The freeloaders trashing our beaches
JUST before the Splendour in the Grass music festival at Yelgun last year, a group of about 20 young people were setting up camp on the shores of Black Rocks, south of Pottsville.
With 10 tents between them and no visible toilet facilities, the revellers appeared to have every intention of camping illegally amidst the foreshore bushland for at least the duration of the three-day event.
That was until a furious resident rang Tweed Shire Council and insisted rangers moved them along.
That's one of many stories local residents tell of the growing problem of illegal camping between the remote coastal stretch of Pottsville and Wooyung.
Some claim it's now on a par with Byron Shire's illegal camping problem which the internationally recognised town has struggled with for years.
But while Byron has taken the gloves off (one councillor recently even publicly advocated for wheel clamping and fines to be quadrupled), some residents question Tweed council's commitment, and resources, to tackle the issue.
The illegal campers are accused of flattening and cutting down bushland and trees, lighting illegal camp fires, cutting through wire fences, leaving their rubbish including used toilet paper behind, and using sand dunes and bushland as public toilets.
Most galling of all is that many of the free campers don't even dig a hole before going to the toilet, sparking concerns about the spread of disease.
One Black Rocks resident was appalled when his 11-year-old daughter stepped on human faeces while walking to the beach.
The Tweed housing affordability crisis sometimes has seen local residents forced into desperate measures.
But the prevalence of Queensland number plates among the illegal campers suggests most are visitors who won't, or can't, pay for a legal camping site.
An inspection of the Tweed Coast Rd last week showed doused camp fires, flattened bushland and dumped rubbish in various pockets of supposedly protected Crown land.
One third-generation local resident, who did not want his name used for fear of retribution, said it's typical of the kind of wanton destruction by "freeloaders" going largely unpoliced in the area.
'John' says he has seen the problem grow increasingly worse over the years and believes council is not taking the problem seriously.
He was instrumental in calling a meeting with Mayor Katie Milne and senior council staff last September which resulted in a blitz on illegal camping just before Christmas.
While new signs warning of the illegality of camping have been erected, John said it was not enough and fines were not being enforced by council rangers.
The Tweed Daily News spoke to a man who claimed to spend only his days camped at the beach in his four wheel-drive.
But according to John, he's been there night and day for six months, despite him reporting the man to the council.
"Go back tonight and you'll see his campfire," he said.
The council issued a press release before Christmas warning of a crackdown on illegal campers.
Pottsville Community Association president Chris Cherry, who also runs Wooyung Beach Holiday Park, said the blitz had had an impact, with visitors booking into her park after being confronted by rangers.
One visitor told her they had had been fined while another two had been warned.
"It felt like they were really taking some positive action," Ms Cherry said.
"It's not over but we've certainly noticed an improvement."
"They are (illegally) camping for weeks. They often have a fire, and when it gets dry you get nervous about it."
Dune clean ups at Wooyung routinely turn up damaged bushland and campers' dumped rubbish and human faeces.
"We make dog owners take their animal faeces with them it's just incredible they think they don't have to," Ms Cherry said.
A member of the Pottsville Community Dunecare group, who did not want to be named, said it was demoralising to see their good work vandalised by illegal campers.
"These people often have big dogs and they're often drugged up," she said.
"There's evidence of a lot of drug abuse in the bush."
She said council had proven responsive and proactive by blocking off problem bush tracks with rocks and fences.
"I think the rangers do a marvellous job but I also know they're at risk."
That's not an exaggeration.
In December, a Byron ranger was punched in the face and received a black eye and cut to his head.
The alleged offender was an illegal street camper who was arrested for assault.
Tweed Shire Council says it issued 20 fines to illegal campers between December and January, 13 of these in the Pottsville/Wooyung area.
The council said it had instigated the following program of action in the area:
• Increased site inspections and enforcement by rangers.
• Updated signage has been erected at entry points at Wooyung and South Pottsville.
• Council staff has liaised with the Pottsville Residents Association on an ongoing cleaning program.
• Media release and follow up Tweed Link article to promote this campaign.
"In addition, Council's Waste Unit has coordinated a series of clean ups of illegal dumping and rubbish in the nature reserves, and will respond to further incidences of dumping though Council's general customer request system," a spokesperson said.
"In terms of ongoing complaints of illegal camping, Council's Rangers will respond in a routine manner, but it needs to be recognised that Council's compliance resources have to be shared across the Shire, with only limited services available on weekends and public holidays."
Do you think the Tweed Shire has a problem with illegal campers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org