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We need a new paradigm for national parks

28, March 2010

Max Rheese

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?

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.

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?

The sacrifices in the quality of life of recreational and commercial users of public land and local communities, and their sense of identity and worth, might be easier to reconcile if they thought decisions had in fact been about the environment and the greater good of the broader community.

However, a number of decisions in recent years to create more parks have shown that green politics has been the driving force, rather than good environmental outcomes.

This is certainly the fear in the NSW Riverina where the NSW Environment Minister this month has declared the transfer of 107,000 hectares of red gum forest into the parks estate at a cost of $80 million to the NSW taxpayer. Previous park creations have adversely affected the economies of Balranald and Coolah (PDF 65KB) just as they have on the Victorian side of the Murray around the townships of Echuca, Picola and Barmah where sawmills have already closed after 80 per cent reductions in harvestable area.

The NSW decision has been announced without any cost benefit analysis on the regional economy or analysis of tourism impacts on an area that already has 500,000 visitor days per year in the forests. This contravenes the obligation of the NSW government under national agreements to create new reserves with least cost to communities. Visitor surveys over the last two years indicate that most visitors come to these river forests precisely because they are not national parks, which means they can bring the family dog and undertake their holiday with little restriction. In the Victorian decision it was noted by the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, responsible for making recommendations to the government, that “intergenerational welfare dependency” in local communities may result from the new parks created there. Indeed.

From an important environmental perspective, these Ramsar listed state forests were turned into parks without any analysis of what advantages, if any, to biodiversity might flow from a change of land tenure, but park creation still proceeded at significant social and economic cost to communities.

Certainly the difference between what is promised when new parks are promoted and what is delivered is miles apart. It was agreed by all that the Victorian red gum forests were stressed from drought; environmental water was promised. The first promised environmental water is now available in the form of 12,000 mega litres, but this has been recently “qualified” by the Water Minister and will now be diverted to Melbourne to enable announcement last week of the easing of strict water restrictions in the capital - ahead of the state election in November.

Similar has happened in the Riverina decision (PDF 81KB) where the Environment Minister has claimed to be following the key recommendations of the Natural Resources Commission, even quoting from their report:

The river red gum forests and the industries and social systems they support are in decline due to river regulation, over-allocation of water and drought.

However, he has only allocated 265GL of water to save the forests instead of the NRC recommended 1,200GL, no doubt keeping the rest for a rainy day. In either case, the minister states the problem is water and provides the solution as a change in land tenure to national park!

In both of the above decisions and many others, it is not the local community that drives the creation of new national parks, but city based environment groups with the result tied to green preferences in inner city seats or power struggles within cabinet as per the premature announcement by Premier Rees on the Riverina forests three hours before a decisive cabinet meeting that saw him deposed. Similar occurred in south west Victoria ten days before the 2006 state election, following campaigning by Melbourne based Environment Victoria, when the Premier and Deputy Premier arrived in Portland unannounced to declare the creation of the Cobboboonee National Park pre-empting four years of consultations with the local community. Recently revealed are a string of sweetheart deals, unannounced prior to the last Queensland state election, which have left indigenous Cape York communities disenfranchised from traditional lands.

Almost without exception, where a perceived political imperative drives an environmental decision, it is the environment and local communities that suffer because the funding commitment does not match the political zeal to add to the national park hectare scoreboard to appease the green vote.

These are some of the reasons why the Australian Environment Foundation argues that a new paradigm in national park creation and management is needed.

The present concept of national parks is well supported, but is likely to further decline with growing community conflict and the increasing difficulty of reserving more land for the protection of biodiversity without significant economic impact on all taxpayers.

The “one size fits all” model of park management from high country, to coastal and rainforest to highly modified red gum forests is flawed. The concept of active management of red gum forests, as recommended by the Natural Resources Commissioner in his report and the need for the same in the Pilliga-Goonoo, is not something that park services are skilled at or interested in.

Biodiversity protection requires good management, not reliance on land tenure classification noted on the sign at the entrance gate. Australia needs to include a new paradigm of park management similar to the “wise use” principles of the internationally accepted Ramsar Convention, to which we are already a signatory. Comprehensively involve local communities in the management and use of national parks instead of locking them out.

This is not to imply that national park management is all bad or that parks have not been of tremendous value to Australia, but that we need to revisit the model we are using to best accommodate the needs and concerns of all the community, not just the politically active.

The model currently used and funding allocated to management are the weakest links that diminish the latent potential of a national park system that might otherwise have broader community support.

If we are to continue to afford more national parks, both socially and economically, we need to do it with a few more strings to our bow than the “one size fits all” model that has failed in many parks.

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

Previously publised in On Line Opinion

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