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Australia needs to reassess the role and management of its national parks

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 24 January 2020

Recent bushfires have brought national parks into the limelight. Based on satellite imagery, more than 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of Australia has burnt. Of this, 3.2 million hectares (nearly 8 million acres) was national park and other conservation zones. The bushfires mostly originated in national parks, and spread into logging forests, farmland, and adjacent urban areas. The smoke haze was clearly visible as far away as New Zealand.

Notable recent fires include the 500,000-hectare Gosper's Mountain fire, which reportedly is the largest forest fire in recorded Australian history. It started from a lightning strike in the Wollemi National Park, and (within the Blue Mountains) ecologists fear more than 80 per cent of the world heritage-listed region may have been burnt.

Another fire mainly involving national park involved two giant fires merging into a "megafire" straddling New South Wales and Victoria, covering some 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres). (An estimated 42,000 hectares of plantation pine near Tumut has been damaged by this fire, as well as large areas of state forest.)


Fire also burned almost half of Kangaroo Island (mainly the eastern end, which again is mostly national park).

Not long ago, Australia as well as other developed countries, had been tut-tutting Brazil (in relation to fires in the Amazon). Similar criticism had been levelled at Indonesia in relation to fires in Borneo and Sumatra. Compared with our recent burn, the devastating 2019 Amazon fires were a lot less (about 7 million hectares). Even the shocking Indonesian forest fires of 2015 only managed to destroy 2.6 million hectares of rainforest, while California's 2018 wildfires affected less than a million hectares.

The only conclusion we can reach is that, in terms of destructive burning of the natural environment, Australia clearly takes the dubious prize. While the fires in Brazil and Indonesia were often planned (as a way of clearing land), the extent of our own fires largely reflects failure (mainly in respect of publicly owned land) to control fuel loads (ie neglect), and the nature of our vegetation and climate.

Australia is the most fire-prone continent on earth, and our native vegetation is highly combustible. While prolonged drought combined with lightning often is the trigger for fires, if we don't control the fuel load with regular cool fires about every five years, we end up with hot mega-fires every ten to twenty years. So saidpast royal commissions into bushfires.

A common view of national parks sees them as relatively large land areas administered by government, that are to be preserved in their natural condition. National park concepts introduced non-economic criteria into land management, and also implied the prohibition or reduction of some economic activities (such as grazing, mining and logging). In NSW alone there are now over 870 parks and reserves covering over 7 million hectares. Many of them are little visited and have virtually no resources devoted to their management.

Some national parks have unique qualities or are areas of outstanding beauty (e.g. Kakadu and Kosciusko in Australia, Yellowstone in the US) but the majority do not have these attributes. In Australia most national parks are infertile leftover areas of land unsuitable for agriculture. Ditto for many US parks, while in the UK the first ten designated national parks again were mostly poor-quality agricultural (especially upland) areas. Common sense would suggest that such areas actually are of less conservation merit, and less deserving of preservation from mining and logging.


The wilderness concept (an extension of the idea of national parks) is also pertinent.

Wilderness areas are defined as natural areas largely untouched by modern human activity. Historically, human intervention in their ecosystems was regarded as anathema. Furthermore, wilderness has come to be defined not only by the extent of relatively undisturbed ecosystems but also by remoteness. A convention has arisen that a foot-journey of at least one day is needed to reach the centre of a "true" wilderness area.

The extreme conservation wing of the bush-walking fraternity has been an influential advocate of both national parks and wilderness. Some even seek to minimise access by road, so that national parks become the sole plaything of a few fit and hardy bush-walkers.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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