Living with limestone: in overview

Elery Hamilton-Smith, Rethink Consulting Pty Ltd


Obviously, I could go into a great deal of detail about a lot of issues; it seems to me that would not be helpful, and it is preferable that I should try to focus attention on the core problem which underlies most of the other variations on the theme. Most importantly, the core problem is not going to go away.


Although many limestone deposits are subject to karstification, we have been reminded by David Covington that some demonstrate little or no evidence of karst processes. These deposits generate much less conflict of interest than karst areas, and this is very important - it means that some (but by no means all) such deposits may be of a quality which enables them to be used for extractive or other industrial purposes. Examples currently used include not only Railton (Covington), but Rapid Bay, Angaston, Rocky Camp and Lilydale.

However, the more familiar situation is where karstification has occurred, and karst areas share a number of very important characteristics:

Turning quite specifically to the Australasian situation, readily accessible limestone which meets the technical, chemical and economic critera for effective 'exploitive' uses is a relatively scarce commodity (Calver). When some of the sites where such limestone occurs happen to also possess major heritage values (e.g. Ida Bay, Mt. Etna), then conflict is inevitable. The combination of a growing population, growing demand for industrial resources, growing demand for protection of heritage resources, and a range of political/administrative problems means that the potential for such conflict is likely to increase rather than decrease.


  1. It is absolutely clear that a very wide range of people need a more adequate understanding of karst. At one level, we can talk about the general public, and our political decision-makers. This raises issues about e.g.
    how well we might use the media to promote an effective understanding?
    how well the tourist industry, especially the so-called eco-tourism industry, can interpret caves, and even more importantly, karst?
    how far we can persuade the adventure tourism industry to see karst as something much more than an outdoor gymnasium?

    At another, we can distinguish a whole lot of key groups who might each be targeted with various strategies e.g.

    landowners - who may and often do use karst sinkholes as rubbish tips and drainage sumps
    engineers - who may and often do build collapsing roads (Gillian), leaking dams and a number of other environmental disasters
    recreational cavers, who are only just coming to accept the notion of minimal impact caving codes, and more importantly, may and often do fail to recognise that the cave penetrated by people is only a very small, and often unimportant element of a total karst system and so on.
  2. Putting all this into a wider context, we still suffer from the pioneering vision of a limitless land. The kind of open-cut quarrying which we assume is the only way to extract limestone would be unthinkable in many parts of Europe, where underground quarrying has been practised, in some cases for hundreds of years. We need, urgently, to recognise the very real resource limitations which we suffer, and look towards more creative technological strategies.
  3. We need to tackle the rehabilitation and restoration of damaged areas. At one level, this means tackling the relatively small but often very important and quite dramatic sites, such as Ida Bay (Household), Mt. Etna and the remarkably effective Englebrecht's Cave in Mt. Gambier. At the other, it means looking at re-vegetation and broad-scale landcare programs which will repair ground water quality and the flow patterns, recognising that in some cases, e.g., the Otway Basin, this may have to be recognised as taking several generations to attain established targets.
  4. We all need to recognise that sound karst management is good sense and good economics for everyone, whether we are looking at agriculture, tourism, quarrying, forestry or water supply. It is not just a choice between conservation/protection on one hand and utilisation on the other, but about ways to sort out the very complex mix of 'appropriate' land uses and to manage these in a competent manner.
  5. Now to put this into action ultimately demands much better political and administrative processes to resolve issues in resource partitioning by using planning processes which will more effectively deal with potential conflict before it arises. These processes will demand that parties to conflict cease perceiving each other as evil, calling each other rude names, and start to recognise the real nature of the problem. It may cost more and may take more time than current planning processes - but it will be far cheaper in the long run than the kind of political melodrama which has been played out at Ida Bay or Mt. Etna. The current craze in government for 'fast-tracking' of development applications is, of course, moving in the opposite direction, and will in the long run cost us dearly.

    There are at least a number of attempts being made and we have heard about some of these, e.g.

    state-level land-use planning (Leaver)
    improved forest practice management (Witte, Luttrell)
    the mineral exploration working group (Calver)
  6. However, Bonyhady (1993) reminds us that there will not be any ultimate and permanent solution to issues in environmental conflict. There will always be new understandings, new values, new demands and failure of political or administrative processes. There will also be the usual 'cyclical amnesia' - each generation forgetting the wisdom of their predecessors and replicating their same mistakes! Finally, no matter how far we might succeed in the protection of a highly valued heritage resource, the very nature of our 'democratic' social system means that protection will inevitably have to face new challenges, simply because developmental interests will regularly test out existing constraints.


Bonyhady, Tim, 1993, Places Worth Keeping : Conservationists, Politics and the Law, Sydney : Allen & Unwin.