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

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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