During the last parliamentary sittings of 2021 the NSW Government introduced a Bill (ie. draft legislation) to amend the National Parks and Wildlife Act, the legislation that determines how our national parks and reserves are created, protected and managed. The changes proposed under the National Parks and Wildlife Amendment Bill were diverse and far reaching, the most significant changes ever proposed to the legislation that has served as the centre-piece of the NSW protected area management for more than half a century. Diverse, far reaching, and in the case of at least half of the proposed changes, appalling.
The Bill would allow the NSW Minister for Environment to:
- Change the statutory process for preparing Plans of Management (POM) for national parks and reserves, reducing the public exhibition period from 90 days to 28 days.
- Approve actions and developments that are inconsistent with an approved reserve POM.
- Create and trade carbon sequestration rights over national parks and reserves.
- Create and trade biodiversity credits for works carried out in national parks and reserves.
- Establish a trust to accept tax deductible donations for the benefit of the NPWS.
- Regulate activities in areas declared as Assets of Intergenerational Significance.
- Require the National Parks and Wildlife Service to monitor and report on the ecological health of parks.
- Use digital technologies to capture the details of motor vehicles entering parks.
- Transfer and reserve land to create the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area.
NPA welcomed the matters numbered 6- 9 above, which include the establishment of the Gardens of Stone as a conservation reserve after many years of advocacy. In contrast, those in bold (1-5) were introduced without any prior consultation with NPA, the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) or other peak conservation stakeholders. NPA and NCC were advised about the proposals less than a day before it was introduced into the parliament. At that time the draft Bill included an additional provision that would have stripped NPA, NCC, the NSW Farmers Federation, Local Government Association and other peak stakeholders of any role in nominating representatives to the National Parks Advisory Council and Regional Advisory Committees. Our representations over the subsequent hours saw this particular provision removed from the draft before it was introduced into the parliament.
What followed was a hectic week, one in which NPA, NCC and the Colong Foundation for Wilderness worked together to brief the Opposition, Greens and cross benchers in a successful effort to defeat the problematic aspects of the Bill. NPA prepared a discussion paper outlining our concerns about the Bill and shared it with parliamentarians. I was really grateful for the collaborative way NCC and Colong rallied around this issue and for the support of Penny Sharpe (Labor), Cate Faehrmann (Greens) and independent Justin Field.
Our collective efforts undoubtedly influenced the amendments that were moved by Labor and ultimately supported by the Government. Most importantly, they stripped out the proposed power for the Minister to override POMs and trade bio- banking credits for works in national parks and limited the reduction in the public exhibition period for POMs to 60 days.
There are a couple of clear messages from this ‘incident’. The first is that even an Environment Minister with a remarkable record in creating new national parks in western NSW was pursuing legislation to restrict the voice of community and conservation organisations in the future of the protected area network. I can find no other reasonable explanation for removing the organisational representatives on the statutory committees and reducing public exhibition periods. Even worse, the practical effect of the proposed power to simply override POMs would be to remove all the checks and balances of public review afforded by the current planning processes. The allied message is that we can never assume that Governments are committed to protecting the best interests of national parks and the reserve network. You’d think that 60 years would be long enough to achieve cross party consensus about the importance of protected areas, but if we ever wanted a reminder about the importance of independent environmental organisations, just reflect on what our Government tried to slip past us under the cover of the long-awaited Gardens of Stone!