The Beeliar Wetlands have always been a site of controversy. Of course, in the past it wasn’t talk about biodiversity or Aboriginal heritage. Instead the question was whether they were to be a tourist attraction or drained and put to agricultural use.
As early as 1905 there were suggestions that Bibra Lake should be beautified as a ‘pleasure resort’ for picnickers, and given to a committee to run. It took three years for Fremantle Roads Board to get control of the place and start planning fences and some clearing, together with improved roads, so it could become the main tourist spot in the district.
But that same year, 1908, also saw calls for the wetlands to be drained and turned into grazing land for cattle, along with commercial crops. After all, said one commentator, what were the wetlands good for except “myriads of frogs and the growth of bulrushes”? Not much sign of biodiversity think there.
The government took this suggestion very seriously and started to consider whether the Beeliar Wetlands could be successfully drained. Whether it was just too expensive, or for some other reason, the area was left alone for day-trippers and Fremantle continued to work on the place. By 1913 Bibra Lake began to see work on a carriage drive, band rotunda, kiosk and shade houses, fernery, pavilion, couch grass plots, recreation spaces, swings, bathing houses, boat sheds and fish ponds.
After World War I, the government again began to cast its eyes on the wetlands, this time proposing to drain it for vegetable production. Sir James Mitchell promised to get a report on whether the project was feasible. It seems that it wasn’t and nothing was done.
On the outbreak of World War II, there was concern that neglect and vandalism had damaged the wetland area, and a call went up for an independent board to manage all of WA’s best tourist spots: Mundaring Weir, Lesmurdie, Yunderup, Lake Jandakot, Bibra Lake reserve, Garden Island, Yallingup Caves reserve, Namban Creek Caves, Jurien Bay Caves, Naval Base, and Point Peron. The board would improve these places and encourage tourists to visit every one. It never happened.
It won’t surprise you to find that in 1948, the government was thinking of draining the wetlands and the lakes to make a great agricultural area. Yet another report was written. Yet another report was not acted on. Or it said it couldn’t be done. One of the two.
And now, in 2016, the government has again turned its eyes on the wetlands, this time to build an extension of the Roe Highway. And, as you probably know, the locals are just a little bit disgruntled. With its long history of arguing about tourism v commercial use, the current proposal won’t astonish the wetlands itself. After all, some people didn’t care about frogs in 1908 and some people wanted to travel there to see them.