Buffalo might be introduced to Kakadu, but maybe we need to embrace the change. Flickr/George Olcott

National parks need to embrace global change

On land and in the seas our world now resembles a series of badly run zoos, set in an even more badly run botanic garden. The badly run zoos, our global set of national parks, are often seen as the jewels in the crown.

In Australia it doesn’t really matter if the Federal government or State governments run National Parks. What really matters is a clear understanding of what these areas are actually for. Sure, national parks and protected areas were a great idea of 20th Century conservation – but how relevant are they in the 21st?

Why parks aren’t working

Since September last year The Conversation has had around a dozen contributions on this issue, but it’s been a mostly gloomy monologue, bemoaning the “opening up” of Parks. I’m afraid academic defence of protected areas without understanding the social and historical context of the past will not help resolve our present and future biodiversity problems.

In the 1980s Senator Gareth Evans famously described the third stage in the expansion of Kakadu National Park as “clapped out Buffalo country”. Buffalo country it was, but it wasn’t clapped out. The (now exterminated) buffalo helped form that country, and their absence leaves something missing. One unexpected result might have been the small mammal extinctions in Kakadu, which accelerated following the removal of feral buffalo herds.

Prof Bob Pressey at James Cook University put it perfectly “We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve.” But many academic ecologists argue for more and bigger protected areas, seemingly in ignorance of the increasing pressure of global changes.

We’re not just talking about extreme climatic events, but also changes in hydrology, nitrogen pollution and invasion by non-native species. And I don’t just mean obvious species – any who have seen the “Wall of Death” caused by Phytophthora in southern Western Australia will know the effects of fungal pathogens. So, now biodiversity everywhere is threatened, but paradoxically also everywhere there are opportunities to exploit novel ecosystems.

Parks may be the least “locked up” places, but locked up is exactly what our parks are. They are locked up with a legal fence, providing protection that is not always helpful or manageable. These parks create the impression of “living museums”.

Parks may also have a sovereign guarantee, perhaps giving them greater protection than conservation on private properties – but to what useful end?

Simply removing the legal fence without a clear understanding of consequences is not so sensible either.

What are parks really for?

To understand those consequences we need a rethink on what parks are really for, how secure their future needs to be and to learn the lessons from our mistakes in the last half-century or more. Parks, on land and in the sea:

  • are places for cultural diversity (especially, but not exclusively, Aboriginal) to flourish

  • allow for genetic movement, including across the “Park fence”

  • deliver ecosystem services

  • are a resource for evolution to unfold

For our parks to deliver all this we need better dialogue across the Australian community.

We can’t presume that federal is superior to state, or either to local. NGOs and government can have and achieve the same objectives. And academics, while having valuable knowledge and insights, it is not always greater than that of the traditional elder, pastoralist or citizen scientist.

In fact, our language is key: we too often use P words (protect, preserve) and not enough the C and M words – conserve and manage. And we do need to distinguish between what are we protecting from, and what are we protecting for.

Next year the IUCN World Parks Congress will meet in Sydney. As hosts will our message be handwringing and negative or positive and outgoing? It can, should and must be positive.

With apologies to US thinker Stephen Covey, perhaps we can promote “seven habits for a highly effective parks industry”, where it should:

  • change the language from protection and preservation, to conservation and management

  • embrace opportunities, and think outside and inside the Park

  • lead, not follow, the dialogue on conservation in society

  • celebrate past success but manage for a better future

  • manage for (not against) change

  • promote the role of Parks in ecological and human wellness

  • engage proactively in global dialogues on biodiversity change

  • look outwardly from the Park gates, not inwardly

  • learn from Indigenous society and work with the grain of nature

Prof David Bowman at University of Tasmania suggests Australia become host to species endangered elsewhere, helping our ecosystem management in the process. He was not suggesting this in parks, yet since we need better overall land and seascape management, including parks, why not?

In 20 years many parks will have lost legal boundaries and be blurred with the surrounding land (and sea) scape, acting as providers of ecosystem services – for the well-being of people, and other ecosystems.

People would be very much part of the park, not as gawping tourists but living and working in the park space. Management will be a matter of societal choice, and will focus on monitoring (for example, the presence of non-native species) intervening to manage or moderate the direction and rate of change.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are perfect examples of how all this will look and work.

Inevitably all this will need more conversation, and fewer monologues.

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