998 - Yengo National Park established

Area

1,032,649 ha in eight areas. Seven adjoining protected areas form a buffer zone of 86,200 ha. Within each park is a protected wilderness. These total 554,822 ha of the nominated area:

  • Wollemi National Park - 499,879 ha
  • The Blue Mountains National Park - 247,840 ha
  • Yengo Natioal Park - 153,483 ha
  • Nattai National Park - 47,855 ha
  • Kanangra-Boyd National Park - 65.379 ha
  • Gardens of Stone National Park - 15,150 ha
  • Jenolan Caves Karst Reserve - 2,422 ha
  • Thirmere Lakes National Park - 641 ha

Land Tenure

Crown land permanently reserved under Act. Administered by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Altitude

20 to 1215 meters (m).

Physical Features

The Greater Blue Mountains Area lies between approximately 30 to180 km west of the coast of New South Wales, forming a central part of the Great Dividing Range which parallels much of the eastern edge of Australia. It is a well forested deeply incised sandstone upland plateau, much of it still wilderness. The northern parks are a maze of moderately dissected ridges and valleys; the central and southern parks are deeply dissected, with many topographic features, the south also having areas of limestone and in the south-east, the 8,800 ha Lake Burragorang behind the Worragamba dam which supplies 70% of Sydney's water.

The rocks which give the Blue Mountains their distinctive character are sandstone plateaus, cliffs and towers, with shales and some granite, basalt, and limestone karst. These originated in a late Cambrian subduction zone which was overlaid by Siluro-Devonian deposits including the carbonate reefs in which the Jenolan caves formed. Subsequent uplift, erosion, marine flooding, deposition and the growth of extensive coal swamps followed. The sandstones and shales, still almost horizontally bedded but now between 500 and 1,000 m high, were laid down as riverine sediments from the Late Permian to the Mid Triassic. The high escarpment may be the result of uplift and tectonic movements in the Cretaceous. But in the rim-rock area of the southwest, very ancient underlyingbasement granites are exposed. Volcanism was an important feature during both the Siluro-Devonian and the Jurassic, periods when a number of volcanic necks were extruded which have now eroded to form circular amphitheaters. More recently, Miocene lava flows formed basalt caps which protect the summits of several mountains such as Mts Wilson, Banks and Tomah.

The very hard and relatively impermeable sandstones which are highly resistant to erosion are in many areas underlain by much softer shales which erode more easily. This produces slot canyons like the 30 m deep Grand Canyon which is only 3 m wide at the top, that become wide valleys in which small underfit rivers flow where the sandstone cap has collapsed. High cliffs are prominent, including the Cliff Wall which runs from the north of Wollemi National Park almost 280km south, reaching nearly 300m high just south of Wentworth Falls. A large number of spectacular waterfalls cascade from these cliffs. Weathering of joints in the limestone and bands of ironstone produce pinnacles and pagoda-like forms. The sandstone-derived soils are dry, infertile, acidic and phosphorous-poor, but they vary within short distances. There are pockets of volcanic soils and several valley floors are alluvial. There has been some erosion by wind and intense fires, and the superb lyrebird while excavating for food or building nest-mounds could have had some impact on erosion over time since they may turnover an average of 63 tonnes of debris per hectare per year.

Climate

The climate is warm-temperate but temperatures decrease westwards with distance and altitude. The average January (summer) maximum temperatures are 23 degrees Celsius (°C) at Mt. Victoria (1,050 m) but 28°C at Lake Burragong (150 m). The average July (winter) minimum temperatures are 2-3°C at Wentworth Falls (900 m). On Mount Victoria there are on average 40 days of frost a year, and 10 days of snow, although this rarely lasts through the day. Rainfall patterns are varied, with a pronounced summer maximum. Mean annual rainfall typically ranges from 1,100 to 1,400 millimeters (mm) in the central areas, but there are areas of rain shadow to the west of the escarpment and in some of the deeper valleys, Little Hartley for instance, receiving an annual average of 748 mm. Droughts occur periodically. Winds are typically dry, from the north-west and north and are most pronounced in the winter. The blue haze which hangs over the mountains is partly due to the light-scattering volatile oils of the eucalyptus trees.

