Should we rethink national parks?

By Ken Eastwood 5 June 2015
Reading Time: 12 Minutes Print this page
Conservation corners or places for leisure? Ecologists are calling for a radical rethink in how we manage these special places

IT SOUNDS LIKE a bushfire crackling through the dry grass, gathering momentum as it rustles and rushes, then roars down the hill: building to a crescendo as it cascades between historic shacks dotted through the bush south of Sydney.

But this is no bushfire. It’s a mob of rusa deer, their graceful shapes haunting the gloaming in Royal National Park. In 1879, when this rough patch of coastal heathland south of Sydney was gazetted as one of the world’s first national parks, it was envisaged as a place where you could see wildlife from other countries; a place of picnics and passive pursuits.

Consequently, areas in Royal were cleared of the prickly native vegetation, boathouses were installed, sprawling lawns were planted and introduced animals, such as deer, were released. It became a place for military tattoos, croquet and cricket, and a place to ride a carriage, or these days a bicycle, down Lady Carrington Drive.

“The things that made Royal attractive from a visitor point of view a century ago are still there,” says Gary Dunnett, with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. You’ll still find people “having a dip in the lagoon at Wattamolla, paddling in boats on the river at Audley, and walking through the mangroves”.

He says that although the idea of a national park may have changed over time, in Royal, the management priority is still providing clean, enticing picnic facilities. “They want to have water around them, and shade trees, and grass to put down a picnic rug – it’s those same things that Royal provided 135 years ago that we still provide visitors today.” In a similar way, our second national park, Belair, in South Australia, has tennis courts and is a place where you are encouraged to walk your dog.

The rise of national parks

Across the world, as the national parks movement was sparked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, land targeted for preservation was sometimes what was left over after the best farmland was taken. That’s almost certainly how the volcanic wonderland of Tongariro National Park was set aside in 1887 as New Zealand’s first national park. In Australia, you can trace, via the wiggly borders of some parks, the difference between unproductive stony country and rich agricultural soil. From a conservation perspective, “Our national parks preserve the dregs,” says Dr Euan Ritchie, an ecologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.

With the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s and ’70s, there was a profound push to preserve special places – iconic landscapes and areas of astounding beauty. National parks increased in number worldwide, particularly in areas of lush forests or towering mountains. Stretched funding favoured parks that attracted visitors, rather than those with biodiversity needs.

Then in the 1980s, a Tasmanian, Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick, began ‘gap analysis’ – determining which ecosystems were not well represented in the park system and seeking to fill the gaps. His ideas took off worldwide, and the national park system continued to expand. Today, Australia’s 500-odd national parks cover 280,, while the larger National Reserve System – a network of 10,000 properties, also including private reserves, Indigenous Protected Areas and even farmland – covers 1.27 million square kilometres, larger than the area of South Africa.

Lack of funding in national parks 

Unfortunately, in Australia, the expansion in national parks wasn’t matched by equivalent funding, says Professor Hugh Possingham, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland. “We’ve got a reasonable protected area system. In South Australia, it covers about 21 per cent of the state. It’s an area twice the size of Belgium, [but] the last time I was there they said they had 100 park rangers looking after most of it.”

Hugh adds that of the hundreds of parks in Australia, perhaps 10 or 15 are managed by just a single ranger, leaving little time to control weeds or feral animals, and no time to work with neighbouring landholders.

In a controversial paper in the journal Nature, Hugh suggested that there were too many parks of little value in Australia, and they should be sold off and the money used to buy land of higher ecological value. “About 20 per cent of [Australian] threatened species are not in a single protected area,” he says.

Hugh says that no-one has done research to prove that national parks are the best way of protecting an area. A grazier dealing with ferals and weeds may well care for the land better than government departments with limited resources. “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.”

Once national parks were considered ‘hands-off’ areas, but there is a growing recognition that people are an integral part of landscape management, Hugh says. “You go to a national park in England and think, ‘Where is the national park?’ There are cows, houses and fences. People are in there making a living.”

Sally Barnes, director of Parks Australia, in Canberra, agrees that there was previously an idea that people shouldn’t engage with the landscape. “I hate the term ‘locking up’ because we’ve never locked up parks, but the conservation issues have been to manage the invasives, with the idea that nature will bounce back and flourish,” she says. “But science is telling us… we also need to give threatened species a bit of a leg-up and be more proactive… The best way to protect [parks] is to have people involved.”

