The NSW National Parks Establishment Plan 2008 ten years on

What’s been achieved and where to next?

Rob Dick, Former head of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) land acquisition program 1996-2012.

Most existing NPWS terrestrial parks and reserves still require major additions and boundary fine-tuning to ensure their long-term viability. In many parts of NSW there are still few or no parks at all. Recognising this in 2008, the NSW Government sought to better articulate the rationale and future plans for a long-term ongoing program to continue building the NPWS system of terrestrial parks and reserves (the ‘parks system’). The resulting ‘NSW National Parks Establishment Plan 2008’1 (‘the Plan’) declared this task only half complete. The Plan is currently under Government review.

What’s in the Plan?

The Plan’s broad long-term goal is the establishment of a public terrestrial parks system that properly protects a full range of environments of NSW, a broad range of areas of significance to Indigenous people, iconic natural and historic sites and a wide range of important places for nature-based recreation across all regions of NSW.

It took over 100 years to establish the existing parks system. The Plan declared that properly completing the system was likely to take another 50 years. This was not solely because of the large number of lands needing to be acquired but also because of the practical, legal and policy complexities of acquiring the right lands and the uncertainties of when certain lands may become available for reservation.

Specific priority areas for acquisition were listed for each NSW region under seven themes:

  • poorly-represented ecosystems;
  • wetlands, floodplains, lakes, rivers;
  • critical landscape corridors;
  • important water catchments;
  • important places for Indigenous and non-indigenous people;
  • areas of geological significance; and
  • areas to enhance management capacity of existing parks (e.g. improved access, fire, buffers, infills and boundary refinements, etc.)

The plan incorporated targets to measure progress that had been signed up to by the NSW Government and set out in the National Reserve System Directions Statement2 (measuring numbers of regional ecosystems protected) and the JANIS Committee’s forest ecosystem targets3.

Sources of Land

There are two main sources: purchased (private land; perpetual leases) and non-purchased (Crown land; State Forest; expired leases; other State or Federal lands; Council land; lands donated or bequeathed; lands acquired through biodiversity offset schemes). About 75% of existing parks originated from non-purchased lands and 25% from purchased lands.

What lands were reserved during the last 10 years?

A total of 403 areas were reserved since 2008. Figures 1-3 show these in the context of the past 50 years since the NPWS was established in 1967.  Table 1 (areas reserved under NPW Act 2008 to 2018) and Figure 4 show their distribution across NSW. The additions totalled 470,000 ha in area, comprising 74 new stand-alone parks and 329 additions to parks.

Notable are the low rates of new reserved lands after mid-2011 compared to much of the past 50 years. Of all areas reserved, over 396,000 ha (~250 areas) occurred before mid-2011 and 74,725 ha (~150 areas) since. The annual average area reserved before March 2011 was 132,000 ha and 10,675 ha since. Of the 74 new parks, just seven were established after March 2011. Of 329 additions made to existing reserves, 143 were reserved after March 2011.


Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6

How well do these land acquisitions reflect the Plan’s intent?

Multiple new reservations were achieved in 15 of the 18 NSW bioregions. This reflects the broad geographical focus of the Plan. The 51 additions (including 6 new reserves) on the coastal lowlands and most of the 200 additions west of the Great Dividing Range (GDR) targeted poorly-represented ecosystems in many poorly-reserved parts of NSW. The reservation of the largest areas west of the GDR also matches the Plan’s priorities to enhance the area of parks in the poorly-reserved tablelands, slopes and mid-western plains. Still, half the number of additions across NSW focussed on areas east of GDR. This, too, matched the Plan’s intent that as much effort would be needed in fine-tuning parks in the coast and ranges as in starting and expanding new ones further west.

Important wetlands, floodplains, lakes and rivers were protected in all parts of NSW. Notables included River Redgum parks, Gwydir Wetlands, Barwon, Toorale, Warrambool and Ginghet (all new western reserves) and multiple additions to Kalyarr, Macquarie Marshes, Yarrahapinni and Darawank.

Nearly all lands acquired have some significance to Aboriginal people. Five were dedicated as Aboriginal Areas (Cullunghutti, Clybucca, Bandahngan, Ti Tree Lake, Ukerbarley) and, of particular significance, the site of the ancient burials of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man was finally added to the park.

Along the Great Eastern Ranges corridor, 130 additions (40,000 ha), mostly forest ecosystems, were reserved. These will improve park configuration, viability and connectivity along the range and catchment protection downstream. Apart from a handful of isolated new reserves, most other significant reservations in all regions of the state lie within recognised habitat corridors.

Over 25% of the NSW coastline lies within NPWS parks and reserves. Two new ones (Gaagal Wanggaan and Goolawah) protected a further 18 km. There was virtually no action, though, on the protection of the many unreserved intertidal lands adjoining sections of most coastline parks.

One third (140) of all reservations were small additions (<50 ha) to existing reserves on the tablelands and coast that improve access and management capacity. An additional 432 parcels (125 ha) at Jervis Bay (Heritage Estates) were also purchased for future reservation.

Overall, the breadth of the NPWS land acquisition program since 2008 aligns with the Plan and delivered a diverse range of new lands into the parks system. The severe slow-down since 2011, however, has served to place the program dramatically short of its intended targets.

Trends in the sources of lands

The new reservations since 2008 were sourced from 184 areas of Crown Land/State Forest (244,000ha), 129 purchases (213,000 ha), 27 development offsets (5,000 ha), 14 donations (4,600 ha) and 49 transfers (4,000 ha).

Land purchases are becoming critical to building the future parks system. Figure 3 shows purchases playing an increasing role since 2000. Improved annual funding from 1995 (Figure 5), averaging $18m* until 2012, enabled about 600 properties (1 million hectares) to be bought and reserved. In the past six years, though, Federal funding ceased and State Government funding for land purchases declined to an annual average of $7m*. The impact of this can be seen in Figure 6 where the average annual area of land purchased by NPWS in the past six years was 5,000 ha compared with 58,000 ha during the preceding 18 years. NPWS land acquisition staff have remained very productive over these six years, though, securing an average 17 properties each year from the funds available. These will be very important additions to the parks system once reserved. With the ongoing decline in Government funding for park management it is evident from these figures that the NPWS is now restricting its purchases mainly to smaller parcels that cost little to manage.

Figure 3 also indicates the progressive decline, since its peak around 2000, in the contribution of State Forest and Crown land (‘non-purchased’ lands). Far fewer State Forests are available for reservation under the NPW Act than in the past and most potential Crown lands are subject to lengthy Aboriginal Land Claim processes. The past six years has seen few such reservations and a high reliance by NPWS on land purchases to make up most (95%) of the lands formally reserved.

The contribution of land sourced from biodiversity offset arrangements is increasing. Of the 60 (14,388 ha) transferred to the NPWS in the past 10 years, 40 occurred in the last three years. Most are not yet formally reserved but will eventually be important additions to 36 different reserves. However, their median size of 100 ha suggests that, to date, they mainly serve to fine-tune the parks system rather than to significantly expand it.


While a wide range of highly significant new lands were added to the NSW parks system in the past 10 years, the decline in area of lands acquired and reserved in the past five years is of concern and indicates a poor likelihood of any major new parks being established anywhere in NSW under current funding arrangements.

There are 300,000 ha of Private Protected Area in NSW that help raise the overall level of Protected Area from the 8.9% (the 7,100,000 ha in NPWS reserves) to 9.3% of NSW. However, this still places NSW a distant second-last amongst Australia’s six largest states and territories and a long way short of the IUCN Aichi target4 of 17% of land area in protected areas.

It is vital that substantial expansion to both public and Private Protected Areas progresses in line with the general directions and priorities in the Plan. Over the next 50 years, an average annual target of 140,000 ha will be needed to get close to the Aichi Target. As for the parks system’s contribution to this, it will certainly require the addition of important areas of State Forest, Crown land and water catchment land such as those in NPA’s ‘50 Park Proposals’. However, because of the restricted extent and geographical distribution of State Forests and Crown land across NSW, it will mainly be the purchase and donation of larger areas of private land, in the long run, that will deliver a fully representative parks system across all parts of NSW.

A revised National Parks Establishment Plan must chart the right direction for this task, but achieving it will rely on significant Government and private funding (donations and bequests) for purchasing land and for setting up and professionally managing the new reserves. The resulting long-term environmental, economic and social benefits ensuing in all regions of NSW will make this a worthwhile long-term investment for nature, Government and the community.

Figures – All figures © Rob Dick

*$figures shown in today’s value
Information was sourced from historic NPWS digital data and additional digital material supplied in May 2018 by NPWS with its permission.
Because of the varied sources accessed to construct the merged datasets and the need for occasional expert judgement and interpretation of the data, there will, no doubt, be some minor inaccuracies in actual numbers.


1.Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW (2008) New South Wales National Parks Establishment Plan 2008: Directions for building a diverse and resilient system of parks and reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, Sydney.

2.Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council (2005) Directions for the for the National Reserve System: A Partnership Approach. Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council, Canberra.

3.Commonwealth of Australia (1997) Nationally agreed criteria for the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system for forests in Australia. A report by the Joint ANZECC/MCFFA National Forest Policy Implementation Sub-committee (JANIS), Canberra.

4.Convention on Biological Diversity (2011) Conference of the Parties Decision X/2: Strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–2020.