Vegetation

The Greater Blue Mountains is one of the three most diverse areas on earth for scleromorphic species, and the only such area outside a Mediterranean climate and dominated by trees. It is also a centre of plant endemism. It contains almost 1,500 species, 10% of Australia's vascular plants, and the highest diversity of any of its temperate zones. This is due largely to its exceptional geological stability and intricate topography which has allowed some environments and their biota to persist for millennia as refugia from climatic change. Its inaccessibility has also preserved this heritage. There is a complex mosaic of vegetation types and of unusual groups of species. 114 taxa are found exclusively or predominantly only within the area, and 127 nationally rare and threatened plants, many of them restricted to very specialized habitats such as cliffs, mesa-tops and heathland. The site holds several Gondwanan relict species as well, surviving in restricted microsites, such as the Wollemi pine Wollemia nobilis only discovered in 1994 in an almost inaccessible gorge, the shrub Acrophyllum australe and the podocarp Microstrobus fitzgeraldii, restricted to wet rocks near waterfalls and only recorded in the Jamieson Valley.

The area also has the largest sclerophyll forest in the world, ranging from grassland, dry mallee heathland scrub and sclerophyll woodland to wet sclerophyll forest, wetlands and swamps. The nutrient-poor soils have discouraged development by man and, over millennia, have conditioned the development of the vegetation. The dominant tree and vegetation type is eucalyptus open dry woodland and forest which is fire-adapted, drought-tolerant and able to grow in a wide range of soils and altitudes, a species being adapted to every situation. Owing to the openness of the canopy and the varying effects of fire, the understorey is diverse and varies with soil type. Ninety-two species of eucalyptus, thirteen percent of the global total, occur in the area, including eight considered rare or threatened and twelve which may be endemic to the Sydney sandstone region. It is described as a natural laboratory for studying eucalypt evolution through periods of global climatic change and because it shows considerable diversity in isolated populations through adaptation of species to complex conditions. An unusual characteristic is seed dispersal by ants. Characteristic dominant forest associations are, at lower and wetter levels, red bloodwood E. gummifera with scribbly gum E. racemosa and narrow-leaved apple Angophora bakeri; in higher open forest, black ash E.seiberi, Sydney peppermint E. piperita, E.racemosa and smooth-leaved apple Angophora costata; on richer soils, blue gum E. deanii, turpentine Syncarpia glomulifera, and in drier woodland areas E.eximia with grey gum E. punctata and scribbly gum E. sclerophylla. In mallee and heath E. stricta is often dominant. But there are a great number of intermingling associations. The high diversity of scleromorphic taxa is spread over 20 plant families, among them the Fabaceae (149 species), Myrtaceae (150 species), Orchideae (77 species), Poaceae (57 species), Asteraceae (69 species), Proteaceae (77 species), Cyperaceae (43 species), and Acacia (64 species).

Over 70 plant communities have been described and mapped for the Park, their classification being based on dominant species as influenced by geology and climate, more than 40 being recorded from the Blue Mountains National Park alone in which over 1000 species of flowering plant and 346 bryophytes occur. This species richness is exceptional for this climatic type, not only in a single habitats but over changes of taxa with changes in habitat and in changes of taxa in similar habitats in different geographic areas (alpha, beta and gamma diversity). A number of rainforest communities have been described with affinities to subtropical, dry, warm-temperate and cool-temperate ecosystems. These rainforest patches are restricted to areas of higher rainfall or higher soil moisture, deeper, nutrient-rich soils, and unaffected by fires. One of the richest areas of warm temperate rainforest is on the slopes of Mount Wilson. The forests of the east and south give way on the plateau to open woodland. Subalpine species are recorded above 1,000 m, and heaths, in areas exposed to strong winds such as ridge-tops and cliff edges. At similar altitudes where the drainage is restricted, and in steep-sided basins in headwater valleys hanging swamps have developed, with a distinctive sedge, herb and shrub flora, often dominated by button grass Gymnoschoemus sphareocephalus.

