Published in The Weekend Australian on 4.01.14
Australia’s system of national parks could do with a big makeover. Disputes over the conservation areas show no signs of abating and, with the federal government signalling its intention to delist areas of World Heritage in Tasmania, are set to escalate. And yet, much of Australia’s biological diversity is poorly represented in the national park system.
Every bushfire season environmentalists are blamed for having prevented back burning during the cooler months. Four-wheel drive enthusiasts campaign for access to national parks and against the creation of new parks. Graziers in drought-affected areas demand they be allowed to run their cattle on national parks. State governments often lack the funding to manage parks for feral animals, creating havoc for adjacent landholders.
When you think about a particular national park, chances are there’s nothing national about it. Of the 516 national parks in Australia only six are truly national; the rest are state parks. On state land the states run the show, unless you’re visiting one of Australia’s 14 World Heritage areas, where the High Court has determined the Commonwealth has protection powers.
Our system of national parks is a product of history. Some were established as places of recreation for an urban population heading out for a weekend communion with nature. Others were gazetted largely for political purposes, by governments approaching elections wanting to demonstrate their green credentials to inner-city voters. Encouragingly, some have been purchased from landholders on the basis of rigorous ecological assessments.
But if we were to start again, with the knowledge we now have, Australia’s system of national parks would look very different. As the world’s oldest continent, isolated from Asia around100 million years ago, Australia also has the world’s richest biological diversity. But our relatively recent settlement by Europeans has done much damage to that natural diversity, with more than 50 species lost and 1,700 species and ecological communities known to be threatened and at risk of extinction.
In preserving Australia’s unique biological diversity our system of national parks is more miss than hit. At the same time, there must be areas of national park that wouldn’t pass muster if we were starting over again. Parts of them might, however, have value as pastoral land or for their mineral endowments.
So here’s a radical idea. Australia should start again; review the system of national parks and other conservation areas, adding more to the national park estate while removing any parts that don’t qualify on biological grounds.
The final result would be a comprehensive hierarchy of natural reserves. At the peak would be World Heritage areas and a system of national parks that adequately preserved representative areas of each ecological system. On these parks the cardinal principle would apply: they would exist for the conservation of nature and any activity incompatible with that purpose would be prohibited.
Beneath national parks would be multiple land-use tenures such as conservation parks and covenants voluntarily entered into with private landholders. The values for which those reserves were selected would be protected, but activities that do not damage those values, such as grazing and four-wheel driving holidays, would be permitted.
Indigenous Australians would have a big role to play in this system of reserves. Traditional owners could manage ecologically valuable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land in ways that enabled them to earn an income while protecting the area’s natural values.
Mining and gas companies have purchased ecologically valuable areas of land in meeting their obligations with environmental agencies. These areas could play a valuable role in building the system of reserves.
Australia already has a biodiversity conservation strategy. It has laudable aims and goals but no obvious mechanism for achieving them. There was a time when developing a truly representative system of national parks and reserves might have seemed feasible. But the adversarial politics of today would have all parties hitting the campaign trail: the Greens accusing the government of selling off our national parks and Labor of complicity, while the Coalition government rated other priorities such as scrapping an emissions trading system more highly.
Every local conservation group would want to keep its national park and add more, while four-wheel drive and sporting shooters’ associations would lobby for delisting. It would be an all-in brawl with the government of the day getting hammered.
The only way this idea could achieve lift-off would be if the federal, state and territory parliaments appointed an eminent group to do the work. That won’t happen any time soon but it needs to happen some time. What a proud legacy for our children and the earth – a truly national system of national parks and conservation reserves on the oldest continent.