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National parks’ role as a refuge from direct human intervention will only become more important in future. dracopylla/Flickr

Biodiversity crisis demands bolder thinking than bagging national parks

Tim Flannery’s recent Quarterly Essay, After the Future, questions whether Australian national parks will become “marsupial ghost towns” despite the tens of millions of dollars governments spend on them to protect biodiversity.

He canvases some alternatives, which I think are too timid given the scale of the problem. One of these is to focus on preserving species, rather than landscapes or ecosystems.

There is no question Australia’s biodiversity is in crisis, matching what is happening globally. Climate change is set to exacerbate this crisis – exactly how three degrees of global warming over this century will play out is unclear, but it is absolutely certain that the changes to biological systems will be substantial.

There is no question that climate change will have a massive effect on national parks. For example, the snow line in Kosciusko National Park will retreat hundreds of meters upslope, drastically reducing the extent and duration of snow cover. Likewise, in Kakadu National Park, sea level rise will inundate the freshwater floodplains with saltwater.

These changes, although tragic, do not undermine the primary mission of these national parks as refuges from direct exploitation by humans (such as mining, forestry, agriculture, and dams).

National parks will change as nature adapts to new landscapes, and species assemblages develop as a consequence.

There is a tension between managing national parks and managing species that may or may not be protected in them. Climate change will also add to the queue of species poised for extinction.

Many threatened species - perhaps the mountain pygmy possum - will have to take their chances in a world of limited funding; national parks can help. Australian Alps collection - Parks Australia

Making endangered species the primary focus of conservation effort is a dangerous trap. Funds are not sufficient to save all species, and climate change will dwarf current demands. It is for these reasons conservation biologists are using hard-nosed prioritisation to figure where the best return on investment lies. Such approaches weights the value people place on species – Tasmanian Devils are more valuable to more people than a drab moth.

Many species are going to have to take their evolutionary chances, and national parks help with their odds of survival.

The only real twist from mainstream thinking in Flannery’s argument is his forthright championing of the role non-government conservation organisations play in protecting endangered species. He thinks this sector deserves a greater slice of government funding for biodiversity conservation and land management.

There is an important place for non-government organisations (NGOs) to help conserve species and landscapes that remain outside the national park estate. But these efforts should not be instead of national parks and reserves but in addition to them. The real contribution of NGOs is being able to work independently of government funding, pursuing management strategies that may not be possible in national parks.

To claim that the NGO conservation sector has much greater capacity to achieve conservation outcomes misses several important points. NGOs have the luxury of picking simple conservation goals, and are only answerable to their membership. In sharp contrast national parks must satisfy a range of competing demands.

Consider Kakadu National Park: this property is jointly managed by the traditional landowners and the Australian government, making for far more complicated decision-making compared to most other land tenures.

National parks’ conservation goals are complex: how do they deal with feral but loved animals, for example? Phil Skeggs

Likewise, managers of Kosciusko National Park must balance massive tourism developments with more routine tasks such as bushfire management, weed management and feral animal management.

None of these activities are easy tasks, but the control of horses that are destroying alpine wetlands is the most vexed. At a recent meeting there was an audible gasp when I said that I looked forward to the time when the percentage of the Kosciusko entrance fee used for lethal control of horses was proudly reported along with the breakdown of other expenditures which maintain the park’s values. The legacy of The Man from Snowy River makes the logical use of lethal control of feral horses currently politically impossible.

Parks Victoria National Parks logo - “healthy parks healthy people” - says it how it actually is. The reality is that national park management must serve people, and their diverse needs and values, as well as conserving biodiversity. This places a substantial transactional cost on running national parks – they are economically “inefficient” because they are necessarily inclusive of a range of activities, including biodiversity conservation.

The NGO conservation sector has not solved the extinction crisis any better than government managers. The causes of small mammal extinctions in northern Australia, past and present, remain elusive; they involve many factors. Research is active in this area, although we now know that a runaway vicious cycle of fire and grass is pre-eminent. This grass-fire cycle will only get worse, given the spread of numerous introduced flammable grasses, including some truly gigantic species.

One known way to control these flammable grasses is the use of large herbivores. Indeed, there is evidence that the small mammal extinctions in Kakadu National Park accelerated following the removal of feral buffalo herds.

I expect that the strategic use of mega-herbivores will be pivotal in maintaining ecosystem function in areas invaded by flammable grasses. But before we can adopt that strategy we must accept that the feral animals are now an established part of the Australian biota.

These feral animals may provide important ecosystem services. So rather than perpetuating doomed attempts at total elimination, we should manage the herds constructively. Additionally, we need to recognise the invaluable part recreational shooters can play in such sustainable land management by controlling feral animals and stopping their populations from irrupting and causing substantial environmental harms.

Kakadu National Park faces threats from fire, and from rising sea levels. Daniela Ritrovato

Because invasive grasses are degrading vast areas of landscape outside national parks, and the future of surviving mega-fauna is bleak globally, why not establish some safari or game parks?

Why not also breed rhino and elephant to supply the unquenchable Chinese appetite for horn and tusk? What is so special about cattle production in our rangelands?

Why not build some fenced outdoor zoos in the little fragments of bushland near cities, so people can see the surviving mammal assemblages?

Along with NGO biodiversity reserves, we should proudly acknowledge the above are legitimate conservation strategies. But let’s not pretend these approaches are substitutes for our national parks.

It is easy to bag national park management as a failure. To do this ignores the fact national parks have a sovereign guarantee and are far more likely to endure than NGO biodiversity properties. Withdrawing funding from national parks is like a homeowner figuring that - rather than paying home insurance - the money would be better spent gambling the stock markets. It’s a great idea until disaster strikes.

Rather than defunding and degazetting national parks we should be increasing funding. Better still we should make our national parks truly national as is the case in the US – a first step would be placing all our World Heritage Areas under federal control, federal management and associated funding.

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