National Reserve System and Nature’s Gifts

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

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

The National Reserve System is a strategic, science-based collaboration between Australia’s nine jurisdictions to conserve the nation’s biodiversity. The NRS now includes over 13,000 protected areas; we’ve come a long way since The National Park (now Royal) was created in 1879.

Australia was a leader in park establishment, creating six of the first 15 national parks established worldwide between 1872 (when Yellowstone was born) and 1900, the most of any country. Despite this, protection of further parks was slow and ad-hoc, with only 1.1% of Australia set aside for nature conservation by 1967.

A rising environmental consciousness during the 1960s-70s, saw new state, territory and federal park agencies established, facilitating an Australia-wide approach to protecting nature’s gifts. In 1974, Professor Ray Specht detailed the conservation status of major plant communities in Australia and recommended establishing a national network of ecological reserves. The Australian Academy of Science promoted the ‘Specht Report’ through a symposium titled A National System of Ecological Reserves in Australia.

From 1980, the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (ANPWS) produced biennial reports on the status of conservation reserves, based on input from all jurisdictions. This documented a rise in protection of Australia’s 768 million hectares from 3.21% in 1980, to 5.30% in 1988. Separately, a 1990 United Nations report showed Australia’s conserved areas covered 5.94% of the nation, well short of an early conservation benchmark which recommended 10% of a country’s nature be protected.

The Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro (1992) adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with Australia agreeing to develop a national strategy to conserve biodiversity. In 1995, Richard Thackway and Ian Cresswell provided a foundation for the strategy by identifying Australia’s bioregions – large, discrete, geographic areas with similarities of climate, geology, landforms and vegetation. Collectively, these areas became the Interim Biogeographic Regions of Australia (IBRA). The 89 bioregions have been subdivided into 419 subregions, enabling more precise assessments of the conservation status of Australia’s nature’s gifts

Also in 1995, the nine jurisdictions formally established the National Reserve System, with data for protected areas and biogeographic regions held in the Canberra-based Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database (CAPAD). As with its ANPWS predecessor, the data were to be updated every 2 years.

The 1996 national biodiversity strategy developed an approach for selecting reserves by applying comprehensive, adequate and representative (CAR) principles to the bioregional data. Using CAR to analyse the IBRA data held in CAPAD, meant the NRS now had all the elements needed to quickly and accurately identify bioregional ecosystems requiring protection.

In 1997, Environment Australia (the rebadged ANPWS) published the final hard copy version of the ANPWS reports. Using the same data, CAPAD published the first of its online data bases, identifying 5,600 protected areas, covering 7.8% of the Australian landscape.

The federal government funded the NRS from 1996 to 2012, providing $80 million for the first 4 years, and lesser, though still significant amounts, in subsequent years. This crucial funding assisted states and territories securing some 20 million ha of poorly protected habitats. 

In 2009, a 21-year NRS strategy required state and territory governments to prepare 5-year implementation plans for priority nature’s gifts targets. With 15 years of bipartisan support behind it, the NRS was making solid progress. Then, in late 2012, the federal government dropped a bombshell – it terminated funding, decimating the NRS strategy.

Fortunately, CAPAD was retained, and the 2020 version is a far more sophisticated beast than the 2007 effort. It contains a mass of data, from all jurisdictions, which can be interrogated every which way, and is easily accessible via a series of Excel spreadsheets. If you like playing with numbers and are interested in nature conservation, this is a fun and informative way to while away those lockdown hours!

The CBD provides useful guidance for analysing the data through its Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which includes the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Number 11 states; By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water [areas] … are conserved through … ecologically representative … systems of protected areas.

As a signatory to the convention, Australia is bound by these national targets. However, it is the states and territories that create protected areas, thus doing the heavy lifting that enables the federal government to meet its target. Canberra should, therefore, reinstate NRS matching funding to assist states and territories with the requisite purchases.

CAPAD 2020 shows protected areas now covering 19.75% of the Australian landscape, exceeding the CBD target. Being a national figure, it is one the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, likes to quote.

CAPAD 2020 also shows state and territory coverage with Queensland (8.71%) and NSW (9.61%) being the NRS laggards, while all other jurisdictions exceed 17%, some, for example ACT (55.86%) and Tasmania (42.30%), by large amounts. In NSW, recent park reservations totalling some 500,000 ha by former environment minister Matt Kean, will raise the NSW figure to just over 10%, though still well short of the target.

Aichi Target 11 also requires reserve systems to be ecologically representative. Which raises the question: Does Australia’s national figure of 19.75% meet the CAR principles of comprehensive, adequate and representative? This is where CAPAD excels itself; drilling into the data, getting the answer.

Detailed analysis of the IBRA data in CAPAD 2020 shows that only 45% of the 89 bioregions, and 34% of the 419 subregions, meet the 17% CAR reserve target. This is shocking.

How can Australia comfortably exceed the national target, but fail miserably on the bioregion targets?

The answer lies with Indigenous Protected Areas. IPAs were created in 1997, with 76 now listed in CAPAD 2020 covering nearly 67 million ha – 44% of Australia’s reserved land – but protecting relatively few bioregions. This vast area of IPA’s has distorted the percentage analyses, making Australia’s 19.75% headline figure an unreliable indicator of whether the protected areas in the NRS meet the CAR principles.

CAPAD data from 2012 to 2020 shows expansion of national parks has stalled since federal funding for the NRS was terminated, while IPAs and private nature reserves have increased. National parks are the most secure type of protected area and provide many other services, such as visitor access and facilities, so this Australia-wide trend is concerning.

In our next article, we discuss those resourceful individuals who manage our nature’s gifts, our national park rangers.

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