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National parks are the least locked up land there is

Across Australia, the debate over national parks is escalating. This has been triggered by a series of significant changes in the approach to managing parks, with moves to open them to logging, grazing…

With the number of visitors Australia’s national parks get every year, can we really call them locked up? Flickr/The 0bserver

Across Australia, the debate over national parks is escalating. This has been triggered by a series of significant changes in the approach to managing parks, with moves to open them to logging, grazing and shooting.

The language being used to support these policy changes is revealing. According to politicians and some members of the public, the changes are needed in response to a problem: that national parks are “locked up”.

The term “locked up” has long been used by opponents of national parks, but it is reaching a new prominence in the current debate. The Queensland National Parks Minister regularly uses the phrase in press releases. It can be found in letters to the editor concerning debates over park use and in the recent NSW Upper House Enquiry into the Management of Public Lands in NSW.

But when were national parks ever “locked up”? The Australian tourism industry has always promoted national parks as the cornerstone of in-bound tourism. “Come and experience the real Australia – the reef, the rainforest, the outback!”.

National parks are less “locked up” than almost any other land tenure. They are open to all. Where do you see the signs “Trespassers will be prosecuted”? Not at the entrance to national parks. Instead, Queensland government figures show national parks receive 51 million visits from Australians and 7.9 million visits from international tourists each year.

Welcoming nearly 60 million visits per year is a strange definition of being locked up!

Two types of national park?

Another rationale being used for the changes is that some national parks are more equal than others. In justifying the opening of national parks in Queensland to grazing, the Deputy Premier and National Parks Minister both explained that these were not “pristine” national parks, like the rainforests of the Wet Tropics.

The national parks now subject to grazing were acquired with funding from the Commonwealth Government under the National Reserves Program. The program aims to develop a comprehensive system of conservation areas that represent the full range of ecosystems in Australia.

Achieving this aim means establishing reserves in areas that previously had other land uses (which is also true of most of the land in the “pristine” Wet Tropics). The lands acquired for parks are properties considered to be in good to very good condition, in the most poorly represented bioregions in the country.

But in Queensland it seems that areas with any form of prior land use are not considered worth protecting. The Minister said that “pristine and long-protected parks would be protected, but 875,000 ha of more recently allocated parks were likely to be rescinded and opened to logging and grazing”.

One Agforce Regional President was quoted in The Australian suggesting that national parks without grazing are a “wasted resource”. He argued the government should consider “regular grazing of the less important national parks to help pay for more significant national parks” – further underlining the emerging distinction between “worthy” and “less-worthy” parks.

Australia lags behind

This use of negative language about parks is more than just political rhetoric. The reality is that Australia lags behind much of the world in the establishment of national parks and conservation reserves. Recent policy changes will exacerbate this problem.

Queensland has less than 5% of its land in national park and less than 7% in any type of conservation reserve. The global target set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Australia is a signatory is 17%. Australia as a whole has 13.5% in conservation reserves, putting Queensland at half the national average.

Compared internationally, Queensland’s national park coverage is comparable to that of the bottom 30% of countries globally.

Despite this, the Queensland government has abandoned plans to increase national park coverage in the under-represented regions of the State. Two million hectares of land identified for conservation have been taken off the table. This was justified on the basis that they were not World Heritage-listed forests, and that they had been “locked up” by the previous government. Indeed, it seems that the government is reviewing the status of all national parks declared since 2002.

National parks and conservation areas are recognised as the cornerstone of efforts to conserve nature and the world’s biodiversity. They are also a critical source of ecological services that support our economy and quality of life. But there now seems to be little room on our continent for places that exist just for conservation and enjoyment of nature, and are freely accessible to all.