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THE Hunter’s 5000-strong four-wheel-drive community is on a collision course with the state government over access to the region’s natural playgrounds, including Stockton Beach, Barrington Tops and the Watagans.

The politically savvy collective is demanding increased access to hundreds of hectares of dunes and bush that have been declared off-limits.

A draft plan for Stockton Bight that could overhaul camping arrangements and limit four-wheel-drivers to about 350hectares of the 4200-hectare zone was released on Saturday.

High-profile 4WD activist John Rooth, who led a 48-kilometre convoy of 4WDs across the Hunter in February, and the NSW Shooters and Fishers Party have thrown their weight behind the Hunter campaign.

The push coincides with the launch of the national Unlock Australia campaign and the rise to prominence of the Motoring Enthusiast Party.

But the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which manages the areas on behalf of the state government, believes it is striking the right balance with the size of the no-go zones, which it says are necessary to promote conservation and safety.

Hunter 4WD enthusiast Justin Madden said recreational drivers like him had been unfairly targeted by government departments seeking to appease conservationists.

‘‘We are as concerned as anyone about the environment; our code of ethics talks about the importance of looking after the environment because we are dependent on it,’’ he said.

‘‘We are not a bunch of yahoos; most 4WD owners just want to take their family out for the day.’’

Access to the Stockton beach sand dunes north of Lavis Lane, which includes an area used for a sandmine and hundreds of Aboriginal shell middens, is a particular sore point for the 4WD lobby.

It is also the site of a camping ground that has been off-limits due to massive tidal inundation that occurred during storms in mid-2012.

Mr Madden argued the area was needlessly locked up.

“Show us an environmental impact statement that says the area is still damaged,” he said.

“They won’t let anyone drive on it, but at the same time there is a sandmine that is taking thousands of tonnes of sand away from the beach. What causes more damage?”

February’s Hunter 4WD rally attracted an estimated 5000 vehicles from as far away as Queensland who descended on Newcastle to demand greater access to recreational areas.

The protesters formed a convoy that stretched from Stockton to Cessnock, where it was forced to disband.

Mr Rooth, who is based in Queensland, would not rule out another Hunter-based rally.

‘‘It’s a disgusting situation where the people, taxpayers, the poor buggers who work hard all week and want to duck out for a fish on the weekend, are being shoved to the bottom of the pile with everybody else’s rights put above theirs,’’ he said.

NSW Shooters and Fishers Party MLC Robert Brown told the Herald the party acknowledged the need to protect the environment but said 4WD access should be allowed.

“We certainly support conservation but you don’t achieve it by locking up great tracts of land for no good reason,” he said.

“I’ve been in touch with 4WD clubs in the Hunter for more than 20 years. Many of them are involved in maintenance and track work programs to make sure these places stay open.”

A National Parks and Wildlife Service spokesman said 4WD vehicles were welcome at Stockton, the Barrington Tops and the Watagans.

At Stockton, there was over 22kilometres of beach driving available to the public and over 350 hectares of sand driving available in the recreational vehicle area.

Barrington Tops had about 60 kilometres of 4WD trails accessible to the public.

“Most of these have seasonal closures, due to public safety and potentially severe trail and environmental damage, generally during winter,” the spokesman said.

‘‘Of the nine camping and 17 day-use areas in Barrington Tops National Park, there are a number of highly attractive facilities accessed only via 4WD,” he added.

About 170 kilometres of 4WD trails were accessible to the public at the Watagans.

“Gates throughout the Watagans are a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of all our park visitors,’’ the NPWS spokesman said.

He said the gates were only closed when absolutely necessary, generally during road works or after periods of heavy rain.

The Herald reported yesterday details of the Worimi Conservation Lands draft plan to protect Stockton Bight.

Citing ecological damage and delicate Aboriginal artefacts, the plan would make storm closures introduced last June permanent.

Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council chief executive Andrew Smith encouraged all users to comment on the plan of management.

‘‘The plan will give the community an opportunity to get an understanding of how the Worimi Conservation Lands board is thinking,’’ he said.

‘‘The board will be able to look at those comments and work out a balance for all users.’’

The Worimi Conservation Lands draft management plan is open to submissions until February 17.

DAY OUT: Justin Madden at Lavis Lane with fellow four-wheel-drivers.

STOCKTON BEACH RULES

■Driving is allowed on the beachfront between the Sygna shipwreck and the Gan Gan road access, and in the recreational vehicle area. Driving across the frontal dune is permitted only on designated crossings.

■Camping will be allowed only at designated sites. A maximum of 30 camping sites may be provided behind the frontal dune between Tin City and the south-western end of the conservation area.

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