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National parks need to embrace global change

On land and in the seas our world now resembles a series of badly run zoos, set in an even more badly run botanic garden. The badly run zoos, our global set of national parks, are often seen as the jewels…

Buffalo might be introduced to Kakadu, but maybe we need to embrace the change. Flickr/George Olcott

On land and in the seas our world now resembles a series of badly run zoos, set in an even more badly run botanic garden. The badly run zoos, our global set of national parks, are often seen as the jewels in the crown.

In Australia it doesn’t really matter if the Federal government or State governments run National Parks. What really matters is a clear understanding of what these areas are actually for. Sure, national parks and protected areas were a great idea of 20th Century conservation – but how relevant are they in the 21st?

Why parks aren’t working

Since September last year The Conversation has had around a dozen contributions on this issue, but it’s been a mostly gloomy monologue, bemoaning the “opening up” of Parks. I’m afraid academic defence of protected areas without understanding the social and historical context of the past will not help resolve our present and future biodiversity problems.

In the 1980s Senator Gareth Evans famously described the third stage in the expansion of Kakadu National Park as “clapped out Buffalo country”. Buffalo country it was, but it wasn’t clapped out. The (now exterminated) buffalo helped form that country, and their absence leaves something missing. One unexpected result might have been the small mammal extinctions in Kakadu, which accelerated following the removal of feral buffalo herds.

Prof Bob Pressey at James Cook University put it perfectly “We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve.” But many academic ecologists argue for more and bigger protected areas, seemingly in ignorance of the increasing pressure of global changes.

We’re not just talking about extreme climatic events, but also changes in hydrology, nitrogen pollution and invasion by non-native species. And I don’t just mean obvious species – any who have seen the “Wall of Death” caused by Phytophthora in southern Western Australia will know the effects of fungal pathogens. So, now biodiversity everywhere is threatened, but paradoxically also everywhere there are opportunities to exploit novel ecosystems.

Parks may be the least “locked up” places, but locked up is exactly what our parks are. They are locked up with a legal fence, providing protection that is not always helpful or manageable. These parks create the impression of “living museums”.

Parks may also have a sovereign guarantee, perhaps giving them greater protection than conservation on private properties – but to what useful end?

Simply removing the legal fence without a clear understanding of consequences is not so sensible either.

What are parks really for?

To understand those consequences we need a rethink on what parks are really for, how secure their future needs to be and to learn the lessons from our mistakes in the last half-century or more. Parks, on land and in the sea:

  • are places for cultural diversity (especially, but not exclusively, Aboriginal) to flourish

  • allow for genetic movement, including across the “Park fence”

  • deliver ecosystem services

  • are a resource for evolution to unfold

For our parks to deliver all this we need better dialogue across the Australian community.

We can’t presume that federal is superior to state, or either to local. NGOs and government can have and achieve the same objectives. And academics, while having valuable knowledge and insights, it is not always greater than that of the traditional elder, pastoralist or citizen scientist.

In fact, our language is key: we too often use P words (protect, preserve) and not enough the C and M words – conserve and manage. And we do need to distinguish between what are we protecting from, and what are we protecting for.

Next year the IUCN World Parks Congress will meet in Sydney. As hosts will our message be handwringing and negative or positive and outgoing? It can, should and must be positive.

With apologies to US thinker Stephen Covey, perhaps we can promote “seven habits for a highly effective parks industry”, where it should:

  • change the language from protection and preservation, to conservation and management

  • embrace opportunities, and think outside and inside the Park

  • lead, not follow, the dialogue on conservation in society

  • celebrate past success but manage for a better future

  • manage for (not against) change

  • promote the role of Parks in ecological and human wellness

  • engage proactively in global dialogues on biodiversity change

  • look outwardly from the Park gates, not inwardly

  • learn from Indigenous society and work with the grain of nature

Prof David Bowman at University of Tasmania suggests Australia become host to species endangered elsewhere, helping our ecosystem management in the process. He was not suggesting this in parks, yet since we need better overall land and seascape management, including parks, why not?

In 20 years many parks will have lost legal boundaries and be blurred with the surrounding land (and sea) scape, acting as providers of ecosystem services – for the well-being of people, and other ecosystems.

People would be very much part of the park, not as gawping tourists but living and working in the park space. Management will be a matter of societal choice, and will focus on monitoring (for example, the presence of non-native species) intervening to manage or moderate the direction and rate of change.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are perfect examples of how all this will look and work.

Inevitably all this will need more conversation, and fewer monologues.

