Abbott’s half right: our national parks are good but not perfect

Lake Judd, in Tasmania’s Southwest National Park. JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week told a timber industry dinner that he doesn’t think national parks should be a growth industry:

“We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.”

Is he right? How much forest should be in conservation reserves, and does Australia really have too many?

Parks and protection

Australia has a world-class system of reserves, with just over 13% of its land area currently protected. Governments of all political persuasions have created national parks and protected areas for a range of reasons, including biodiversity conservation, wilderness protection, scientific study or to protect specific natural features.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he will not support the creation of any new national parks. AAP Image/Daniel Munoz

The most recent national figures indicate that 16% of the native forest area, some 23 million hectares, is inside reserves. This includes 70% of known old-growth forests and 55% of rainforest types. The iconic tall, open eucalypt forests (greater than 30 m in height) are also relatively well protected, with 26% inside reserves.

This stacks up fairly well against internationally agreed conservation goals. In 2010, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which aim to conserve at least 17% of terrestrial ecosystems. In Australia, 54 bioregions already meet or exceed the 17% Aichi target, but 35 have less than 10% of terrestrial ecosystems protected.

These reserves have generally been created on public land, but 70% of Australia’s forest estate is privately managed, including private freehold and leasehold land and land managed by indigenous people.

Some significant conservation efforts are happening on these lands. For example, 83,000 hectares of forest on private land in Tasmania have been protected through programs such as the Private Forest Reserves Program and the Forest Conservation Fund developed under Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement.

Biodiversity conservation goals won’t be achieved simply by creating more reserves on public lands. More of these types of incentive programs will be required to encourage private landowners to participate in conservation.

While significant areas of forest on public land are not in reserves, these forests are not simply open slather for clearing or timber harvesting. Most states have legal restrictions on clearing and timber operators adhere to a code of practice. In many cases the land is inaccessible or not suitable for other uses.

As a result, only about 6% (or 9 million hectares) of Australia’s native forest area is available for wood production.

The Tasmanian question

The forest conservation debate is hottest in Tasmania, where the federal government is seeking to remove 74,000 ha of forest from the World Heritage list just a year after it was added.

The 2012 Tasmanian State of the Forests report indicates that 49% of the state’s native forest area (1.5 million of 3.06 million hectares) is in conservation reserves. Of the 50 native forest communities, 37 have at least 15% of their estimated pre-1750 extent protected in reserves. This includes the very tall Eucalyptus regnans (16% in reserves) and E. delegatensis forests (26% in reserves) in places like the Styx and Florentine Valleys.

Seven communities, mainly shorter-statured dry eucalypt types, have less than 7.5% of their pre-1750 extent protected in reserves. For most of these communities, the remaining extent is largely on private land.

As a result of this agreement, the previous federal government added 172,000 hectares to the 1,412,000 ha in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. But the Abbott government claims that 74,000 ha should be delisted because it is “degraded or logged”.

But it is misguided to describe harvested areas added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area as “degraded”. Whatever your views on whether it should have happened at all, timber harvesting in Tasmania has generally been well-managed, with limited impacts on soil and water values. Harvested forests have been regenerated with the local species, and many other trees, shrubs and other life forms return to site within a short period of harvesting.

It is precisely this careful land management that has provided the opportunity to include these areas as World Heritage.

So was Abbott’s claim right?

In one sense, Abbott is correct about our national parks. We do have an excellent conservation reserve system with significant representative areas of many forest types. The vegetation types subject to timber harvesting are relatively well protected, both within national parks and outside them, by the restrictions and regulations on timber harvesting.

However, for the Prime Minister to suggest that we have “too much” forest in reserves overlooks the fact that there are many types of forest where the reserved areas do not meet national or global protection targets.

These are generally not the iconic tall wet forests adjacent to Tasmania’s wilderness areas. They are the shorter, less aesthetically appealing (to some) forest types in drier areas along Australia’s east coast. Remaining areas are often on private land, and the main threats are urban and infrastructure expansion, weeds, pests and feral animals.

Focusing the debate simply on areas in reserves also misses the need for a “whole-landscape” approach to conservation. Protected areas are just one part of the picture – areas outside reserves also need to be carefully managed so that conservation can co-exist with other land uses, such as agriculture.

This holistic approach will give us the best chance of protecting and conserving our unique native species and ecosystems.