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Thinking corporately: getting national parks on national balance sheets

Our parks are an incredible asset, and if we ran them more like a business we would see that. AAP/Patrick Horton

Thinking corporately: getting national parks on national balance sheets

National parks are among Australia and New Zealand’s most precious assets. But we don’t account for them properly, so they’re struggling. It’s time for a rethink.

The assets managed by the parks agencies of Australia and NZ are extraordinary. The two countries’ 23,000 parks occupy about 150 million hectares, or 18% of the combined total area of the two countries. This number comprises 9,944 terrestrial protected areas (2010 data) covering 103.3 million hectares (13.4% of the continent) managed primarily by State/Territory, Indigenous and Commonwealth agencies, with the remainder being mainly urban parks and reserves managed by local governments and city councils.

They contain our best water catchments and carbon sinks, our most precious natural heritage and they are important for our well-being.

The Balcony in Victoria’s Grampians National Park. AAP/Tourism Victoria

In 2008-09, the parks of Australia and New Zealand hosted 280 million visitors, making the parks agencies among the biggest tourism businesses.

The parks estate is a major element of our natural capital, delivering services to our societies worth many billions to us every year. It is a keystone in our green infrastructure. This natural heritage is also a fundamental aspect of our cultural heritage, of our national identity — of who we are. The assets in the parks estate are literally irreplaceable and their replacement cost in an accounting sense is incalculable.

An undervalued asset

One would expect then, that the parks estate would deserve special mention in our national accounts, and on our long-term national balance sheets.

But parks budgets are being tightened, capital investment is constrained, and there are cuts to parks staff and park maintenance.

Despite or perhaps in part because of these pressures, there have been notable innovations in the evolution of the reserves system over recent years, including joint management arrangements with traditional owners, the creation of Indigenous Protected Areas, significant expansion of Marine Protected Areas, and rapid growth in the private nature conservation estate funded by NGOs such as Bush Heritage, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and BirdLife Australia. More recent developments include public funding for private companies to buy land for conservation purposes (e.g. RM Williams and Henbury), and multinational corporations in the minerals and energy sectors paying Indigenous people for land management services that deliver emissions offsets (e.g. Conoco Phillips’ offsets investment in the landmark WALFA project).

Major problems with weeds, feral animals, and changing fire regimes are affecting the protected areas network. Notwithstanding the developments above, current management responses seem manifestly inadequate.

In the main, parks agencies are in survival mode. There are few instances in recent decades where conservation managers have had the luxury of carefully examining the best available science and practical experience, working out the options, implementing them professionally and systematically with sufficient resources over a sustained period, then taking the time to analyse and learn lessons, and share the experiences widely.

From survival mode to a new vision

As a thought experiment, what if an enlightened top 100 corporation with a fine CEO working to a skilled, strategic and diverse board of directors, was charged with the long-term custodianship and management of the parks estate in the national interest?

How would such a corporation manage an asset portfolio consisting of the largest land holding, the biggest carbon store, enormous fresh water yields, the most visitor days, the biggest tourism enterprise, significant indigenous employment and training opportunities, and the most precious natural land and seascapes in the region?

Lake Albina in Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales. AAP/Diana Plater

My guess is that they would:

  • develop a long-range strategic plan for their portfolio

  • forensically map all the services provided by parks and reserves, and identify customers and potential income streams for each of them

  • identify the key stakeholders with an interest in the long-term future of the portfolio and develop agreement and commitment of resources to implement the long-term strategy;

  • apply a multi-criteria optimisation framework at both individual park and portfolio levels to manage assets such that the critical values of each park are sustained or improved through time

  • adopt clear performance measures and targets (social, economic and environmental) across the whole portfolio and track progress against them

  • manage the portfolio adaptively from a comprehensive evidence base

  • reach out to other sectors to develop long-term partnerships and strategic alliances across the whole estate

  • seek to develop significant revenue streams outside the traditional realms of government budgets and visitor charges

  • exploit their massive carbon stocks as a strategic buffer in the land sector.

Many of these strategies are already being deployed by different agencies to differing degrees. I am not advocating wholesale privatisation or corporatisation of the protected area estate, or of urban parks networks. I’m as keen on camping freely in the bush as the next person.

Rather, I believe we should be recognising far more public goods from our conservation reserves, and investing more in them in the long-term public interest. We could be experimenting more consciously with different management models for protected areas and parks in which governments could define public good objectives and performance measures, and let NGOs, corporates, Indigenous ranger groups and local communities compete to deliver them.

Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, Queensland. AAP/Tourism Queensland

It seems odd that, at a time when massive revenues are being generated from the exploitation of our natural resources, our most treasured natural places are struggling for funding to clean toilets, empty rubbish bins and maintain walking tracks, let alone undertake sophisticated management programs for weeds, feral animals and fire.

Governments love announcing new reserves, but allocating the recurrent operational funding necessary to manage them properly is far less politically sexy.

Time for a long-range, “greener” approach to investment and accounting

The reserves system is a strategic national asset. It represents green infrastructure that is essential for our quality of life in the richest sense. With smart thinking and greater collaboration on the part of parks agencies, and development of clever policies that reward long-range investment in green infrastructure on the part of superannuation funds, philanthropists, resources companies and other resource-using corporations, it should be possible to generate substantial revenue streams into parks that are not contingent on annual municipal, state or federal budget processes.

It is standard accounting practice to value, depreciate, and work out repairs and maintenance budgets for built assets. But natural capital, which provides crucial services to society, lacks comparable accounting methodologies to value natural assets and to underpin adequate investment in repairs and maintenance.

Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

This blind spot affects funding models such that parks and reserves funding is generally on an historical basis. Occasional cash injections (often in response to crises) are usually for capital improvements rather than on-going operating funds.

Access to substantial patient capital would enable much more strategic investment in the parks estate, in “traditional” areas like biodiversity. The reserves system should form the scaffolding of a new approach to biodiversity conservation at a landscape scale across all land tenures, designed to improve landscape resilience.

This will be crucial in the face of interacting pressures:

  • climate change and amplified climate variability

  • more frequent and intense extreme weather events and the associated fires and floods

  • more damaging pest, weed and disease outbreaks

  • land-use pressures arising from population growth, urban expansion, and concerns about energy security, water security, and food security.

The Domain park in Sydney. Flickr/amsfrank

If our parks network did not exist, we would have to invent it

This extraordinary network of special places is a priceless national asset that should occupy hallowed ground on our national balance sheets. But it is being squeezed inexorably between increasing demands and usage, and tightening resources.

We must break those shackles by re-conceptualising parks for the twenty-first century, adopting a sensible accounting framework for natural assets, broadening and deepening the revenue base, and developing new ways for people, firms and industries to connect with protected areas and parks.

This will require strategic investment in the parks network itself, in the people managing protected areas and parks agencies, and in the knowledge and monitoring systems to underpin an evidence base for more enlightened policy. In particular, we will need to invest in retraining existing staff (from rangers to senior executives), and also in redefining the exciting professional roles necessary to manage national conservation estates strategically for the multiple value streams that society demands of them. This is an area in which Australia should take a lead, as the worldwide demand for skills and knowledge in managing protected areas is significant and growing.

With a strategic, long-term collaborative approach informed by a comprehensive, long-term evidence base, we have an opportunity to recognise the great parks of Australia and New Zealand appropriately in our national accounts, and to put the financing of the reserves system (both P&L and balance sheet) on a much more vibrant and sustainable footing.

This would be a terrific legacy for our children and their grandchildren.

Kakadu Escarpment of the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. AAP/Martin Kwakwa