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin Creighton

    Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

    Good article Peter - especially the issues of on and off park conservation. We seem to have in this period of declining Govt budgets most park agencies seeking to just look after their core reserves and forgetting that most of the threats to ecological integrity come from outside park boundaries. Nowhere is it more clearer than in marine parks. We march ahead declaring these lines on a map somewhat oblivious that about 80% of the fish and crustacean spp in these parks are not sedentary - they…

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  2. Shelby Gull Laird
    Shelby Gull Laird is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Lecturer, School of Environmental Sciences at Charles Sturt University

    Peter, Thank you for including socio-cultural issues surrounding and within parks in this article as it is an often forgotten aspect of parks management. In the United States, one of the most important services provided by parks, in my opinion, is connecting the public to nature, particularly when those people might not otherwise have access to wilderness or natural spaces. Parks in Australia do seem much more locked away from public visits and access. I hope that through purposeful and well planned access by diverse users and visitors, people can gain a greater connection to the land and understanding of why conservation management and biodiversity matter. Certainly tourism, wise consumptive use by locals to parks and citizen science programs to involve the public in parks management and monitoring programs can all have a place in parks in the 21st Century.

  3. Tony Press

    CEO, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania

    Provocative as always, Peter. One thing I would challenge is your linking of buffalo eradication with small mammal decline in Kakadu:

    "One unexpected result might have been the small mammal extinctions in Kakadu, which accelerated following the removal of feral buffalo herds."

    I'm sure there are others, now closer to those biodiversity questions than I am, who may be able to cast clearer perspective on that argument.

    1. Greg Miles

      Conservation lobbyist

      In reply to Tony Press

      Hi Tony

      Great to hear from you.

      The nexus between buffalo - fire - and small mammal declines is an interesting one that is newly mooted. In the search for the cause of declines in small mammals there is (in my view) only one parameter that fits without dents. All the obvious ones have problems. I.E. one can pick holes in the novel pathogen cause, the cat cause, the toad cause, the fire cause and so on. But the buffalo story holds up. I don't want to bore you with it - but other commentators…

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    2. Tony Press

      CEO, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Greg Miles

      This is, obviously, an issue that I no longer have the familiarity with to cast a good judgement, seeing that I've not been 'on the ground' for almost two decades. I will leave that to others.

  4. Hugh Kirkman

    marine environmental consultant

    A good article for land protected areas but except for the Great Barrier Reef we have an abysmal collection of state and federal MPAs . They have recently been described as "residual"-- what no one else wants makes it an MPA. Only SA has a scientific basis for protected areas and that is compromised. Fishers of both ilks need to be educated. The objective of an MPA is to conserve marine biological diversity not manage fisheries. Australia signed the Convention on Biological Diversity but its commitment is meaningless. How many of you know of a marine Sanctuary zone that represents a bioregion and is comprehensive and adequate enough to cover the biodiversity in a bioregion?

  5. Garry Baker


    Excellent article. However, those who pull the purse strings have other more pressing concerns to deal with. Parks cost money, and everything these days is reduced to money - Not quality of life

    Consequently the best outcomes for Parks rely on a business model.

  6. Tom Barrett

    Research Fellow, Landscape Ecologist at University of New England

    Thanks Peter, you make some valid points. Many protected areas are now 'islands' in a sea of more intensive land use and to conserve biodiversity we need to consider how we manage the whole landscape - across all tenures. This recent study into the impact of pesticides on invertebrates at a regional scale illustrates this point:

    Pesticides reduce regional biodiversity of stream invertebrates:

    I believe there is now a good case for a more integrated and coordinated approach to land management. This has been recognised and this has been one of the main drivers behind connectivity conservation initiatives like the Great Eastern Ranges:

    1. Peter Bridgewater

      Visiting Professor at United Nations University

      In reply to Tom Barrett

      Tom, Thank you and yes connectivity is key! This was a key recommendation of the 2003 WPC in Durban, and is being taken up gradually - the Great eastern ranges is a good example. if it continues to do well, then ultimately a blurring of boundaries will be inevitable...

  7. Rachel Dawson


    I don't quite get what you are advocating. I love National Parks. I've never felt locked out, nor that they are like a badly run zoos. Mostly I think they do a wonderful job. You seem to be suggesting people living in the Parks, introducing feral animals, exploiting novel ecosystems (what does that mean?), sustainable development. Could you give examples of each of your 7 habits for a highly effective parks industry? Those statements are too general to be meaningful, or are things Parks already do. I don't accept that the previous dozen articles have mostly been gloomy monologues or that those authors don't understand. I have found all those articles interesting and informative.

