The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is facing a future crisis that perhaps is not fully recognised by supporters of nature conservation. Visitation is skyrocketing http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/research/NSWparkspopularity.htm which on the face of it is wonderful. More and more people are beginning, potentially at least, to value our national parks and enjoy the experience of visiting them. On the other hand, successive governments have cut funding to NPWS. Staff numbers and financial resources have dwindled relative to the areas to be managed. The solution on both sides of government seems to be to increase tourism opportunities with the help of commercial interests. http://johnmenadue.com/john-menadue-the-new-squatters-in-our-national-parks/ That may be a reasonable response, but it shouldn’t come without some serious caveats. Do we really want the Starbucks solution as in USA National Parks? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/26/yosemites-secretive-starbucks-cafe-opens-in-park-to-delight-and-dismay
The starting point for managing visitation to our national parks is the legislation. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW) states clearly the primary purpose of a national park is nature conservation. In relation to park visitors it states the aim is “fostering public appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of nature and cultural heritage and their conservation”. Thus the use or establishment of infrastructure within parks that is inconsistent with the legislation would arguably be in breach of the Act.
A national park experience is supposed to be about understanding and enjoying nature. Researchers call this a “transformational experience”. This is often simply expressed as “being in nature”, increasingly so to younger generations. However, many people aren’t necessarily seeking a national park visit per se, they just want a day out in a pleasant outdoor setting. This is probably true of the many visitors who cram into the picnic areas in the parks on the fringes of Sydney: Royal, Ku-ring-gai Chase and Lane Cove National Parks. Encouraging people to move beyond the picnic areas and appreciate the natural features of these parks is a challenge. An example of how that challenge is being met is the development of mountain bike trails that give young people an experience once only satisfied by walking tracks. https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/cycling-trails/gahnia-and-serrata-mountain-bike-trails/. And then there’s the alarming trend of “Instagram selfies” where particular spots have tourists lining up to take a selfie in sometime dangerous situations eg https://www.sydneycoastwalks.com.au/where-is-wedding-cake-rock/
NPWS has an excellent web site with a lot of useful information for national park visitors. Even in the near city parks there are opportunities for bush walking and guided walks programs run by volunteers. NPWS has a veritable army of volunteers and is fortunate that so many people are willing to give up their time and energy to assist others appreciate the features of a park or cultural site. However, visitors to NSW national parks are unlikely to encounter a graduate ranger or “visitor experience officer” whose knowledge of broader issues in the management of wildlife and parks in general outweighs that of local volunteers. Visitor experience officers in some locations are being replaced by touch screens. A positive, however, is the increasing involvement of Indigenous guides at some sites.
Parks further away from the cities and large towns national parks have traditionally offered little by way of accommodation other than bush camping. Clearly though there is interest in what national parks have to offer the tourism industry. A recent IBIS World Report indicated that the contribution of ecotourism to the economy is on a par with stadiums and sporting facilities https://www.ibisworld.com.au/media/2018/01/10/ibisworld-reveals-the-industry-sectors-set-to-fly-and-fall-in-2017-18/ . Already 256 Eco Pass tourism licenses are operating in NSW protected areas http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/research-and-publications/publications-search/office-of-environment-and-heritage-annual-report-2016-2017. These are licenses for private operators to conduct guided hiking tours, kayaking, rock climbing and abseiling etc. The escalation of national park visitation is also making a significant contribution to the economy of many rural and regional towns.
Ideally infrastructure catering for national park visitors other than simple cabins or camp grounds is best developed outside the park boundary. That’s because the environmental impacts of infrastructure development, roads, refuse disposal, waste water treatment and disposal and even light pollution may compromise the ecological values of the park. If developments are to be within a national park, then they should be subject to a full scientific review of environmental factors. The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service has developed successful commercially run hut to hut walks in parallel with public huts and Karijini National Park in WA offers glamping along-side bush camping to name a few examples. http://www.karijiniecoretreat.com.au/
Issues have arisen where infrastructure is inherited when a park is dedicated. Not all these buildings have cultural, architectural and scientific value but are too sound to knock down. The question then arises to what purpose could these buildings be put. This is a controversial case in point with Sydney Harbour National Park. https://johnmenadue.com/hylda-rolfe-summer-of-our-disconnect/ . Other buildings in Sydney Harbour National Park such as Cadman’s Cottage are sorely neglected. Future use of infrastructure is an issue in rural and regional parks as well. In some instances, existing buildings have been used as accommodation such as East Kunderang Homestead in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage on Montague Island. Using infrastructure in these instances was appropriate and quite consistent with the legislation.
However, in the name of revenue-raising NPWS invites hire of buildings and locations in Sydney Harbour National Park and other national parks as being available for weddings, corporate Christmas parties, and other functions. http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/venues. There is even a policy for “Dance Parties” http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/parks-reserves-and-protected-areas/park-policies/dance-parties. Just how dance parties and weddings etc fit with the aims of the NPW Act defies logic. Public land is being offered, excluding others, to those who can afford to pay. There is something seriously wrong with this policy.
The way forward perhaps is of a park management system that considers the overall purpose of the national park and how infrastructure of any kind can be handled. Parks Canada has a system of management based on Ecological Integrity https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/nature/science/conservation/ie-ei . It’s a sound framework that allows monitoring of developments whether they are practices employed in the ecological management of the park or the impact of tourism facilities. It can be explained to the public, developers and politicians alike. It’s a bulwark against ad hoc decision making. It’s a system that would be well worth exploring moving forward in managing NSW national parks. We need to have quantitative ecological parameters, benchmarks and indicators to show that we are, in fact, ‘conserving nature’ as well as catering for visitors.
We are fortunate in Australia to have retained large areas of our natural environments, albeit altered over time by the absence of fire management by Indigenous people and a range of other human impacts. Nonetheless our national parks are too precious to give over to commercial interests without serious assessment and long-term monitoring of impacts.
Carolyn Pettigrew is a member of Park Watch. Park Watch is a group of former senior NPWS officers. https://www.facebook.com/park.watch.nsw/