Fauna

caption Unusual species such as the platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus live in the Greater Blue Mountains Area. (Source: Queensland Government: Environmental Protection Agency)

The exceptional floristic and structural diversity of the region's habitats explains the richness of the fauna. There are 400 vertebrate taxa including 52 native mammals plus 13 introductions, 265 birds, 63 reptiles, more than 30 frogs, and unusual species such as the platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus and echidna Tachyglossus aculeatus aculeatus. Endemic, relict, rare, threatened and restricted-range species include 12 mammals, 28 other vertebrates, 15 birds and 12 invertebrates. The mammals include a number of well-known animals such as the eastern grey kangaroo Macropus giganteus, the red-necked wallaby M. rufogriseus, wallaroo M. robustus, koala Phasocarctos cinereus and wombat Vombatus ursinus, the greater glider Petaurus volans, the squirrel glider P.norfolcensis, mountain brushtailed possum Trichosurus caninus; also the rarer spotted-tailed quoll Dasyurus maculatus (VU), long-nosed potoroo Potorous tridactylus (VU), yellow-bellied glider Petaurus australis and brush-tailed rock wallaby Petrogale penicillata (VU).

The avifauna is diverse, with some 265 native species, a third of the Australian total, and 10 introduced species. The diversity of honeyeaters is high: 25 species have been recorded from the nominated area. The white-eared honeyeater Lichenstomus leucotis and New Holland honeyeater Phylidonyris novaehollandiae are found in the drier forests, the Lewin honeyeater Meliphaga lewinii frequents the rainforests and wet sclerophyll forest. Other species include the well-known gang-gang cockatoo Callocephalon fimbriatum, glossy black cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami, superb lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, crimson rosella Platycercus elegans, kookaburra Dacelo gigas, and satin bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus. Raptors recorded from the area include the wedge-tailed eagle Aquila audax and a number of owls.

In all, over 60 species of reptiles have been recorded, including two tortoises, one being the endemic Nepean River tortoise Emydura sp.nov. The endemic broad-headed snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (VU) is largely restricted to the Hawkesbury sandstone; the Blue Mountains water skink Eulamprus leuraensis (EN) is a rare endemic. Over 30 species of frog have been recorded from the Greater Blue Mountains Area including the giant barred frog Mixophyes iteratus (EN), booroolong frog Litoria booroolongensis (CR) and green & golden bell frog Litoria aurea (VU) plus the red-crowned toadlet Pseudophryne australis (VU) The invertebrate fauna is poorly known, but there are 120 species of butterflies and an estimated 4,000 species of moth. The rainforest areas are particularly rich and the Jenolan Caves have 67 species of invertebrates. The primitive phylum Onychophora (between worm and insect) is particularly important, with at least five species out of a global total of only 200. Glowworms are also of interest, particularly the primitive members of the genus Arachnocampa.

Cultural Heritage

The area has cultural associations with both indigenous cultures and western colonization. The local Aborigines' relation to the land dates back at least 14,000, perhaps 22,000, years. It intensified about 7,500 and even more about 3,500 years ago when a tradition of tool use began there. The evidence is seen in rock shelters, stone implements, tool-making sites, ax-grinding grooves and about 700 sites with art work. The three main language groups were Gundungurra, Daruk and Darkinjung, each subdivided by bands and each maintaining traditions and stories associated with creation and the landscape which were noted down for the Gundungurra. The art is largely in the Simple Figurative styles which are widespread across Australia. It includes a wide range of motifs from figures, hands, feet, terrestrial and marine animals, birds and human tracks and animals. They include petroglyphs and pigment art both found in rock shelter sites, while petroglyphs only are found on open sandstone platforms.

