Robust debate about the purpose and future of our national parks is always welcome. Sometimes, however, important questions get lost under confusing rhetoric.
Below are our responses to some common questions about national parks and conservation. We hope they will clarify who we are and why we believe national parks are important, and also bring to light some important research.
Particular reference has been made to the State of the Parks report, an honest assessment of parks issued by the Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW)
in July 2005. A summary of the report is available from www.environment.nsw.gov.au/sop04/index.htm
Please note that while NPA's efforts led to the establishment of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 1967, NPWS is the part of the Government department that actually manages national parks. Please go to their website if you have a question about a particular park and its management.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the full variety of all life forms: plants, animals, their genes, and the ecosystems that these organisms are a part of.
Do national parks protect biodiversity?
Yes. National parks offer the most secure protection to native plants and animals available under NSW laws. Approximately nine per cent of the world's surface is a national park of similar reserved area. Scientists widely endorse these (including Australia's national parks) as the best method of protecting habitats, and conserving the flora and faunal biodiversity of the world.
However it is becoming clear that formal reserves are no longer adequate protection on their own. New initiatives, such as informal conservation agreements with private landowners, are now necessary to create a network of natural habitats (Figgis, 1999). Large national parks should be the foundation of this network.
Do national parks "lock" people out?
No. Parks have a social as well as an environmental role. Parks provide a place for retreat from pollution, noise and stress, and for many people they are a very spiritual place.
Parks also protect indigenous sites from damage, and conserve early European settlement sites (DEC, 2005: 13-14).
While logging, mining and grazing are banned for conservation reasons, this ensures greater natural or cultural enjoyment for visitors.
There are also a variety of recreational opportunities in the over 600 national parks and other conservation reserves in NSW, ranging from walking, camping and canoeing to vehicle-based touring. Some recreation, however, is more suitable in areas outside of national parks, which have less environmental value.
Do national parks have an economic role?
Yes. National parks generate income by encouraging tourists to Australia (Figgis, 1999: 46).
Parks also provide a range of ecosystem services: protecting catchments, stabilising soils, providing habitats and pollination for economically important species, controlling climates and offsetting carbon emissions (Beattie, 1995).
They are also a place for scientific research.
Don't we have enough parks already?
No. Over six million hectares of NSW are protected in formal reserves. This means that if you live on the coastal fringe, you can probably name a handful of national parks nearby.
The story in western NSW, however, is very different.
Only 2 per cent of western woodland is protected in formal reserves. Marine bioregions are also poorly represented. Such habitats are no less important than those along the eastern escarpment, and need equal protection.
Are our parks managed properly?
Yes. While a number of weaknesses have been identified, on the balance our parks are well-managed.
Planning efforts have increased more than ten-fold since 1995. Currently, three-quarters of the park system is covered by either a plan of management (or an exhibited draft).
Furthermore, in two-thirds of national parks, natural values are in good condition and adequate visitor facilities exist (DEC, 2005:2-6).
Do national parks start fires?
No. Fires are a part of the Australian environment. Destroying national parks will not change this.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service is committed to fire management - fire management programs cover 89 per cent of the park system, and include helping communities reduce risk to their lives and property.
Many people believe bushfires start in national parks and then burn surrounding homes. The reverse is usually true. In 2003-2004, only 13 per cent of fires started in parks and then burnt areas outside the park.
Are weeds and pests really a problem?
Yes. However, in 2004 the National Parks and Wildlife Service spent almost $17 million on pest animal and weed management. This shows NPWS has a great commitment to eradicating invasive species, many times greater than other public land managers such as the NSW Department of Lands.
Weed and pest control is hampered by terrain, and by invasion from neighbouring gardens, farmland or state forest. Feral horses, deer, bees and Bitou Bush are particular concerns.
Furthermore, sometimes the most efficient culling measures are regarded as cruel. At other times illegal hunters interfere with well-planned eradication programs.
Fortunately there has been a definite increase in control programs with a generally pleasing success rate (DEC, 2005:46-48).
Should grazing be permitted in national parks?
No. Some farmers claim that "grazing prevents blazing" - or that grazing prevents weeds and bushfire.
An independent report after the 2003 Victorian high country fires found this claim untrue.
According to the report by Victorian Essential Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin, grazing spreads weeds and does nothing to prevent fire. Cattle also trample delicate undergrowth, disturb soil and pollute precious water sources.
Do conservationists hate farmers?
No. NPA has 19 branches across NSW, with most of these outside Sydney and many members living in rural areas. They are acutely aware of the difficult conditions faced by Australian farmers.
We believe in dialogue with farmers and creating new sustainability agreements that suit both parties.
Many farmers are doing a great job protecting the environment, and while disagreements do sometimes occur, one thing is becoming clear: sustainability is in the interest of both conservationists and farmers.
Do national parks recognise Indigenous owners?
Yes. There are currently eight parks under co-management with original owners, and a further five parks could potentially be returned to Aboriginal ownership.
The parks service has also stepped up its involvement with indigenous communities, and has many indigenous staff.
Aboriginal Discovery programs also promote exploration of Indigenous heritage, and have been extremely well received.
Should tourism be developed in national parks?
No. Visitors are always welcome to national parks, but major developments are a separate issue. The irony of large-scale tourism is that it can destroy the natural values from which it derives its income.
Problems with major tourist developments include:
- Development is depicted as eco-friendly due to design features, but still
has a detrimental impact
- Conservation agencies have their priorities distorted away from nature conservation into tourism priorities
- Tourism can turn Indigenous culture into a marketable commodity
- Tourism can distort behaviour of natural wildlife (through, for example, regular animal feedings) (Figgis, 1994)
Any major tourist developments should be placed outside of parks.
What recreational activities are inappropriate?
National parks are a place for recreation, but certain environmentally damaging activities need to be restricted.
Horse-riding is a major concern, as it damages soil stability, tramples plants, introduces weeds and pollutes water.
4WDs and trail bikes also cause havoc on the environment, and damage the aesthetic enjoyment of parks.
Do marine areas need protection?
Marine areas are very under-protected, even though the health of our coastal marine environment affects worldwide biodiversity, and local fishing industries.
For information on the benefits of marine parks, go to our NPA~Marine website, www.marine.org.au/manning_faqs.htm.
Do national parks have a place in our future?
As natural areas become hemmed in by urban sprawl, the only way to conserve biodiversity is to protect core natural areas in national parks. These will be linked by a network of flexible conservation agreements on private land.
While best practices are debated, there is broad agreement that this is the future of conservation around the world (Figgis, 1999).
Im not a greenie. Can I help protect national parks?
Yes. Protecting national parks begins with awareness of what's at stake. Why not visit a nearby park, or join one of 900 NPA bushwalks held each year to discover these wonderful areas?
Information is available from the national parks website, and bushwalking guide books are available from the NPA office.
Alternatively, why not consider joining the NPA?
- Beattie, A. (ed.) 1995: Australia's Biodiversity: Living Wealth, Reed Books, Australia.
- Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), 2005: State of the Parks 2004, DEC, Sydney.
- Figgis, P.J., 1994: "Fragile lands: The Australian Experience - Nature Centred Visitation," in Proceedings the 1994 Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism, Hobart, Tasmaina, The Adventure Travel Society, Colorado, pp.129-142.
- Figgis, P.J., 1999: Australia's National Parks and Protected Areas: Future Directions, Australian Committee for IUCN, Sydney.