The primary purpose of national parks and similar protected areas is for the conservation of biodiversity and natural areas. Unfortunately, in recent times, the conservation values of parks have come under serious threat from recreational, commercial and political pressures. These pressures represent a shift in priorities by Governments, politicians and sections of the community. This shift seems to be founded on a failure to understand the intrinsic value of healthy, protected natural environments and the crucial role they play in sustaining human wellbeing, society and the economy.
Many State Governments within Australia have been introducing policies and projects that seriously threaten the conservation values of national parks. One major area of threat is the exploitation of natural resources within protected areas. For example, the Queensland, NSW and Victorian governments have all tried to introduce grazing into national parks. Similarly, the NSW and Victorian governments have introduced logging trials in national parks along the Murray River, and the NSW government permitted fishing within formerly no-take sanctuary zones inside marine parks.
Although visitation and recreation are an important function of national parks, these must be compatible with conservation values. The introduction of inappropriate, high impact recreational activities poses a serious threat to our protected areas. For example, in 2012, the NSW government attempted to introduce recreational hunting into NSW national parks. Other high impact activities that are being expanded in national parks in several states include horse riding, four-wheel driving and fossicking. Similarly, many State Governments are allowing and actively encouraging inappropriate, large-scale commercial tourism developments within parks. These developments are likely to damage environmental values and disadvantage non-paying visitors.
National parks and the staff who maintain them are also being threatened by budget cuts in many states, which compromise the ability of Parks Services to manage, promote and expand the protected area system.
Traditionally, the federal government has played a role in regulating decisions that may impact upon “Matters of National Environmental Significance”, which include threatened species and National and World Heritage areas. However, in response to pressure from business and industry groups, the Federal Government has sought to hand over its approval powers to State Governments. In the past, these federal controls prevented State Governments from making environmentally devastating decisions like damming the Franklin River, allowing oil rigs in the Great Barrier Reef and letting cattle grazing in sensitive alpine areas. Removing this system of checks and balances allows State Governments free rein to exploit natural areas for financial and political gain, and poses a very serious threat to Australia’s natural areas and native species.