Canadian and US parks

IN NOVEMBER, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress will be held in Sydney. Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke will talk about the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative he co-founded 20 years ago. This is creating a continuous 3200km wildlife corridor, taking in two of the world’s oldest national parks  – Yellowstone in the USA (founded 1872) and Banff (1885) in Canada – and spreading all the way to Canada’s northern Yukon Territory. 

The initiative has seen the re-establishment of migration routes for grizzly bears and swans. It has seen the reintroduction of top-order predators such as wolves, which have reduced an overpopulation of elks that was destroying the balance of vegetation.

It has seen the world’s largest system of highway wildlife crossings, with 44 constructed in Banff alone. These have reduced roadkill by 90 per cent and are being used by hundreds of thousands of animals, including bears, wolves, lynx, wolverine, moose and bighorn sheep.

The increase in grizzlies shows the ecosystem is functioning well. “One of the best ways to make nature work is to have all of nature present,” Harvey says. “If you can look after grizzly bears, something like 85 per cent of species will stay.”

Part of the big change in Canada and the USA has been viewing ecosystem management not only beyond park boundaries, but beyond international borders. “When we started, we didn’t even have a map that showed the whole landscape, apart from a world map. I had to commission one,” Harvey says.

The ambitious plan wasn’t well received by everyone. “Some people called it ‘anti-human’. They’d say, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ I was accused at one point of trying to drive people out of the Rocky Mountains. Now we don’t hear any of that at all. After 20 years of doing something, when the sky doesn’t fall, even sceptics are more ready to accept it.”

Worldwide conservation plans

The idea of connectivity and conservation management beyond park boundaries is being taken up worldwide. In South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park was founded with a relatively small 2270ha in 1931 to protect just 11 elephants, but has now grown to

The plan is to link it to a total of of conserved terrestrial areas, ranging from semi-arid areas, slopes and mountains, to montane forests, rolling grasslands and coastal forests, and also to a vast marine protected area of It’ll be the only place in the world to see Africa’s ‘big five’ (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo), in addition to whales and great white sharks. Incentives, such as tax benefits and land swaps, are being offered to encourage landowners to convert high-priority areas from farming to conservation.

In south-western Australia, Gondwana Link has been working on a similar project for more than 10 years. Its aim is to create a 1000km wildlife corridor from the karri forests and the west coast to the Nullarbor Plain. Newer, large-scale projects in Australia include the ambitious Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (subscribers also see AG 100), which will see a 3600km wildlife corridor from far north Queensland to the Grampians in western Victoria, and the brand-new Kimberley to Cape Initiative, which has a similar unifying vision for Australia’s north.

Problems with Australian national parks

FORMER AUSTRALIAN OF the Year Professor Tim Flannery describes Australia’s park management as a failure in his 2012 Quarterly Essay piece, “After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis”. He says extinctions are occurring even in highly valued and well-resourced parks, but “the problem lies not with the parks’ staff, who are often dedicated and skilled at their work. Nor does it lie solely with budgets.”

Tim argues that the biggest problem stems from the notion that simply proclaiming a reserve results in protection of biodiversity. “Government agencies responsible for biodiversity protection have allowed their scientific capacity to erode to the point where it’s hard to be sure how many individuals of most endangered species survive.”

He claims that attempts to save endangered species involve risks that bureaucracies are increasingly unwilling to take. “It often seems preferable to let a species die out quietly, seemingly a victim of natural change, than to institute a recovery program that carries a risk of failure.”

Tim particularly targets Kakadu National Park as an example of failed management. “Between 1995 and 2008 the abundance of small mammals found in the park declined by 75 per cent,” he says, adding that some of the species recorded in 1995 can no longer be found there. “The ongoing extinction of northern Australia’s medium-sized mammals, such as bandicoots, quolls, rabbit rats and tree-rats…is just one symptom of an ecosystem in extinction freefall.”

World heritage-listed Kakadu was once held up as a shining example of Aboriginal people and government managing an area together. So what’s gone wrong? All experts acknowledge the answer is complex, and involves rampant feral animals (particularly cats), the proliferation of the introduced gamba grass and a fire-management program that isn’t working.