At first the mountains were seen by the early European settlers only as a physical barrier. A number of ventures penetrated far into the mountains, including that of George Caley, botanist and plant collector for Joseph Banks who reached the base of Mount Banks in 1804. Caley noted that the mountains were "impassable" but in 1813 explorers eventually crossed the region, between the Cox and Grose Rivers and began to settle the region. By 1915 their route was a rough ridge-top road, now the basis of the Great Western Highway. This, and a smaller route through the Bell Range remain the only roads which cross the 320 km length of the mountains. As Sydney became a city the mountains came to be valued for recreation and encouraged the modern appreciation of conservation and wilderness. A number of reserves were developed, particularly along the railway, for example at Katoomba Falls, gazetted in 1883 for the "health, morale and intellectual advancement" of the residents of Sydney. For many years the Colong Foundation for Wilderness with other informal organizations have fought to preserve the area from development.

Local Human Population

There is no resident population within the park boundaries but there are several urban centers close to the park boundaries, particularly along the line of the Great Western Highway in the Blue Mountains National Park section of the nominated area which for 100 km divides the area along a ridge top of residential, tourist and small farm strip development collectively known as the City of the Blue Mountains, with an expanding population of some 80,000.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

A number of trails were built as far back as the 1830s, and hiking increased dramatically with the completion of the railway in 1867-8. The earliest gazetted public recreation reserves were the Fish River Caves (later Jenolan Caves) in 1866 and the Grand Canyon in 1872. Modern visitation to the mountains accelerated in the 1960s and in 1997 visitors to all the parks totaled 2,364,000, nearly two million (85%) of whom went to the Blue Mountains Park, especially to Echo Point and Govett’s Leap, and quarter of a million (11%) to the Jenolan Caves. Tourist centers are all outside the Park except at Jenolan Caves, particularly along the Great Western Highway. There is a wide range of recreational activities with bushwalking (hiking) and camping being widespread. There are at least 140 km of trails, with use ranging from several thousand to some 300,000 walkers per year. Picnicking and camping, riding, cycling and some vehicle touring are also common: there are 175 km of roads and a further 275 km of vehicle trails in the park. Parts of the park are heavily used for climbing, abseiling and ‘canyoning’ (a combination of walking, canoing and roped climbing in the Park’s canyons). There are NPWS visitor information centers at Glenbrook in the east, Blackheath to the west, Echo Point and Wentworth Falls In the highway corridor.

Scientific Research and Facilities

The area is a classic site for the examination of geological movements and change and much research has been undertaken by tertiary research and educational establishments in Sydney and elsewhere but there are no research stations within the park boundaries. The NPWS is undertaking a number of research programs focusing on conservation issues and have set priorities for future research. The Wollemi pine, invasive species and biodiversity in the Blue Mountains and the use of Jenolan Caves are all regularly monitored.

Conservation Value

The area is a pristine highland of wide views, rugged tablelands, sheerly dramatic cliffs, deep inaccessible valleys and high level swamps. Its unique and diverse wildlife of threatened and endemic species preserves a record of Australia's evolution, especially that of the eucalypts and plants associated with them. Its topography, altitudinal range and climate have enabled the development and survival of a broad and important range of different plant communities, some from Gondwanan times. It has an exceptionally wide range of habitats which contain ninety-two species of eucalyptus, ten percent of Australia’s vascular flora and numbers of rare or threatened, endemic and relict species, such as the Wollemi pine, which have persisted for millennia in highly protected micro-sites.

Conservation Management

The nominated area has a complicated border, defined partly by adjoining privately owned lands which, in the Blue Mountains Park section, also divides it into northern and southern sections along the corridor of the Great Western Highway. The heart of each park is reserved as wilderness which totals 54% of the nominated area. All eight component parks, have or will soon have separate management plans. A comprehensive draft plan of management for the Blue Mountains National Park was prepared in 1998 by the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service. This details a broad range of activities and policy priorities including development and maintenance of trails and roads; pest and alien species management; fire management; restoration of degraded land, protection of Aboriginal heritage; research, development of recreational, educational and interpretation facilities. These plans include liaison with the external agencies responsible for adjacent developments, among them several other parks and recreation areas. The NPWS has primary responsibility for the management of the park, though most of the watershed areas of Lake Burragorang are jointly managed with Sydney Water Corporation. Areas within 3 km of the lake are subject to special regulations as this (the Warragamba catchment) is a Schedule One water protection zone. Private inholdings within the property are excluded from the nominated area but the continuing policy is to buy and incorporate these enclaves to preclude their exploitation as tourist resorts.

