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Our national parks need visitors to survive

Despite what many commentators on The Conversation have said, conserving biodiversity in our national parks isn’t the way to save them. Parks need visitors to get vital community and political support…

We have to get more people into national parks if parks are to have a future. Flickr/Tatiana Gerus

Despite what many commentators on The Conversation have said, conserving biodiversity in our national parks isn’t the way to save them. Parks need visitors to get vital community and political support.

Parks, like every other institution on this planet, are a social construction. Those reserved in the 19th century reflect the values of those times - health and pleasure for humans. In recent decades, social values have led to a strong focus instead on conserving biodiversity.

New moves to include grazing, logging and recreational shooting are a reflection of current efforts of some groups to re-construct the purpose of parks.

If park managers and other advocates don’t like these moves to change national parks into resource extraction reserves, they have to enlist the support of visitors.

Parks need people

Conserving biodiversity isn’t enough. It is time for a renewed focus on visitors and their needs. Appreciating the full gamut of park opportunities is essential.

We need people in parks, because people vote and parks don’t. Parks are a public institution, like hospitals, schools and prisons, and they rely on public interest and support for funding.

Strong advocacy from park visitors for environmentally friendly experiences, like wildlife viewing, photography, hiking, swimming, canoeing and camping, can counter-balance pressures for environmentally destructive activities such as hunting and grazing.

People visiting national parks can have extraordinary experiences, through witnessing beautiful scenery and connecting with nature, escaping the urban environment, and reconnecting with family and friends. Promoting these experiences is essential for the political and financial support of parks.

Park visitors also matter economically. Tourism accounts for about 10% of GDP internationally. Wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation (both largely centered on protected areas) are two of the fastest growing sectors. In Australia, the nature-based tourism sector contributes an estimated $23 billion to the economy each year.

But visitor numbers to landmark national parks such as Uluru are currently declining. Recent data from Australia, Canada, the United States and Japan shows visitor numbers to parks are static or declining on a per capita basis.

One potential reason for this decline could be growing competition from electronic media and other more accessible home- and community-based recreation options. Some people find it hard (or think it’s going to be hard) to get to national parks. Recent migrants may not know how or why to visit national parks.

Concerns that fewer and fewer humans are experiencing nature were first expressed in the 1970s. Serious related consequences include declining environmental knowledge and concern (manifested as declining support for parks), the emergence of nature deficit disorder in children, and increasing mental and physical health issues.

The threat of extinction of the park visitor experience is a real possibility. This threat to parks is more insidious than stock grazing or timber removal. With this extinction potentially comes a waning in societal support for parks as we know and appreciate them today.

Park agencies must develop creative, productive partnerships with the tourism industry to protect biodiversity while providing opportunities for visitors at the same time.

Environmentally friendly activity in parks is preferable to possibly destructive activities such as hunting and grazing Flickr/yewenyi

A visitor focus

By acknowledging that an alliance between parks and visitors is essential for the future of parks, programs and strategies can be put in place to entice visitors and enhance their experiences.

Social media and technology could engage and retain the support of visitors. Apps to help locate parks, find and follow walk trails, identify birds and enter sightings on an interactive data base, or book campsites online, are all simple ways of attracting and retaining visitors.

Enhancing visitor experiences and maintaining biodiversity conservation is a complicated balancing act. Park workers will need further skills development, especially in understanding, providing for and evaluating the visitor experience.

Park visitors come from a very broad cross-section of society, all ages and all lines of work, both nationally and internationally. Politically, park visitors are a much larger group than are those who wish to extract resources from parks. They just need to be politically active.

Ultimately, parks rely on societal support for survival. The solution for parks lies in ongoing interactions between those passionate about biodiversity and those with other interests to construct and re-construct the purpose of parks in the decades ahead. Visitors are a critically important part of this dialogue. They can provide an important counter-balance to more utilitarian interests, such as grazing and logging.

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25 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Of course we need visitors in National Parks in order to provide revenue and to create the public support for maintaining parks. But if too many visitors jeopardise the purpose of parks, then what is the point of having them at all? We might as well just downgrade their status and call them recreation areas or similar and be done with it. It is, as you say, a delicate balancing act.

    But then, National Parks are just one category of protected areas, and we need them all in order to achieve conservation objectives. By all means encourage appropriate visitation in National Parks - that is, after all, one of the stated purposes of a National Par. But restrict visitation to Wilderness and Strict Nature Reserves. That is, after all, the purpose of these areas as well.

  2. John Geoffrey Mosley

    logged in via Facebook

    Visitors to national parks clearly are their greatest potential defense force as argued convincingly in the article. The important thing is that in taking measures to increase visitation we need to have regard for the basic philosophy of the parks that have been there since the beginning. This is that the parks belong to the community for all time and that conservation of their natural environment is the primary objective. If this is understood it should also be recognized that private enterprise and features of our modern technological society such as roads and buildings substantially detract from these aims. There have been some major mistakes made in the past such as the development at Tidal River in Wilson's Promontory National Park. The important thing is to recognize those mistakes and not repeat them.