“It’s one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation in Australia – there is a whole host of narrowly endemic species and threatened species,” says Professor John Woinarski, a veteran of Top End ecology at Charles Darwin University (CDU) in Darwin. “If conservation is the park’s objective, it’s clearly not achieving that.”

John co-authored a scientific paper comparing the management of Kakadu with similarly sized Kruger National Park in South Africa. It noted that “biodiversity conservation is clearly the pre-eminent driver of management at Kruger, whereas, in Kakadu, the interests of indigenous landowners are at least as important. With finite resources… this may constrain the achievement of biodiversity objectives.”

Systematic burning programs

Kruger has burn-research programs that have been going for 50 years, and vegetation at 600 sites is monitored three times a year. In comparison, Kakadu’s research programs are generally short term, ad hoc, and done by outside agencies. John says that, aside from marine turtles, there has been no long-term, systematic monitoring of threatened species at Kakadu.

“I have a lot to do with Kakadu and it’s been pretty despairing,” agrees Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith, a fire ecologist, also at CDU. “This journey was meant to be a two-way cultural exchange and it hasn’t been that at all. It’s totally a whitefella conservation idea – and that’s set up incredible bitterness with the traditional owners.”

Jeremy says that fire management in the sandstone uplands of Kakadu has been reasonable, but, in the lowlands (which make up about two-thirds of the park), intentionally lit, early dry-season fires are having almost the same negative effect on mammals with small home ranges, as the big wildfires they are meant to avert. He contrasts that with the successful burning programs being undertaken in western Arnhem Land. “You’ll see a lot of small burning – small patchy stuff. You go to Kakadu, and they’re much bigger fires.”

Decline of small mammals

If small mammals do survive what Jeremy describes as an ineffective burning regime, feral cats are likely to finish them off. “I’m very concerned about the decline of small mammals across the north,” says Sally Barnes from Parks Australia.

She points out a new threatened species management plan for Kakadu is about to be released, which will involve changes to the fire regime and the cat-control policy. “The research is becoming more definitive… Now the scientists are getting to the stage where they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to change the fire regime.’ People can ask, ‘Why weren’t we more definitive about cats previously?’ Well, we had an inkling, but we weren’t sure.”

Ecologists Euan Ritchie and Dr Mike Letnic, who is based at the University of New South Wales, have one solution for the cat problem, partly based on the success of reintroducing predators in the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative. They want to encourage dingoes back into the Australian landscape (see AG 100).

“They’re healthier, more balanced ecosystems with dingoes,” Mike says. Without them, cats, foxes and herbivores such as kangaroos and goats boom out of control. “Sturt National Park [in western NSW], for example, has low biodiversity because it’s crawling with kangaroos and they’re eating the house down… It’s an unhealthy ecosystem.” His recent surveys found few small animals such as dusky hopping-mice, lizards, dunnarts and ground-nesting birds.

Euan says that the collapse of mammals in Kakadu can be partly attributed to the cane toad, but more so to fire regimes and poor cat control. “Dingoes do the job for free, and they do it better than us,” he says. “As a general rule, dingoes control foxes in the south, and cats in the north, but they also control pigs and kangaroos.”

Mike acknowledges that many Australian farmers aren’t keen on the idea, because dingoes prey on lambs and calves. But anecdotal reports suggest that large numbers of browsing agile wallabies (hundreds per square kilometre) are costing the northern cattle industry millions of dollars anyway.

“Maybe we don’t want or can’t have dingoes, but maybe we could have Tasmanian devils,” Mike suggests. “They were once all over the country. It would serve two benefits – it could provide a refuge, if we can find enough without facial tumour disease, and they could also fill an important ecological function.”

A change of direction for national parks

RATHER THAN SEEING national parks as established, untouchable ecosystems, an increasing body of ecologists believes we should view them as experimental places.

Perhaps the most radical plan tapping into this idea was that proposed by Professor David Bowman at the University of Tasmania, who suggested we introduce elephants into the Top End to eat introduced gamba grass, keeping fire risk down and controlling other herbivores in the process. His argument was well reasoned enough to be accepted into Nature.

“A lot of people said, ‘The guy’s probably mad, what a joke,’ and then started thinking about it,” David says. “Ecosystems are changing and dynamic… We need to be experimental.”

While gamba grass is spreading out of control across the Top End, Africa is fighting to save some of its iconic herbivores, including elephants and rhinoceros.

