Led by Bill Laurance, our latest opinion editorial in the Higher Education supplement. Interestingly, it has already spawned a bilious and spittle-flecked response by Queensland’s Acting National Parks Minister, Tim Mander. Given the evidence, who’s side do you take? I’m happy that at least one of the worst culprit state governments is at least now paying some attention to the issue.
LAST week the world was appalled when Ecuador decided to open up one of its iconic national parks for petroleum development, with Leonardo di Caprio being among the chorus of dissenting voices. Yet the world should be even more disappointed in Australia, a far wealthier nation whose parks could be facing even worse threats.
Why is Australia going down this reckless path? It’s all down to the state governments – especially in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.
For the conservative politicians currently holding sway in these States, it seems it’s time to generate some quick cash while cutting park budgets – and never mind the impact on Australia’s imperilled ecosystems and biodiversity.
In Victoria, for instance, land developers are now being allowed to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In NSW, recreational shooting and possibly logging will be allowed in parks if new legislation is passed. In NSW’s marine parks, bans on shore-based recreational fishing are being lifted [see previous post here].
Other parks in NSW and Queensland are being opened up to livestock grazing. In Morrinya National Park in Queensland, a strip of forest 20 km long was recently cleared for fencing, with new stock-watering tanks being established throughout the park.
Instead of advocating for sustainable cattle stocking, new laws in Queensland will allow graziers to use national parks whenever a drought should hit – the very time when heavy grazing would wreak the maximum damage on forest health.
The situation outside national parks and other protected areas is even worse. In Queensland and Victoria, laws that protect native vegetation on private land are being seriously weakened. NSW is considering similar laws, even though 85 % of its vegetation with high conservation priority is on private land. Western Australia, which contains more unique plant species than anywhere else, has already carved out large areas of conservation land for mining, even after destroying most of its native forests.
The laws designed to protect native vegetation on private land only came into force because Australia had among the world’s highest land-clearing rates, rivalling forest-destroying nations like Brazil and Indonesia.
Australia has already felled 40 % of its forests and logged, fragmented or degraded much of the rest. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that, from 2005 to 2010, Australia cleared an average of 924,000 hectares of native forest and woodland annually – equivalent to over two rugby pitches a minute.
The newly relaxed clearing laws in eastern Australia mean that national parks will become even more vital for nature conservation. Yet at the same time, park protections are being seriously eroded. That spells double-trouble for Australia’s biodiversity.
Across the Australian continent, biodiversity is already seriously threatened. Australia has had more mammal extinctions than any other continent, with 27 species disappearing since European arrival. In addition, 23 bird species, four frogs and over 60 plant species have vanished. Rather than an historic aberration, this alarming legacy is ongoing – over 1500 species of Australia’s mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs and plants are currently threatened with extinction.
Furthermore, many Australian ecosystems are teetering on the edge of collapse. Across much of northern Australia, resident populations of smaller mammals are rapidly plummeting. Native vegetation is being eroded almost everywhere one looks and invasive species are burgeoning. Some vegetation types, such as grasslands and open woodlands, have declined by over 99 % since European arrival.
In light of such threats, we see a particular danger in forcing national parks to generate revenue. In Queensland, for instance, the minister in charge of national parks, Steve Dickson, recently said: “Unashamedly I am looking to make money out of this,” in reference to the state’s current plans to open many national parks to developers and tourist operators.
Such views clearly deviate from the traditional roles of parks in preserving natural and cultural-heritage values and allowing people to interact in low-impact ways with nature. More importantly, they run a serious risk of creating expensive long-term problems.
Activities such as livestock grazing, logging and land development can exacerbate weed invasions and soil erosion, damage sensitive riparian zones and waterways, alter fire regimes and reduce carbon storage in vegetation. Removing trees also increases flood severity – something Australians must be keen to avoid after the last few years.
Hence, rather than generating sustainable revenues, repairing damage to national parks can require costly and protracted interventions.
In addition, Australia enjoys huge benefits from its economically vital tourism industry – which generates around $100 million per day in revenues. Such economic benefits could suffer if Australia is increasingly perceived as a nation that puts short-termism and ill-advised development above environmental quality and long-term sustainability.
As some of Australia’s leading environmental scientists, we vigorously oppose current efforts to weaken park protections in Australia. These efforts are not just profoundly ill-advised environmentally, but they will ultimately lead to far more economic costs than benefits.
Australia should be a nation that is applauded for its environmental leadership, not castigated for being an environmental offender.