  3. Rod Annear

    logged in via Facebook

    Visiting a park can provide a connection to place and when those connections are strong, visitors will value and identify with parks. This connection to land and sense of place is easy to lose in urban societies disconnected from nature. We need to encourage individuals and communities to have greater connection to nature and to land. Visitors to parks are more likely to develop these connections, to value these places and to become the next generation of advocates for parks and protected areas.

    Without a new generation of visitors developing personal connections to parks, valuing the place and experience, there may not be a next generation of park advocates.

    Activities that encourage people to get outdoors and enjoy nature should be encouraged and we need to be smart and flexible enough to find ways to encourage new visitors who will become future park advocates.

  4. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    I can only agree with the sentiments in this article. But it would require a major effort to change the anti visitor culture I have seen in many of the rangers in charge of our National parks.
    More visitors means more work, and this can be rationalised by the idea that the less visitors that visit then the less damage done to the environment. It would be unfair of me to suggest all or even most rangers have this view. However in my own experience from visiting many of Australia's National parks…

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  5. M. Fioretti

    logged in via Twitter

    I agree with the importance of visitors, the competition by other forms of "entertainment" etc... However, I'm surprised to see no mention of the fact that, at least in the most recent years, less people worldwide visit parks (or engage in any other tourist/leisure non digital activity for that matter) simply because... less people every year have enough money left for it.

  6. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    I suspect from the tone of the article you want to discriminate against certain types of visitors ? Seems to me shooters are visitors or have I got the wrong end of the stick there ?

    I had a long conversation with a Queensland Parks regional manger some years ago. Our group was trying to get mountain biking into one of the local national parks. I was incredibly surprised that he was so receptive, he was "desperate" to get visitor numbers up and the trail network built has since apparently…

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  7. Dale Bloom


    I would have serious concerns about getting more and more people into National Parks, or anywhere near National Parks.

    An example would be this.

    In the background is new housing development that runs south for 20 miles along the coast, while to the north (but not seen in the photo) is the most extreme housing development that involved changing the course of a river, lining the beaches with rocks and canal development.

    Except for a few acres of natural land along the point, the place is now an environmentally degraded mess from tourism and ponzi demography.

  8. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    The wilderness society will hate this article.
    National Parks are a "Wilderness", no people right!
    In NSW, the parks legislation was changed to allow the first peoples back in to the "Wilderness" to exercise their cultural stewardship and even establish complementary commercial enterprises within the "wilderness", and guess who opposed them?
    Those original "conservation parks" from which pestilential humanity was equally summarily excluded were set up by the Norman Conquerors.
    Many centuries later transgressors of the Walled Estates found themselves transported to Australia for poaching rabbits for their starving families, if they were lucky enough to escape the noose.
    Past time to dispense with the "terra nullius" nonsense in national parks and take up the advice of the author, especially to keep those opportunistic gun toters.

  9. Mark Poynter


    At first glance this article offered some promise, until the 4th paragraph when mention was first made of supposed "moves to change national parks into resource extraction reserves"

    This of course, grossly overstates the reality of what has been discussed in some states where talk has centred on re-introducing some traditional resource uses into a couple of recently declared national parks that were formerly multiple use State forests that successfully balanced conservation and use for more than…

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  10. Emilie Choukry


    The NP should provide a 2 stickers system at no extra cost with each annual purchase for families with two registered cars at the same address like the councils do.

    As a parent I can recall numerous times when the car with the annual sticker was unavailable due to the modern work commitment making it an annoying obstacle for a walk in the NP with the next generational users...the children.

    I stopped buying the annual sticker and we then only visited once a year if that.

    Generally families with kids need inexpensive outings but the current NP sticker system is stacked against the modern family working life.

    It is a small investment providing 2 stickers towards fostering a love of the parks for the future carers.

    Schools could have NP sticker drives instead of the chocolate or Crispy Cream fund raising good would that be!

    Maybe they could also still have the chocolate drive too.....we all know chocolate tastes better after a long walk in the bush :)

    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Emilie Choukry

      I love the idea of National Park sticker fundraising drives: nice one!

  11. Geoffrey Wescott

    Associate Professor of Environment at Deakin University

    Whilst the general principles about national parks are globally defined there are very different objectives and legislative controls in different countries, or as in Australia, in different states. For example in Victoria the National Parks Act makes it clear that the primary objective is nature conservation. Recreational use is permitted only if the prime objective of nature conservation is not adversely affected.

    In Victoria the current state government with no mandate (it was not part of their election platform in 2010) wishes to develop prime land in national parks for tourism AND to grant 99 year leases to this land (inside the national park) to private corporations.

    To the authors of this report - this is what the issue is - not low impact recreation.

  12. Wade Macdonald


    Quote "Concerns that fewer and fewer humans are experiencing nature were first expressed in the 1970s. Serious related consequences include declining environmental knowledge and concern (manifested as declining support for parks), the emergence of nature deficit disorder in children, and increasing mental and physical health issues."

    So that's why these people run around wanting to ban everything...they simply do not understand nature and only seek national parks (both marine and terrestrial) as exclusion devices.

    Yes, I would agree that these people have a disorder. One that is led by greenwashing media which overstates the fragility of everything environmental to seek bans not conservation or management.

