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

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…

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

There are benefits to working with private landholders in programs which promote biodiversity-friendly management practices. Private land can provide crucial habitat for species within an otherwise heavily-fragmented landscape, as well providing opportunities for co-benefits, such as carbon storage.

In Queensland, there are now 2.1 million hectares protected in nature refuges (IUCN category VI). This form of conservation covenant aims to “permanently preserve the area’s natural condition and cultural resources; and to present these values to the public where possible”.

Nature refuges are a high priority for conserving biodiversity in Queensland. The state’s draft biodiversity strategy says by 2020, approximately 7 million of the state’s 20 million hectares of protected areas will be nature refuges and other protected areas.

So what’s the problem?

Refuges for nature (until we find some coal)

Of course, the devil is in the detail. National Parks such as Dharawal and other “strictly” protected areas are relatively well protected from extractive activities by state legislation. But parks within the multiple use categories are given no such protection.

The irony is that these “protected areas” are essentially unprotected from the threatening process which is likely to cause the most damage to biodiversity.

In Queensland, legislation largely prevents the granting of mining interests on National Parks, but not on nature refuges. It’s not even clear whether any subsequent development on these nature refuges would require an offset for the area lost to mineral or coal extraction.

Much of the expected growth in the State’s protected area estate over the next ten years is expected to be financed through offsets.

How can “true” conservation progress be made if 35% of the protected area estate expected in Queensland by 2020 may not ultimately be “protected”?

Bimblebox Nature Reserve Bimblebox

Currently, around 100 nature refuges in Queensland are contained within mineral and coal exploration permits. Included in this unfortunate list are properties such as Bimblebox Nature Refuge in the Desert Uplands bioregion, a region currently underrepresented within the National Reserve System.

Avocet Nature Refuge contains one of only three populations of the endangered bridled nail-tail wallaby, but is also currently being explored for coal.

Some mining activities can occur with only fairly localised impacts. But it’s hard to see how open cut coal mining – as well as the associated roads, railroads, shipping ports and exploration sites – could be compatible with nature conservation.

The IUCN recommends that for protected areas in categories V and VI, “exploration and localised extraction would be accepted only where the nature and extent of the proposed activities of the mining project indicate the compatibility of the project activities with the objectives of the protected areas”.

Protected areas for the future

The world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Protected areas are a crucial tool in the global effort to preserve species, ecosystems and other forms of natural capital into the future. But in order to be effective, the management and activities allowed in protected areas must be consistent with one overarching goal: to conserve nature.

A report by WWF Australia was concerned about the lack of nationally consistent standards for applying IUCN categories to protected areas. It noted that we don’t have a transparent system to assess the compatibility of extractive uses with the conservation objectives of a park.

Bridled nailtail wallaby. John Gould

Because of this uncertainty, the report even suggested that only parks currently within “strict” IUCN categories I and II could realistically be considered to adequately protect biodiversity in Australia.

Yet if conservation is going to be successful in a large, wide-ranging country like Australia, it needs to happen not just in strictly protected areas, but across the landscape and over multiple tenures.

The vast majority of land in Australia (over 60%) is held within private tenure. This means nature refuges and other multiple-use protected areas which implement effective management of biodiversity alongside sustainable resource use are so important.

Private landholders who agree to manage their land for biodiversity through conservation covenants are providing a valuable service to the community. They are also helping Australia to meet its internationally agreed targets under the Convention for Biological Diversity.

But can we really expect landholders to invest time and effort into biodiversity conservation if agreements made to conserve land “in perpetuity” can be so easily undermined by other interests?

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Duffett

    logged in via Facebook

    "Some mining activities can occur with only fairly localised impacts"? I'd say most. Even open-cut coal mining is highly intensive land use, i.e. high ratio of value derived to area of land affected. This article completely fails to make a case (i.e. proffer evidence) for mining affecting regional biodiversity in any way whatsoever. "It's hard to see" doesn't cut it.

    1. Megan Evans

      PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy & Economics at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. The article was intended to highlight some of the details behind protected area classification that are not widely known - that is, the variation in standards of protection, and also that these standards are not always consistently applied.

      I think the very existence of IUCN categories (and their recommendation against mining in protected areas) implies that some land uses are more compatible with nature conservation that others. Also the fact that offsets are…

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    2. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Megan Evans

      As Peter X's comment indicates, your article does perform a useful service in highlighting that there are different levels of conservation protection. The problem is that you go on to apparently argue that all conservation reserves should be upgraded to the most stringent level. But those different levels exist for a reason. That reason is fundamentally a recognition that not all developments necessarily destroy the values for which a reserve is established.

