Another round of ‘restructuring’ has hit our national parks staff. More managers and rangers with superb skills and experience have to reapply for the jobs they have been performing under extreme pressure from previous cutbacks. It is clear that the Department of Planning and Environment does not value ecological skills any more. Nobody knows what the selection criteria will be for the new positions – tourism experience perhaps?
A group of former NPWS employees has formed a group called Park Watch to monitor the impacts the cuts are having. There is a forum on 30 November at NSW Parliament House to discuss the future of national parks.
Carolyn Pettigrew, one of the members of Park Watch presented a talk on ABC Radio National’s program Ockham’s Razor. Here is a transcript reprinted with permission from Carolyn.
Introduction from Robyn Williams
Conservation. It's a word that sounds a bit like conservative, doesn't it? But the conventional wisdom these days is that environmental matters are green - green in philosophy and probably green in politics. But this didn't used to be the case. When I went to my first meeting of the Australian Conservation Foundation in the early 70s, the president was not Peter Garrett, who would have been about 20 at the time, but Prince Philip. And back then the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, he of tainted memory, was behind some of the most far-reaching environmental initiatives which in 2017 are steadily being dismantled by Donald Trump. So what about our own national parks, where did they come from, and why should we care.
2017 is the 50th anniversary of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Born out of the Land Department's Parks and Reserves division and the NSW Fauna Protection Panel, it was largely the brain child of a Liberal politician, the Hon Tom Lewis.
The service's 50th birthday is a cause for celebration - as some of its achievements are really outstanding. The declaration of the Border Ranges and Blue Mountains National Parks as world heritage regions must be among the highlights, signifying the importance of these areas not only to Australia but the world.
National parks and reserves represent the highest level of protection available to our unique fauna and flora, and are vital to their survival. They are becoming even more important as threatening processes outside the reserve system put pressure on our remaining natural ecosystems. Unfortunately, the ability of our national parks and reserves to protect this natural heritage is being eroded - both within and outside the parks.
The National State of the Environment Report 2016 states that the threatening pressures on biodiversity include land clearing, invasive species, the fragmentation of habitat, changed fire regimes, and climate change.
Most of these exert a high or very high pressure on biodiversity, and are worsening. The cumulative and interacting effects of these pressures amplify the threat to biodiversity in Australia.
Excessive land clearing poses a particular threat.
It certainly surprised me to learn that Australia has a land clearing rate similar to Brazil and Indonesia. Queensland alone has cleared more than one million hectares of woodland in the past 10 years, and New South Wales looks set to follow suit.
In 2013 the NSW Government developed a program called Save our Species (SOS). This program provided the framework for identifying threatened species and what was needed to ensure the survival of threatened species for the next 100 years. It made sense of all the efforts being made by various environmental groups, communities, academic institutions, and the government to halt the loss of species. SOS identifies where the gaps are and ranks the importance of the work needed. Importantly, there is some funding available for groups to carry out the work required.
Backing the SOS plan was legislation designed to protect biodiversity and to halt the loss of habitat on land outside the reserve system. This system of protecting against land clearing wasn’t perfect - but it was crucial to making the SOS plan work.
Unfortunately, it was met with hostile opposition by powerful agri-business and political voices, so instead of modifying the rules the NSW government threw out the legislation.
What we're left with is legislation which is little more than a self-assessment process. If you read what a landholder can clear on their land it is virtually everything.
The loss of habitat that allowed some species to hang on and connect with nearby habitat will be devastating. The remnant koala population in northern NSW is a case in point - trees on private land and roadsides are being cleared at an alarming rate. These koalas seem destined to disappear.
Local citizen scientists, conservation groups like Birdlife Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and concerned landholders are all doing a magnificent job despite the odds but what are our governments doing?
Which brings me back to national parks and reserves. In NSW about 9% of the total land area is reserves of one kind or another. Not all threatened species depend on national parks and reserves but a hell of a lot most certainly do.
