Climate Change, Covid and our National Parks

Brian Everingham, President, Southern Sydney Branch

The last time I walked overseas – indeed, travelled beyond the boundaries of my State – was in December 2018. At that time, within limits, one could almost describe the world as “normal”, as relatively benign, and even perhaps as welcoming. I was in Sri Lanka, visiting its national parks and soaking in the wildlife.  

I hasten to add that even on that trip there were dark clouds on the horizon. One location we visited had been devastated by the tsunami of 2004 and in Colombo, on our return, we had to negotiate our way through large protests about living conditions and corrupt governance.  

Comfortable in our own skins, we planned further trips but during 2019 there was turmoil. In June 2019 the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service acting director warned of the potential for an early start to the bushfire season which normally starts in August. We, our government and we the people, should have listened. That was the precursor to what became known as the Black Summer, a fire season that raged until May 2020 when the last fire of the season occurred in Lake Clifton, Western Australia. Over the course of the preceding eight months or more the fires burnt an estimated 14.3 million hectares, destroyed over 3,000 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. Controversy raged and the debate over the causes of the fires, the response to the fires and the state of readiness of our infrastructure to cope with a warming world. Yes, the words “climate change” had returned with the swiftness of a raging fire front! 

Here in NSW the 2019–20 bushfires were said to be “unprecedented in their extent and intensity”, with fire grounds in New South Wales covering 5.5 million hectares (7% of the state), including over 2.7 million hectares of national parks (38% of the NSW national park system)1. NPWS figures alone tell a tale of destruction and I shall quote them. 

  • 5.4 million hectares (7%) of NSW has been affected by the fires. The severity of fire within this total area varies. 
  • 37% of the national park estate has been affected. 
  • More than 81% of the World Heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains Area and 54% of the NSW components of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property have been affected by fire. 
  • The most affected ecosystems are rainforests (37% of their statewide extent), wet sclerophyll forests (50%) and heathlands (52%).2 

It was a grim set of statistics. Thankfully, on a personal note, I could visit Tomaree National Park in October, Kosciuszko in December and most of the national parks in the Greater Sydney region in that second half of 2019, relatively unaffected by what was happening around me. It was not until well into 2020 that I could see some of the impacts of these fires first hand! I was able to visit Crowdy Bay National Park and Kattang Nature Reserve and see the devastation to both the park biodiversity and to its infrastructure. In the same period, I managed to also survey damage to Morton National Park and the Blue Mountains. Note, however, that many areas were off limits, owing to damage to roads, bridges and general issues of safety.  

At the Advisory Council we were provided with detailed accounts as to how the agency was responding. We were given briefings on how they were responding to climate change through an adaption strategy, noting that the various ways the parks were affected included loss of asset and disruption of services, safety of visitors and visitation figures, resulting in impact on revenue and reputation, loss of cultural and heritage assets, loss of biodiversity and geodiversity, expansion of weeds and feral animals and general loss of reputation to the agency. 

Amidst all that, naturally, there was one site that received massive additional numbers. The Blue Mountains was awash with visitors who just had to see the flowering of the pink flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi) that just happens to bloom in profusion following such wildfire events.. 

By then, of course, we were in the grip of what became known as Covid-19 and a myriad restrictions and lockdowns! Not much movement at all, for many of us! Restricted, as we were, to our own local government areas! A confession: my LGA just happened to include most of Royal National Park, all of Heathcote National Park, quite a lot of Georges River and Kamay-Botany Bay National Parks and a number of other bush reserves – I had never walked as often as I did during “lockdown”. What I could not do was lead NPA members on those walks! And therein lies the rub. I was not alone. The combined restrictions of travel, both overseas and interstate, suddenly led to a huge surge of visitors to our national parks. It was only a few years ago that senior NPWS people were openly concerned that there had been a major drop in visitation to our national parks and had embarked on a program to attract them in high numbers, often compromising the very values of the national parks they managed in the pursuit of those visitors. Now, under “lockdown”, people flocked to the parks in increasing numbers.  

The local parks, especially around the urban areas, groaned under the weight of increased visitation and the assumption by many new visitors that these areas were open to anyone and anything. What is normally not allowed in national parks for sound environmental reasons was being flouted by many and park staff was faced with abuse whenever they attempted to control such behaviour. Trail bikes, mountain bikes on “unauthorised” tracks, dogs, etc were all within our parks and the parks were suffering.  

It is important to note that this trend was already evident prior to Covid and lockdowns. Visitation figures had shown an upward trend from 2014 when total visitation was assessed at 39,436,048 people. By 2018 that figure had reached 60,236,009 and since then it has increased almost exponentially. In that year Royal National Park was receiving over 6 million visitors. Indeed, in 2020 it was stated by NPWS that NSW national parks hosted over 60 million visits in 2018 which generated $4.57 billion in economic value and $16.8 billion in economic activity and that maintaining and enhancing this level of visitor engagement is critical to achieving the NSW Government’s target to more than triple the 2009 overnight visitor expenditure to 2030, by aiming to achieve $45 billion by 2025 and $55 billion by 2030. Despite the pressures on the natural values of parks, it was clear that government saw our national park system as a source of revenue to the state3.  

The triple “whammy” came when the drought broke and NSW received flood notice after flood notice, beginning on 18 March 2021, less than 18 months after Australia was affected by the Black Summer bushfires, and continuing right through 2022. These floods were variously described as “unprecedented” and “one in 100 years” events but however they were described they have also had a major impact on our national parks. Tracks and fire trails have been destroyed, visitors’ centres flooded and access to parks has been severely restricted. Some areas have been closed due to the damage. 

Whatever its causes, extreme weather events are likely to continue, with consequent and subsequent damage to both the natural environment and to cultural heritage and visitor assets. This is going to impact on the management of the parks and on the visitor experience. Maintenance costs are rising at a rapid rate and management of those assets is falling behind. Perhaps it is time for the government and the agency to stop attempting to expand its visitor infrastructure and commercial opportunities and start to consider just how to manage what it has. Its most precious assets are the natural environments within its park system and now, more than ever, those natural assets deserve full attention.  

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