      I'd submit that any development at…

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    3. Megan Evans

      PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy & Economics at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Interesting that you appeal against the use of straw men, and yet you offer one to me!

      “…you go on to apparently argue that all conservation reserves should be upgraded to the most stringent level”

      No, I never made that point – reread the last part of my article and first part of your own comment. What I am suggesting is that the activities permitted within protected areas should be consistent with their IUCN classification. If broadscale exploration and extraction is allowed to occur inside a…

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    4. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Megan Evans

      You don't explicitly say as much (I used the word 'apparently' advisedly in recognition of this), and it's quite possible that I am failing to understand your position adequately, but it seems to me its effective practical upshot is indeed that 'all conservation reserves should be upgraded to the most stringent level', at least as far as the mining industry is concerned.

      Leaving that aside though, I would argue very strongly that 'exploration' should be decoupled from 'extraction' in conservation…

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    5. Megan Evans

      PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy & Economics at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Hi Mark,
      I think much of this debate can be traced back to differences in the interpretation of the IUCN classification system, as well as a certain lack of consistency and transparency in the application of IUCN categories to parks.
      From the IUCN Management Guidelines (2008):

      This recommendation (number 2.82, “IUCN No Go position on mining in categories I to IV”) was adopted by the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Amman in 2000. It recommended, inter alia “IUCN Members to prohibit by law…

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    6. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Megan Evans

      G'day Megan, thank you for your comprehensive and informative responses. Thanks especially for the references to the ICMM documents. Naturally (:-)) I find nothing to disagree with in them. One paragraph in particular from the conclusion of document 22 stands out:

      "Prior to listing any areas for protection (including World Heritage Sites) the following should, amongst others, be considered in assessments and related decision-making processes: the mineral development potential of the area, the…

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  2. Jessie Wells

    Post-doc at University of Queensland

    Hi Mark,
    could you perhaps explain how mining in a Nature Refuge would not negatively impact the soil structure, vegetation, resident wildlife, local aquifers and potentially streams and 'offsite' landscape for example through contamination by floodwaters?

    Clear examples of impacts from coal mining on biodiversity are given in 1) any proposed mine's Environmental Impact Assessment studies, and 2) the Fitzroy Basin Association's…

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    1. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jessie Wells

      Jessie, please don't put a straw man in my mouth (apologies for the mixed metaphor, but you get the idea). I never said there would no negative impacts from mining, indeed there are negative impacts from any sort of development at all. What I do maintain is that regional biodiversity need not be unduly impacted.

      I'd also point out that invariably, nothing like the full extent of a mining lease is ever actually affected by mining operations.

  3. Peter Smith


    I'd wager the average person on the street would think a protected area is protected.

  4. F Kearney

    International Affairs

    Great article, highlighting a serious problem facing many nature reserves. The counter arguement put by M Duffet that coal has limited impact based on "high ratio of value derived to area of land affected" is irrelevent to your article. It is a different point, and while correct that coal and other mining activities occurs on a small percentage of total land area and thus should potentially have limited impact, you are talking specifically about mining acitvities on Nature Refuges and other 'protected areas'. Those refuges exist because they harbour threatened species or ecosystems of importance. Basically, move the mining somewhere else and sure, regional biodiversity may not be affected; mine our pockets of reserves that often provide the last shelters for many species and it will. A select few mining companies and mining individuals recognise this; one we work with agreed not to explore Avocet NR, another actively supports the on-ground program on the Avocet.

    1. Megan Evans

      PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy & Economics at Australian National University

      In reply to F Kearney

      Hi F,
      Thanks for your comments, and that's great to hear of the support being given to conservation by some in the mining community. One document I linked to above ( made some important points regarding mining and biodiversity:
      "Setting aside any ethical or moral considerations, which are increasingly the subject
      of corporate policies, it is important for companies to address biodiversity for a
      variety of sound business reasons."
      "adopting responsible practices with respect to biodiversity management is increasingly viewed as important with respect to... reputation, which links to ‘licence to operate’, an intangible but significant benefit to business, and which can profoundly influence the perceptions of communities, NGOs and other stakeholders of existing or proposed mining operations"

  5. Ben Carr

    Landscape Ecologist

    Great to see this debate opening up the issues of adequate and uniform protection of private conservation land and those privately owned areas protected under conservation covenant across Australia. It is clear that the majority of growth in the protected area system will be in privately protected area ie land held in both freehold and leasehold tenures that is owned by private individuals, organisations and companies rather that in crown land. There are many reason s for this not the least that…

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