“You’ve got two disasters happening in parallel,” he says. “We’re sitting here passing philosophical distinctions… but what will people think in 50 years time? They’ll think, ‘What were they doing?'” He argues that we use existing feral grazers, such as horses, donkeys or water buffalo, or introduce others to reduce vegetation and control the extent and frequency of fires.

Additional ideas for conservation

In addition to preserving species in damaged ecosystems, we should be making more safe depositories of precious wildlife on islands or in fenced refuges.

“Why stop at [Tasmania’s] Maria Island? I think we should be stocking up all the islands with wildlife because disasters can happen. We need more insurance policies,” David says. “It’s the philosophical switch in going from ‘National parks are perfect and we don’t have to do anything’, to ‘National parks are food webs and they’re in dysfunction and we have to do something.'”

New, often controversial ideas are being tried around the world. Last year the New Zealand Department of Conservation (Te Papa Alawhai) set up a Commercial Partnerships Unit, to encourage private companies, such as Air New Zealand and Dulux to invest in the park service. “Conservation is everyone’s responsibility. Those who want to contribute should be able to,” says the unit’s manager, Geoff Ensor.

South African parks have unashamedly done this for years, believing that the huge economic advantages available to communities through national parks encourage the surrounding people to support conservation efforts. Addo Elephant National Park, which has more than 120,000 visitors a year, half from overseas, directly employs 150 people (75 of whom work in conservation), and supports an estimated 1600 full-time employees outside the park.

“SANParks [South African National Parks] generates up to 80 per cent of its operational budget through tourism and live game sales. The parks are mostly all based on a tourism model,” says Russell Smart with the organisation’s Park Planning and Development group.
Peter Mooney, general manager of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, in Hobart, says 26 per cent of its revenue comes from people and companies using the park system.

“We have more partnerships and private sector involvement than any other park system in the nation,” he says, noting that in order to survive, parks need to provide tangible benefits to local communities in the form of tourism and jobs.

“There are other uses for those areas if benefit can’t be shown… if people aren’t welcomed into them and involved, [the parks] will die a natural death.”

Peter says he’s welcomed private sector money donated to help with issues, such as Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. “It’s made a lot of wealthy people and businesses think, ‘Maybe I have a moral obligation to help here.’ We’re getting a lot more people involved.”

Sally Barnes says that Parks Australia is keen for local communities to provide the workforce for national parks and she also agrees that excluding ecotourism enterprises is an old-fashioned idea. “We have to stop any notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’,” she says. “People who are involved in ecotourism are… just as committed to the values of the parks as conservationists.”

Successful programs

There are plenty of successful programs underway in Australian national parks. Individual parks, such as Booderee, on the NSW south coast, are celebrating victories, such as conquering the invasive bitou bush and foxes, and reviving populations of eastern bristlebirds.

Bilbies, numbats and bettongs are being reintroduced in enclosures within a number of other national parks and there’s a $62 million, three-year fire-management plan in NSW
that has greatly improved fire regimes in places such as Guy Fawkes National Park.

Meanwhile, Harvey Locke has another project pushing an idea that rather than just aiming to preserve 17 per cent of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems by 2020 (as agreed by almost 200 nations at the UN Convention of Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010), we need to conserve at least 50 per cent of the planet. “Half the world for humanity, half for everything else,” he says. He points to countries such as the Kingdom of Bhutan that have successfully done this. “We can blunder on and watch species become extinct…or we can turn it around.”

Mike Letnic says Australians still haven’t worked out why we even have national parks. “Is it biodiversity and conservation? Is it wildlife viewing? Is it recreation? We probably need more national parks that cover the range, because I’m not sure one national park can do all those things.” In recent times they’ve been used as feeding areas for drought-ravaged stock, shooting ranges for hunters (see AG 117), and tourist ventures.

National parks also provide us with a sense of nationhood. These are the postcards that we wave as our environmental flags, and the places dear to our souls where we reconnect with nature. We are Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu. We are Purnululu and Wilsons Promontory.

“It’s only firsthand experiences that lead to appreciation. So we even need national parks for…kids with motorbikes,” Mike says. “We need to be able to engage with nature in all the ways we engage with it. Not everyone’s a birdwatcher or a botanist. Wild places are fundamentally important, but equally places where people can sit and have a campfire. There’s actually enough space out there that we can do it all.”

The full story appears in issue #123 (Nov/Dec 2014) of Australian Geographic.