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Vigilance required to prevent protection being lost at the stroke of a pen

After myriad impacts of human destruction on the environment were finally recognised several decades ago, the focus shifted towards finding solutions. In the arena of nature conservation, national parks and other protected areas were regarded as essential to preserving our truly wonderful biodiversity and unique natural landscapes. World conventions, national and state legislation, the development of conservation science, and the increase of our protected area estate, seemed to have set Australia on the path of preserving what remained after 200 years of intensive and extensive development and resource use, and the invasion of feral species. The scales were being re-balanced somewhat.

Then, here in Queensland, we experienced the snowball effect of the unravelling of environmental protection, which also appeared to escalate around Australia.  In addition to understaffing and underfunding, protected areas were also beleaguered by external threats - in particular, increasingly coming under attack from the governments that created them in the first place.

Rather than being fully recognised for the national achievement that they are, national parks and other protected areas have, since inception, often experienced competition from economic interests and as prized public land become highly sought-after for private gain. Over time, these critically important conservation lands have been besieged with an extensive variety of threats - grazing, logging, tourism construction, hunting, prospecting, motorised recreation, dredging, even the attempted de-listing of a world heritage area. In very recent years, the highest political level in the country dared to brand those who desire to value national parks for their true worth as "economic vandals", and those who wished to exploit parks as the "ultimate conservationists". 

Of late, we have been watching closely the unfolding of events in the United States and the apparent interest some Australian politicians have shown in emulating recent political feats. It appears that the US is winding the clock back centuries in the unravelling of environmental protection. After many long, hard-fought battles to protect the air people breath and the water they drink, to conserve the forests, grasslands and marshlands essential to preserving the remaining areas of natural habitat and places of indescribable beauty, environmental regulation is being decimated to give precedence to the drilling and mining industries.

The leader at the helm of this destruction has been quoted as saying: “Environment protection, what they do is a disgrace. Every week they come out with new regulations.” In responding to a question asking who was going to protect the environment, US President Donald Trump added: “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy business.” [1]

The country which gave birth to the first national park in the world has now opened federal lands to oil and gas drilling, and coal leases. Park employees have become ‘enemies of the state’, establishing alternate or ‘rogue’ social media sites with secret identities, as they have been banned from communicating well-established scientific information to the public. A Republican budget amendment vote has allowed states to seize federal public lands, which means that state lawmakers can authorise the selling of protected lands to private industries for exploitation.

The little bit that has been save from destruction, is now to be reduced to an even littler bit. The spirit of wilderness preservation in the US’s national parks is in grave peril.

While Australia has gladly followed the US’s lead in declaring national parks in the 19th century, we will not abide attempts to follow their lead in the loss or destruction of irreplaceable protected areas. Out national parks will not be open for business, they are open for nature and for people.

Thankfully, the Queensland Government’s direction on national parks has recently been progressively improving.  The recent Draft Protected Area Strategy recommends undertaking a study on the social and economic benefits of the parks estate to inform investment decisions and partnership opportunities.

NPAQ met with the State Minister for National Parks, Steven Miles, on March 17 to promote the need for additional funding and seek assurance that government investment into private protected areas will not be at the expense of better funding for national parks. 

Mr Miles has invited NPAQ to provide input into the scope of the socio-economic study, which we are doing.

As ever, NPAQ will remain ever vigilant.

[1] Fox News Sunday coverage of 2016 presidential hopefuls (Oct 18, 2015).


Caption: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in America and (inset) US President Donald Trump. Photos: Fred McKie and whitehouse.gov