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17 November 2014
by David Leyonhjelm

National parks: protected from what?

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The "hands off" management approach taken with national parks over the last half century is a great example of this phenomenon, especially when considering the dreadful environmental consequences that have arisen from the huge growth in area of protected public land.

The term "protected public land" is something of a misnomer, begging the question: protected from what? National parks are not protected from feral animals, weeds, rubbish, bushfires or vandalism. These problems are all pervasive. Whole mountainsides are covered by mats of impenetrable weeds, undergrowth is often sufficient to fuel massive bushfires, and the paucity of native wildlife is such that Tim Flannery once described national parks as "marsupial ghost towns."

Given Sydney's Royal National Park was our first park – it's been protected since 1879 – it is not unreasonable to expect it to be a shining example of land management 'best practice'. Instead, it has become an environmental debacle.

It wasn't like this 200 years ago. Professor Bill Gammage, in his acclaimed book The Biggest Estate on Earth, describes a landscape at the time of white settlement that "looked like a park", tended with great Aboriginal expertise honed over many generations. Now, many areas of protected public land can be characterised as "dirty bush" in Aboriginal parlance.

So, how did it come to this? One of the reasons is there are just too many parks. A hundred years ago there were only a handful of national parks; these days, NSW alone has 870. 46 per cent of public forested area in Tasmania is protected in reserves. In Victoria 55 per cent of all public land is in the national park estate with persistent calls from the environmental lobby for more to be protected.

While salving the electorate's environmental conscience with new parks, governments have failed to provide the necessary funds to properly manage them. By playing crude environmental politics, they have made rods for their own backs.

A direct result of insufficient resources has been a slow decline in the environmental integrity of much protected land. Instead, it has become fertile ground for invasive species of both plants and animals.

A tragic outcome of this is the disenchantment of local communities and park users, manifested as growing opposition to national parks. Indeed, some have argued that the only purpose of national parks is to keep people out of them.

National park funding is in direct competition with funding for schools, hospitals and other services. Most state governments are running deficits, meaning management funding suffers from the same problem as the parks themselves – out of sight and out of mind.

But "hands off" management of national parks has two aspects. First, governments put too few resources into park management. Second, they exclude the community from helping.

Many current users of national parks feel disenfranchised and excluded through prohibition and regulation. Even worse, few people in power engage with the numerous groups of knowledgeable and outdoor-oriented people who are willing to help.

Local communities adjacent to parks, along with hunters, fishers, campers, fossickers, trail-bikers, horse-riders, kayakers, four-wheel drivers, bushwalkers and many more are prepared to volunteer time and effort for better managed and more inclusive national parks. Instead, they are largely ignored.

Long-time former CEO of Parks Victoria Mark Stone used to say that parks could not be managed successfully without the support of local communities and stakeholders. He was right; governments will never have sufficient funds to do all that is required and certainly do not have the expertise or local knowledge necessary to manage parks via central planning.

Recruiting volunteers on a large scale to address specific problems such as track clearing, pest animal and weed control, or species monitoring, could save taxpayers millions and deliver vastly superior environmental outcomes. As it stands, biodiversity and environmental values in Australia's national parks are in decline.

Using the skills and enthusiasm of volunteers in local communities and park users to address basic management tasks could be the first step to arrest this decline. As Tim Flannery said, "The truth is that things are now so dire that we cannot afford to persist with business as usual: a change of direction is essential."

If we are to have so many national parks, they at least require the kind of stewardship the Aborigines provided before we got here.