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We need a new paradigm for national parks

By Max Rheese - posted Thursday, 25 March 2010


The ever increasing expansion of the national parks estate across the country continues to provide fertile ground for conflict between users of public land, rural communities, environment groups and governments.

The broad-brush conventional wisdom is that the concept of national parks and their purpose is beneficial to the environment and the community at large, and there is much to support this argument, particularly coming from a low base of protected areas in the early 1970’s.

Very few would argue with the need to protect emblematic landscape values represented in national parks such as Kosciuszko, Wilson’s Promontory, the Grampians and many others that have unique values, and national parks do this very well. Conversely, do vast areas of mallee scrubland, or red gum forest, or temperate woodland that constitute national parks and that are bordered by reserved state forest with the same landscape values, which are indistinguishable from one another except for a line on a map, have the same need to be protected for that particular value?

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Many would say those areas need protection, not for absent unique visual appeal, but for biodiversity values. Again the same question arises, are biodiversity values in these areas better protected by a line on a map, whereas bushland on one side of a road is in national park and on the other side in state forest? Do the trees and animals benefit from different land tenure proclaimed by the national park sign on the edge of the road? The difference of course is the management not the land tenure. In most states the primary stated aim of state forest is biodiversity conservation.

The management provided, rather than the management promised, is the critical issue in the value of recent and future additions to the national park estate and this issue is the foundation to much of the opposition to more national parks.

The protection of unique landscape conservation values has been well accommodated since the first national parks in the 19th century and the quantum leap in creation of new parks from around the early 70s to the present day. In Victoria, the national park estate increased 14-fold from 276,343 hectares to 3.9 million hectares in 35 years and now occupies 55 per cent of all public land. In New South Wales, more than 350 new parks and reserves were added since 1995 to now total 870.

As environment groups advocate for even more additions to the national park estate, tension in the community escalates as inevitably more reservation of public land impacts on more communities, most noticeably rural, as well as commercial and recreational users. The low hanging fruit has already been previously harvested at relatively minimal community cost.

So, if unique landscape values have largely been catered for with existing parks and biodiversity protection is more about management than land tenure: can we afford more national parks?

If we accept it is generally desirable that more of our public land and biodiversity is protected, but that the easier to declare areas are already in the parks estate, further expansion will be at the expense of multiple use public land. More likely than not, further reservation will be at the expense of restrictions on local rural communities, who in many cases will have either been managing local forests or utilising them through grazing, bee keeping or timber harvesting for more than 150 years, with little or no option for alternative income.

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The other fundamental in affordability for the state is the transfer of income producing state forests through royalties or licence fees to taxpayer funded management of the parks estate that does not produce income. Some may well say these costs are the price a modern progressive society has to pay to protect our natural heritage and our future. While this argument has merit, it is the cost of public land management and the failure to properly fund it which undermines the credibility of national parks as the protector of biodiversity in particular.

These are the recurring issues of park declaration, often far from capital cities, that impact on rural and regional economies and in many cases turn communities into economic backwaters. This is further exacerbated by the oft touted myth that tourism (PDF 43KB) will replace losses in local economies. While this does occur in some high profile emblematic parks, more often than not it does not occur (PDF 911KB) to any useful degree and there is no data to support the claims. It sure sounds good though.

If these were questions only of protecting conservation and biodiversity values then the solutions would be far less complex. However, they critically embrace the future of communities and the people that live within them and far too often these people have been secondary considerations in the decisions on creating new parks. People and the environment are not mutually exclusive, although the model of park management we use tends to reinforce that view. This view is buttressed by the oft confused interpretations of preservation and conservation. Which end-state are we trying to achieve?

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Max Rheese

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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