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Without public support, new national parks will fail

For new national parks to succeed, people need to get behind them. Flickr/jwbenwell

Without public support, new national parks will fail

A new national park has been mooted for Victoria, with proposals for a Giant Forest National Park in the Central Highlands. Well managed, a park such as this would offer conservation and economic benefits.

But despite the evidence for benefits, it isn’t easy to get a national park off the ground. How would Victoria go about it?

A brief history of national parks

Australia was at the forefront of the national park movement, with one of the world’s first. Royal National Park, just south of Sydney, was created in 1879. Since that time Australia has created nearly 800 terrestrial and marine parks. By 1909 all Australian states had national parks or reserves.

Interestingly, none of these areas were established for conservation, but to preserve scenic beauty. Closer to the cities they were land publicly accessible for citizens to enjoy the Australian bush.

After the first parks were established, each Australian state created its own national park service between 1956 and 1989; a source of confusion even today.

In 1967 NSW Liberal Premier Tom Lewis was justifiably proud of his government’s establishment of the NSW National Parks Service. To promote the new service the premier gave permission to film TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

Skippy was filmed to promote the birth of NSW’s national park service.

The passage of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act in 1975 led to the creation of truly “national” parks. These parks differ from state-run national parks in being administered by the Australian government. They are, or were, on land and sea under direct administration of the federal government at the time of declaration. To date there are only six such parks, including Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Boodooree (at Jervis Bay), Christmas Island, Norfolk Island and Pulu Keeling.

The federal parks service also worked with the ACT, Victoria and New South Wales to create the Australian Alps National Park, a cross-border initiative.

The vast majority of parks are administered by the states. Despite state-to-state differences they all follow management guidelines set by the IUCN Protected Area Categories.

The first national parks were made for recreation and scenery; from 1960s to 2000s (which saw the real growth in national parks) the emphasis turned to conservation; but now thought returns as much to parks for people as conservation.

New parks

A new national park in Victoria could only be formed under the state National Parks Act, and would have to pass through the Victorian parliament. And that would come down to perceived need, available funding and likely effects on other land-uses.

As the region is under state jurisdiction, the commonwealth cannot legislate the creation of a new national park. But the commonwealth can influence decisions in other ways.

The commonwealth could do so if issues covered by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - such as water, or endangered species - are triggered. The proposed park contains habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum - listed nationally as endangered - so this remains a possibility.

The federal government might also become involved if the area has important international implications (an important wetland or Ramsar site, or a Biosphere Reserve).

And the commonwealth could nominate the area for World Heritage, which could force Victoria (through the High Court if necessary) to react, whether it be a national park or other measures. But recent experience in Tasmania - where the federal government has promised to remove World Heritage status on Tasmanian forests - suggests this is neither desirable or likely.

No chance without support

The driving force for declaration has always come from public support, and public pressure. Indeed, active non-government national parks associations in several states lobby hard to increase the area of their states declared as national parks. These days though, such pressure needs to be backed by science, local support, cultural awareness, and, above all, sustainable finance.

For the future, Australian national parks need to embrace more Aboriginal Australians, their history and culture and how they have shaped what many urban Australians still see as “wilderness”. Jointly managed parks have been a move in this direction, but many more are needed.

And the expansion over the last 20 years of marine protected areas is an important development that needs careful management and support. Experience with new marine parks shows that unless communities and fishers have a proper say, the reserves won’t work.

New parks, without community support and resources, can quickly become a liability - but with them they can become future assets.

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