No refuge: When a ‘protected area’ is not really protected

Dharawal National Park is safe from mining, but do we value biodiversity enough to spread protection? taffynorm/Flickr

The New South Wales government last week said it would ban mining in the newly announced Dharawal National Park, an area where Illawara Coal was planning to extract up to $40 billion worth of black coal.

By upgrading Dharawal from a State Conservation Area to a National Park, the government has put stronger restrictions on activities counter to nature conservation.

This is a win for biodiversity (as well as the climate), but also for anyone who lives in the Sydney catchment. The many upland swamps in Dharawal area supply filtered, clean water – an essential ecosystem service provided by natural areas.

Since there are pre-existing mining interests over the area, it’s unclear so far how much of the park will be excluded from mining. But the government has indicated that the Dharawal National Park is to be gazetted to the “centre of the earth”, effectively ruling out mining underneath the park.

The Dharawal example highlights the complexities in balancing mining developments and conservation, but also demonstrates how a combination of legislation, public pressure and government resolve can lead to better conservation outcomes.

That said, not all protected areas are created equal.

Many flavours of protected areas

There has recently been a big shift from conserving biodiversity largely through “strict” protected areas (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categories I to IV, including National Parks), towards “multiple use” protected areas (categories V to VI).

The growth in multiple-use protected areas has helped to increase the size of Australia’s protected area estate substantially. These now make up about 25% of the National Reserve System (NRS).

Many privately-owned parks and Indigenous protected areas fall into these multiple use categories, as well as land protected under conservation covenants. These are agreements made between government and private landholders to manage some or all of their properties for biodiversity conservation in perpetuity.

Australia’s National Reserve System. Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database