  13. Krystian Wakiec

    Joe Average

    One way to increase visitor numbers would be to expand on the activities allowed in NP's. One great example would be to build sustainable mountain biking trails (in accordance with IMBA standards) and allow riders to enjoy them. The US, Canada and the UK have done this and it's certainly made a difference.

    One issue always seems to be cost / funding but a simple levy or admission charge would go some way to covering the costs.

  14. Brian McAlister

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The authors of this article are so on the money! If the community is not engaged with the environment they will not value it, and if they don't value it they will sit by and let the negative impacts proliferate until somewhere in the future the National Park becomes the next very expensive housing estate.
    As for the hard working rangers out there at the coal face encouraging more visitors, particularly at the more popular icon parks can be difficult to reconcile. People in parks are akin to Catch…

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  15. John Foley

    Various ...

    I'm not filled with hope here. Still the same product, still the same small audience. Still the same 'what ifs'. The reality is, ignorance and a bit of warm furry spin in icon parks near urban centers costs much less money than anything approaching reasonable management (including, often sadly, said icon parks).

    Anyways, with various minority groups representing various recrational groups all tearing strips off each other, rather than doing something radical like agreeing on something, nothing here will change.

  16. Eddie Jensz

    logged in via Facebook

    National parks as a kind of museum to biodiversity with little contact from humans makes no sense at all. The diversity of these areas, some pristine, some not, has always included a degree of human intervention. The degree of human intervention of these places before colonisation (invasion) differed from place to place but the environments across the country were all traversed by humans before the intervention of a European style society so the truth is all these places, whether considered pristine or not, have always had human intervention and interaction. The nature of the human interactions and intervention may have changed since colonisation (invasion) but these places are a relfection of all the influences of nature including humans. Don't lock them up completely and restrict access but use reasonably controlled access to ensure they are maintained as they were previously.

  17. Eddie Jensz

    logged in via Facebook

    One new, and mature, approach to conservation of nature from the late twentieth century through to now is the establishment of privately funded conservation areas. One of which I am very familiar is the Mornington Wilderness Camp in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and is a remarkable use of land for conservation and reclaiming of previous cattle station land (the place was once Mornington Station) and clearing it of all non-native species…

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  18. Tony O'Brien


    If we assume that by National Parks we specifically mean those areas formally designated as National Parks which are then, by definition, principally for the preservation of areas in their natural condition, then on what basis do the authors draw the conclusion that a visitor experience in a National Park equates to support for National Parks? There is no basis other than conjecture.
    The visitor experience being quoted could and does occur in a great range of natural environments, many of which…

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    1. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Tony O'Brien

      In NSW, (according to the NPWS Act 1974 -National parks are for conservation and to provide opportunities for 'public appreciation and inspiration and sustainable visitor or tourist use and enjoyment so as to enable those areas to be managed in accordance with ...

      Nature Reserves are for conservation, period.

      Some people say there should be more access, be it for recreation or for what the authors describe. And some disagree. Maybe there is a point to considering that Parks are, in a democracy…

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  19. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    The authors of this article come to a very depressing conclusion: "Ultimately, parks rely on societal support for survival"
    Public usage of national parks is, of course, very desirable mainly because it can be a very enjoyable, even an exhilarating, experience for any person who makes the effort to visit one. But visitor support shouldn't be the main reason for ensuring their survival. There is the philosophical question of the need to ensure that all life[ animal and inaminate], not just human…

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    1. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Peter Gerard


      "National parks have less chance of being mined than a state forest but it demonstrates the excessive power that lobby groups have on our malleable political class"

      The vulnerability of the political class to lobby groups could be equally applied to explain why we have so many national parks declared over the past 10 - 15 years. For example in NSW, a 62% increase (or 2 million hectares) declared by Carr Government from 1995 - 2005.

      "National parks occupy about 4% of the Australian…

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    2. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Mark Poynter


      Your first point clearly defines the difference between Labor and the Coalition parties; Labor is more sympathetic to environmental concerns and the need for inviolable areas of conservation. Thank goodness Bob Carr established all those parks, because the Coalition certainly wouldn't have. You only need to look at what Campbell Newman is doing in Queensland to illustrate the power of the rural lobbyists. He has reversed the state controls on land clearing established by previous Labor…

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    3. Mark Poynter


      In reply to Peter Gerard


      In my view, you are mistaking (as both Labor and the Greens also do) putting aside land and excluding human use and management with improved environmental outcomes - which is not necessarily the case.

      Indeed there are strong arguments to say otherwise - that creating national parks has worsened conservation outcomes by largely removing broadacre management and thereby allowing destructive bushfires to shape their future far more than they did before.

      In the case of Australia's fire-scarred…

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    4. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Mark Poynter


      The decision to establish a national park is of course political. The Labor and Green parties support the desirability of national parks and reflect the wishes of those who support them. The Liberals and Nationals are much less in favour of national parks, again reflecting the views of most, if not all, of their supporters. To suggest, though, that political factors are the main reason is untenable; Labor and the Greens are just more receptive to the conclusions and advice of people working…

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