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Saturday, 09 September 2017 15:30

Fifty Years of the NPWS but is Anyone Celebrating?

In the early days of settlement in NSW development decision-making took little heed of its impact on the environment, the loss of flora and fauna and associated ecological communities.

In the 1970s, as human impact on our natural environment became more pervasive, a greater understanding developed of what was being lost and appreciation grew of our unique flora and fauna. Changes in attitudes led to the passing of legislation such as the Threatened Species Act, planning laws that include assessment of environmental impacts and the creation of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

The NPWS was established in 1967, 50 years ago, when the Fauna Protection Panel that was constituted under the Fauna Protection Act 1948 amalgamated with the Parks and Reserves Branch of the Department of Lands. The purpose of the act was to provide for the protection and preservation of fauna, while permitting the destruction and control of those species which were harmful to primary producers. The act applied to all fauna whether native or introduced.

The national park estate has been steadily increased over the years so that now 872 reserves and parks are under NPWS management. However the declaration of new national park areas has been reduced to a trickle in recent years. The area of the state represented is now about 9% of the total land area.

NSW has fallen well behind in achieving its international commitments to biodiversity protection. As a signatory to the International Convention on Biological Diversity, NSW has voluntarily committed to protect, by 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas. There is a lot of catching up to do.

It is hard to see these international commitments being met when the current government attitude is to treat the NPWS as a poor relation. There has been a steady reduction in funding since the Liberal National government came into power in 2011.

Staff numbers have been cut through regular redundancy programs so that vital long-term experience has been lost in areas like remote area bushfire fighting and vegetation restoration.

Staff have been subject to repeated structuring, the latest being a reduction in the number of regional managers from 14 to 8. Regional managers will now have impossibly large areas to manage.

Funding has been diverted to eye catching new projects rather than repairing degraded facilities and heritage sites.

In a frank internal memo in June last year, then deputy chief executive Michael Wright acknowledged that NPWS staff were facing:

… ongoing budgetary pressures associated with increasing costs and salaries, and decreasing expense allocations across future years … We need to be proactive in identifying and implementing opportunities for savings to be made and revenue to be increased, to ensure we can continue to implement our core conservation, emergency response and visitor services for the people of NSW.

The savings are being imposed despite the NSW being in a bumper financial position following asset sales and booming stamp duty income. And yet the Office of Environment and Heritage website describes national parks as a ‘bedrock of nature tourism’.

No wonder the government is making the 50 years anniversary a low key event! The situation is an embarrassment to a state with such magnificent natural areas that are a major drawcard for local and international visitors. The newspapers have been full of complaints about the deteriorating visitor facilities. The money is being spent on high profile development such as the mountain bike tracks in Garigal National Park and sports stadiums.

The current executive of the Office of Environment and Heritage has refused a proposal to update a 2006, 40th anniversary document, made available through a freedom of information request, to mark the 50th anniversary. The document, NSW NPWS Commemorative History 1967–2007 was withheld, effectively suppressed, by the then Department of Environment and Climate Change executives when the authors refused to make requested changes. It has remained in draft form under copyright ever since.

The treatment of national parks is consistent with other Baird/Berejiklian government decisions to reduce land clearing restrictions and threatened species protection and facilitate development with reduced standards for biodiversity offsetting. It seems care for the environment is not consistent with the politicians’ mantra of growth at any cost.

Royal National Park Threat

The latest insult is the suggestion by the powerful Roads and Maritime that 60 hectares of the Royal be acquired for an extension to the F6 freeway from Loftus to Waterfall.

The Royal is Australia’s first national park that was reserved for protection. It was formally proclaimed on 26 April 1879.

To make matters worse there has been a push to have the Royal National Park inscribed on the World Heritage list. This process has widespread support from conservationists and the local communities. In July a technical obstacle to including the Royal on the World Heritage List was removed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee when they added a listing criterion of ‘an area of importance in world protected area history’ (Mosley 2012). If the land excision for the F6 goes ahead there would be little chance that the listing could be accepted.

Mosley, JG (2012) The First National Park: A Natural for World Heritage, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre