EPBC Act Submission: matters of national environmental significance

NPA recently made a detailed submission on the ten yearly review of the Commonwealth’s nature laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

A key recommendation in our submission is that all NSW National Parks, Nature Reserves and wilderness areas should be classified as ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’ (MNES) for the purposes of the EPBC. This would have the effect of extending the protections under the EPBC, weak as they are, over entire parks, not just to threatened species or cultural sites. Our case for this legislative change is reproduced below, and as you can see it is pretty much a statement about why national parks are important.

We’d be very interested to hear members’ views of what makes parks so special. Please consider penning your thoughts on the subject and sending through to Nature News editor. We’ll put them together and publish in an upcoming edition of Nature NSW

Should the matters of national environmental significance within the EPBC Act be changed? (Question 4 from the EPBC Act review)

NPA proposes a major change to the list of Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES), namely the inclusion of all lands in the National Reserve System (NRS) that have been gazetted as national park, nature reserve or marine park.
The NRS system, as administered by the Commonwealth, uses the IUCN system of Protected Area Categories to define the characteristics and management objectives for different types of conservation reserve. The NRS is the primary mechanism through which Australia meets its obligations as a signatory to the Convention of Biological Diversity. In this context, NPA considers it imperative that our nation’s Protected Areas, especially those that conform with IUCN categories 1 and 2 (i.e. Nature Reserves, Wilderness Areas and National Parks), be considered as MNES.

An important feature of the NRS that is not captured by the existing MNES is the role of reserves in protecting biodiversity through the retention of natural ecosystem processes. The ‘whole of landscape’ approach to conservation management is an essential complement to threatened species management, ensuring that species persist at the bioregional scale and reducing the likelihood that abundant species will decline towards threatened status. The link between the ongoing survival of abundant native species and the NRS was dramatically demonstrated over the 2019/20 fire season, which the post fire assessments by the Commonwealth’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub determined has pushed many previously secure species to the point of extinction.

Moreover, our collective knowledge of the status of individual species is far from complete, especially in respect to the mega-diverse but poorly sampled invertebrate fauna. There is no prospect that every species that is at risk of extinction can be subject to a threatened species declaration and recovery plan. The NRS, by ensuring the protection of a Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative network of natural landscapes, offers the only feasible means of the securing the majority of our nation’s biodiversity.

Finally, but most importantly, is the act of declaring an area as a conservation reserve. Australia has played a central role in the development of the national park concept, with Royal and Ku-ring-gai Chase National the second and third oldest parks in the world. National Parks are not just landscapes that contain a collection of threatened species and cultural sites- the act of declaring a conservation reserve represents a commitment to future generations, a legally binding pledge to maintain these places in as good or better a condition as is enjoyed by the present. The strength of the idea that declarations are in perpetuity is reflected in the consistently non-partisan approach of successive governments to the protection of the NRS. The only major exception has been in respect to marine parks, where changes to the levels of protection remain a blight on our international reputation.

The current lack of recognition of national parks, nature reserves and wilderness areas as foremost amongst the MNES represents a serious shortcoming of the EPBC. The result has been that the Commonwealth’s consideration of adverse impacts on reserves has largely been constrained to threatened species or cultural sites issues, with limited or no capacity to consider impacts on natural ecosystem processes or the integrity of the NRS.

We acknowledge that the National Heritage List (NHL) currently includes some reserves, however the listing of individual parks is incomplete and has been largely driven by proposals for future World Heritage nominations. NPA does not consider NHL listings to provide an appropriate mechanism for addressing the NRS, largely because they rely upon the specific values of individual reserves, rather than the international obligations, broad ecosystem processes and commitments to future generations that are embedded in the declaration of a national park or nature reserve.


That all Nature Reserves, Wilderness Areas and National Parks be included as Matters of National Environmental Significance, with an accompanying obligation for the Minister to consider the potential impacts of proposals on both natural ecosystems processes and the integrity of the National Reserve System.

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