  8. Venise Alstergren
    Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    photographer, blogger.

    Peter Bridgewater: I don't understand you point about the extermination of feral water buffalo in Kakadu leading to the extinction of un-named small animals in the same place. Please could you explain?

    When you suggest the future of some parks might include people living and working in situ do you mean people engaged in park work; or working as the people in neighbouring properties work? If the latter, pity help a NP in WA. Turn around twice and one would find huge mining companies shifting their colossal machines into the park.

    1. Peter Bridgewater

      Visiting Professor at United Nations University

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      if you look at the link on small mammal extinctions it leads to another piece where you will find more! thanks for your comments.
      As for people living in Parks i dont just mean parkies - with careful monitoring and management in some, maybe even many, Parks there are opportunities for developing sustainable industries in some parts - we simply need a more holistic way of viewing parks and their interactions with surrounding land and sea.

    2. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Peter Bridgewater

      Thank you for your reply. Now that I've read Greg Miles' comment I understand where you are both coming from. It's an excellent and perceptive take on NPs and Kakadu.

      Now that I've got your attention, what, if anything, is being done about the million feral camels roaming the north and west? Anything; nothing; or keeping it quiet from misguided, and frequently overseas, comments from animal righters? Please don't get me wrong. I too love animals but fail to see why we should support such huge numbers of introduced species potentially ruining our fragile Eco systems.

    3. Peter Bridgewater

      Visiting Professor at United Nations University

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      im not sure what the situation is with camels right now, but they are only one of many feral animals. and you are right, animal welfare masquerades as conservation all too often. Camels are not hard hoofed so are less threatening than cattle or sheep in fact. certainly control through culling is possible and should be happening. but then, how does our whaling policy look? fact is every country has wildlife problems, but is always ready to criticise other countries for dealing with theirs. Since the source of the wildlife problems lies in poor or unwise land/sea use thats where we should start the cure....

  9. Michael Marriott

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks for this interesting article, I'm very much mindful of this particular paragraph:

    "In 20 years many parks will have lost legal boundaries and be blurred with the surrounding land (and sea) scape, acting as providers of ecosystem services – for the well-being of people, and other ecosystems..."

    Given the speed and rapidity of climate change and other changes to ecosystems one could see national parks being folded into mitigation and adaptations strategies at the national and even global level.

    From forests acting as carbon sinks, the potential to enhance the albedo effect afforded by grass lands or the potential of wetland ecosystems to enhance coastal defense from sea level rise and water filtration (ecosystem services) one can imagine the debate around these resources to intensify.

  10. Ford Kristo

    logged in via email

    In the 30 years I have worked for conservation agencies I have never heard the terms "preservation and protection" seriously used to describe the conceptual framework involved in terrestrial conservation management. My comments pertain principally to land areas in NSW. I acknowledge Colin Creighton's comments regarding marine ecosystems. Marine reserves however, are different. With watery, arbitrary boundaries, not concreted by established land use, they have more flexibility for adaptive change…

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    1. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Ford Kristo


      With all due respect, parts of your lengthy post exemplify the sort of insular thinking about public land reservation that the author is warning against.

      For example, the imperative to exclude people because they tear-up fire trails, and supposedly do all manner of damage, when in reality most people probably don't and the supposition that these human activities are all destructive when in fact most are not significantly so, and things like hunting of feral species can actually be beneficial…

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    2. Ford Kristo

      logged in via email

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Thanks for your response Mark. Permit me a few comments regarding your criticism of my position.

      1) You assume too much. Nowhere did I say that there was a burn, burn, burn mentality outside parks. My comment related to "hectares burnt" quotas inside parks. Evidence based assessment shows that protection of life and property is best and most economically achieved by fuel reduction directly adjacent to assets. Burning for the sake of achieving arbitrary political statistics is abject nonsense…

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    3. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Ford Kristo


      I'll answer each of your points:

      1. I'll reiterate again that burning isn't done for 'arbitrary political statistics' and that your presumption that only burns next to private lands/assetts have any value is wrong.

      Burning in remote areas is just as important because it helps to more quickly control remote bushfires which could otherwise keep getting larger and can eventually threaten assets. This is what happened in 2003 and 2006 in Vic when lightning strikes in very remote country…

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    4. Peter Bridgewater

      Visiting Professor at United Nations University

      In reply to Ford Kristo

      Ford thanks for your comments. i think the first sentence of Mark's reply elegantly says all i would want to. But the more we try to separate marine and terrestrial parks the more trouble we will get into. Yes, the environments are apparently different - in some ways actually so - but we ned to learn lessons from all forms of land and sea conservation management. My biggest worry is that we are increasingly ghetto-ising nature without any plan for the future, which will certainly not be like the past!