National Parks and Nature’s Gifts 

Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service & Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM, is a former Honorary Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is the second in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts.

National parks and other protected areas secure many of our nature’s gifts, though this was not the primary intention of our first parks.

Thanks to its pre-federation colonies, Australia was a world leader in the establishment of national parks. Following America’s creation of Yellowstone in 1872, a further 14 national parks were established globally to 1900, of which six were by colonial governments: NSW (2), South Australia (1), Victoria (2) and Western Australia (1). The balance of these historic declarations was by Canada (3), New Zealand (2) and the USA (3).

While the American, Canadian and Kiwi parks tended to be large, remote areas, four of Australia’s colonial parks were near capital cities and accessible by rail. In fact, the 2-carriage Belair National Park train still winds its way through the Adelaide hills to the park. The clear intention in those early years was to provide easily accessible natural areas for people to visit, underpinned by the notion that open-air recreation was good for our health, especially children.

These days, whether it is Karijini or Lamington, Wilson’s Promontory or Namadgi, our national parks are now recognised as bastions of nature, while remaining compelling destinations for a wide spectrum of visitors including multicultural Australia enjoying weekend picnics; grey nomads exploring national parks on their ‘trip of a lifetime’; and gap-year backpackers travelling across our vast continent, seeking out parks as ´must-see’ experiences.

Our national parks are the most welcoming of all public lands. In 2018, NSW parks received over 60 million visits, compared with only 2.2 million fans who attended National Rugby League matches in NSW that same year. Visiting parks is far more popular than going to the footy, but this doesn’t get media coverage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parks have been crucial for the well-being of socially isolated people, providing safe, nature-based areas for permitted activities. Urban parks have been particularly busy.

In non-COVID times, these visitors are critical for towns throughout Australia. Having a highly-visited national park nearby is a revenue godsend for the local pub, tourist guides and accommodation centres.

It has not always been like this as co-author (B.G.) explains. “In 1972, I moved from Thredbo to Tibooburra, leaving Kosciuszko National Park to become Ranger-in-Charge of the recently created Sturt National Park. The town was anti-park as the NSW government was acquiring six nearby properties to form a vast, arid-zone national park. The town’s economy was suffering – farm families had left; fewer shearers were drinking out their cheques and the lone ranger’s salary wasn’t much compensation. However, I was confident that once Sturt was developed for tourism, visitors would come, and the town’s economy would flourish. The locals disagreed. “Why would anyone want to come here; it’s miles from nowhere”. I replied, “That’s why they will come”. After 3 fascinating years, I left Sturt for Sydney.

Thirty years later, I returned. My favourite little town was looking good. We visited the information centre and stayed in attractive timber cabins, new since my time. The camping area had had a makeover and a new road took tourists further west to Cameron’s Corner. I chatted to the publican at my old watering hole, the Family Hotel. “I was a ranger here in the ‘70’s. How’s the town and park getting along these days”, I asked. He replied, “Mate, if it wasn’t for the park, there’d be no Tibooburra”.

All of NSW benefits from national parks, as former premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed in January this year: “Not only are our national parks good for the environment and our health and wellbeing, they are good for the health of the economy – injecting around $18 billion into the economy each year and supporting 74,000 direct and indirect jobs.”

National parks also protect essential services such as fresh water. Metropolitan water catchments are often located in protected areas like Sydney’s Warragamba Dam catchments in Blue Mountains National Park. Clean air is also critical. People living in eastern Australia once took azure skies and crisp horizons for granted. The 2019-20 fires changed this with prolonged periods of smoke-filled air. In non-wildfire times, national park vegetation helps provide clean air for society, and is fundamental to mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration.

Our national parks are also treasure troves of nature’s gifts and their prime role is to protect these, not only for current and future generations to enjoy, but also for their own intrinsic value. A species which has evolved over millions of years has a right to exist; the extinction of any species demeans society.

This role of national parks is given force of law, with all jurisdictions legislating to create and protect national parks. For example, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 states: The purpose of reserving land as a national park is to identify, protect and conserve areas containing outstanding or representative ecosystems, natural or cultural features or landscapes or phenomena that provide opportunities for public appreciation and inspiration and sustainable visitor or tourist use and enjoyment …

And there is much to protect, as Australia is one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, its nature’s gifts comprising more than 2000 terrestrial vertebrates and 6000 land-based ecosystems, with thousands of endemic species. Conserving this vast number of biological entities over a country the size of Australia with nine responsible jurisdictions, is a daunting task. In our next article, we examine how well Australia is performing.  

Our national parks also protect areas of great cultural significance to First Australians. This timeless heritage is communicated from generation to generation through Dreamtime stories and a deep respect for Mother Earth. Many national parks now have boards of management, comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous membership.

Our society has a responsibility to protect our nature’s gifts with national parks being the optimal land-use for achieving this.Australia is a mature, sophisticated nation with an advanced economy. Despite this, in 2021, there are serious threats to our nature’s gifts given pro-development agendas. Several park agencies are now struggling, due to budget and staff cutbacks by unsupportive governments.

In our next article, we explore how well our nature’s gifts are being protected.

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