When the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, became the world’s second National Park in 1879 it was intended (according to the act of the New South Wales Parliament which created it) to be a place ‘for public health and recreation, convenience and enjoyment’. In the intervening 140 years the focus of our Parks has changed markedly, with an ideology now prevailing which views human activity as almost incompatible with the natural world.
The polarisation of conservation as a political issue through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s brought with it a marked increase in the size and number of National Parks in Australia. There are now more than 500 National Parks in Australia, covering an area of over 28 million hectares.
Conservation scientist Professor Hugh Possingham, from the University of Queensland argues that the burgeoning National Parks ‘movement’ has got it wrong by disconnecting people from parks. Writing in the prestigious journal, Nature, Professor Possingham argued that there are too many Parks of little value in Australia and that the money spent keeping and administering them could be better used protecting land of real ecological value.
“There’s a whole bunch of people who love national parks, and who have confused the outcome with the action. They think the aim is now to create more national parks, not to protect biodiversity”
Professor Possingham is not alone in his concern about the proliferation of National Parks. Writing in the Quarterly Essay in 2012, high profile environmentalist Professor Tim Flannery outlined the simple logic that merely declaring an area to be a National Park does nothing to protect vulnerable flora and fauna. According to Professor Flannery the problem lies not with the parks staff, who are often dedicated and skilled at their work. Nor does it lie solely with budgets. The biggest problem stems from the idea that simply changing the name of a piece of land somehow protects the biodiversity within it.
Before declaring any new National Parks (or protected areas with the same restrictions under another name) the onus is on Governments to clearly and unambiguously articulate precisely what the goals are to restore biodiversity in the area in questions, how the change will enable that, where the funding for any additional staffing and contractors will come from (in the short, medium and long term) and, precisely why it is necessary to restrict or remove access for active users of public land like hunters, four wheel drivers, prospectors, fishers and campers in order to achieve these goals.
Access to public land ‘for public health and recreation, convenience and enjoyment’ should be the default position unless a good reason to deny access can be given.
We cannot confuse the outcome with the action.