Management Constraints

caption Fires are necessary for the ecosystem of the Greater Blue Mountains Area, but are also dangerous. This is a fire in the Blue Mountain National Park. (Source: New South Wales Government)

The urban development along the Great Western Highway, has a growing population. Much of its polluting drainage runs directly into the Park where several rivers are now unfit to drink. This area is also subject to the impacts of tourism. Such pressures increase the threat of fires, accidental or deliberate which can be quite frequent, invasion by pest species both plant and animal, urban run-off, sedimentation and nutrient enrichment from cultivation. Efforts are being made to control sewage and further urban development and funds have been made available to purchase private land. Alien species are a major focus for management programs. There are at least 39 noxious plants within the park, most of them in disturbed sites close to settlements and their runoff. Volunteer groups working with NPWS authorities have had some success in their control and removal, but problems remain. There are also some 13 introduced animals, including fox and feral cat and feral populations of cattle, horses and pigs.

Fire is an integral part of this ecosystem, and its management is an important part of the overall park management, for safe recreational use, and for the natural systems themselves. Too frequent fires alter vegetation regimes, erosion patterns and water quality and too infrequent fires lead to loss of early successional species and an increase in large intensive fires which threaten the natural vegetation and neighboring urban and farm lands. Coal seams occur in several places throughout the area but mining is prohibited within the parks. However, there are groups of coal mines to the northeast, southeast and west of the nominated area. A mine adjacent to Wollemi National Park is polluting streams; some mines have caused landslips, another mine is proposed for in the southwest catchment area and exploration for gas is proposed in Nattai National Park. Limestone and sand mining, clear-felling, off-road driving, highways, power stations, dams, tourist pollution, aircraft noise and urban sprawl are all potential threats from groups, especially in the timber and coal industries, who are opposed to what is seen as uneconomic use of the area.

Staff

There is little information on the Greater Blue Mountains Area as a whole. For the Blue Mountains Park there are 33 professional staff, which include managers, rangers, tour guides and fire management officers. There is a further 38 technical staff, including pest species officers, administrative officers, and visitor center staff; there are also some 35 maintenance staff.

Budget

The government grants an annual budget for managing the national parks within the nominated area. In 1997 this totaled $A4.3 million ($US3,096,000) with revenues covering only about 5% of their costs. Annual maintenance of Jenolan Caves costs $A3.1 million ($US2,232,000), 90% of it coming from revenues.

IUCN Management Category

  • II (National park)
  • Natural World Heritage Site inscribed in 2000. Natural Criteria ii & iii.

Further Reading

  • Mosley, G. (1989). Blue Mountains for World Heritage. Colong Foundation for Wilderness, Sydney. 135pp. ISBN: 0959934731.
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (1998a). Blue Mountains National Park: draft plan of management. New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. 103pp.
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (1998b). The Greater Blue Mountains Area - World Heritage Nomination. New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service in association with Environment Australia. 287pp.
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (2000a). Nomination of The Greater Blue Mountains Area for inscription on the World Heritage List by the Government of Australia. Prepared by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service in association with Environment Australia.
    [Contains a bibliography of 363 references.]
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (2000b). The Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage Nomination, Supplementary Documentation. Provided in support of the nomination.
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (2000c). New Information provided by Australia Regarding the Nomination of The Greater Blue Mountains Area for Inscription on the World Heritage List.



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

Glossary

Citation

M, U. (2009). Greater Blue Mountains Area, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153119

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