There are huge gaps in what we know about threatened species, their location, habitat requirements and distribution.
Very broadly, threatened species management in national parks and reserves fall into two categories – site-managed species like the Mallee Fowl and landscape managed species such as the threatened Powerful Owl. If I take the latter example, Powerful Owls are top predators. They feed mostly on arboreal mammals – possums of various kinds. That means they need tall forests with lots of hollow trees which also meet the requirements of other threatened species such as the yellow-bellied glider. So the land is managed at the landscape and ecological community level to cover as many species as possible.
Threatened plants and animals are identified in plans of management for a reserve. But there are a multitude of management objectives for each reserve. Making sense of the different priorities, the capital works and the human resource deployment needs professional park managers like graduate rangers and specialists.
You might think we have an army of these people but we don’t. Despite the fact that these are the folk who provide the intellectual grunt in reserve management their numbers are dwindling due to cut after cut. Every time you hear those words efficiency drive or restructure - think job losses. NSW has lost 30% of rangers over the past 10 years and more than 200 field officers, administration, specialist project and support staff.
Rangers and field officers are the men and women who do the hard lifting in our parks and reserves. They carry out fire-fighting, whale rescuing, walking track maintenance, weed control programs - to name just a few of their tasks. Loss of the expert knowledge of graduate rangers and specialists is tragic. These are the people who plan and implement the strategies that conserve representative ecosystems and the habitat of rapidly diminishing native Australian species.
There is even a move in NSW to classify all national parks staff as clerks, lower entry level qualifications and put in place hard progression barriers. Rangers and specialist jobs will no longer specify a degree as an essential job requirement. Of course, graduates could still apply for these jobs, but the career opportunities offered to them will be severely limited due to the hard promotional barriers.
But what has all this got to do with science? Two major impact pressures on threatened species in national parks and reserves are fire management and pest control.
Taking fire management as the example, the media and the public tend to regard the rural fire services as the ‘heroes’ which they definitely are. The problem is fire research and fire mitigation management is at least as important as fire-fighting, but it isn’t as sexy as lots of big red trucks. What is important to remember is that national parks and reserves have been created to conserve representative ecosystems, and fire regimes are biodiversity ‘drivers’ within most of our natural ecosystems. The importance of fire can be best illustrated by the fact that the absence of certain fire frequencies and intensities may be just as detrimental to biodiversity as a regime of fires that are too frequent or too intense.
Fire management, including fire mitigation must be based on good science, not political imperatives. Fire management must also encompass a complete appreciation of the other threatening processes and activities that mitigate against species survival such as habitat loss, soil erosion, water quality and carbon sequestration. That is why national park services throughout the country need a qualified, well-resourced and equipped ranger force to undertake assessment, management and implementation of fire management, soil conservation, weed management, visitor facilities, and development. It requires a holistic view, not simply a view of hazard reduction and asset protection.
We can't expect our parks and reserves to remain in a heathy state if jobs and knowledgeable people keep disappearing.
I believe the rot starts at the top. Increasingly we have ministers for the environment who wouldn’t know a wombat from a woylie. Maybe that’s not important but the same ministers don’t seem to have any regard for the moral responsibility they have as guardians of the natural national estate.
In the recent NSW by-election for the seat of Murray, the Nationals candidate was elected. His primary policy was to log Murray Valley National Park, and if that failed, instigate a land-tenure swap. There simply aren't many areas of river red gum forest left, so a tenure swap is a ridiculous suggestion. If that's not bad enough, the NSW timber industry and their lobbyists are running a campaign, Beyond Tenure, which is a thinly disguised attempt to allow logging in our national parks.
I believe that all of us, citizen scientists, conservation bodies, academics, concerned land holders - need to keep reminding politicians that we value our national parks and reserves. Our national parks and reserves are the genetic gene banks of our precious Australian flora and fauna and we shouldn’t lose them by political ignorance and neglect.