CAROLYN PETTIGREW. What has gone wrong with the management of NSW National Parks? Part 1 of 2

Apr 9, 2018

In 2014 the NSW government hosted the IUCN World Parks Congress. The government touted securing the conference as a victory for their major events calendar. The key outcome of the congress was the Promise of Sydney – the Vision was excellent. The commitments, however, from the NSW Government were almost laughable, given the importance of the Congress on the world stage. The shallowness of the commitments said a lot about what had become of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) which, through the 1990’s, had been described by the IUCN as one of the five best conservation agencies in the world. 

Over the past eight years, NPWS has undergone a series of restructures and efficiency drives. There is nothing new here, as most NSW public sector departments and agencies have been subject to job losses and cutbacks. The difference with NPWS is that the cuts are obvious on the ground, i.e. in the parks. There is a wide spectrum of people who care passionately about protected areas and nature conservation, and they are very angry about what is happening.

The rot commenced in 2010 when several restructures started and then halted, when it became obvious that what was being proposed simply wouldn’t work in terms of the organisation’s legislated responsibilities and the areas to be managed. Initially it was park rangers who were targeted for redundancy. From 2011 to 2016 the number of rangers decreased by 30%. The numbers are set to be cut again but not until after the 2019 election.

The result is that certain areas of the State don’t have enough rangers to undertake law enforcement and compliance patrols, resulting in illegal hunting, dope growing and anti-social behaviour in camp grounds, all of which increase risks to park visitors. This is in addition to the lack of professional input into plans of management and other conservation projects. There are now more national parks than there are rangers to adequately manage them.

More significantly, the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) wanted the degree requirement in the NPWS industrial award for rangers and others removed. There was a general, targeted dumbing-down of the organisation. The Public Service Association NSW has fought these changes on behalf of its members.

In 2017 it was the Field Officers that the restructure team had in their sights. In correspondence with the media and public enquiries, the executive refers to these people as “middle managers” giving the impression that they are white collar workers sitting behind a desk. Field Officers are uniformed, front-line employees. They manage, supervise and carry out the maintenance programs determined in conjunction with rangers and other professionals. Field Officers also form the backbone of the trained, highly skilled firefighting teams, search and rescue teams, etc. Other front-line staff (Visitor Experience Officers), whose role it is to interact with the public to help them enjoy their visits to national parks, have also lost their positions.

Recently, the NSW Acting Ombudsman made an interim report on what he called the devastating impact of constant changes to the “machinery of government”, i.e. constant changing and restructuring government agencies.

He wrote that the impact of changes on staff, loss of expertise and corporate knowledge, disruptions to systems and strategy and the continuity of service delivery, has been devastating. He was writing about water management, but he could just as well have been writing about NSW NPWS.

It would seem the “experts”, brought in to OEH to sort out the “culture” of the NPWS, fully embrace the worst aspects of managerialism The current Chief Executive wrote a piece for the Colong Bulletin outlining the approach the ‘Future NPWS’ restructure was taking, and why. On the surface it seemed perfectly logical. The problem is the executive didn’t take the employees with them, either in the logic or the implementation. It was – and still is –a brutal ‘spill and fill’ approach, ‘mate against mate’. It was a clash of cultures, with those implementing the restructure operating in a vacuum and working to a different set of objectives and values, i.e. conservative ideology (managerialism) versus conservation practice, as understood by the wider organisation. Communication from the top to those affected by the restructure was poor, or in some cases non-existent, leaving dedicated people betrayed and undervalued.

The result is reflected in the “People Matter 2017: NSW Public Sector Employee Survey” conducted by the Public Service Commission.—data/state-of-the-sector/people-matter-employee-survey/people-matter-employee-survey-2017/planning-environment.  The assessment of senior management by OEH employees (NPWS staff form by far the greatest number of employees in OEH) is damning, well below levels of satisfaction in other agencies. In the private sector, the Board would be asking pertinent questions of the senior management team about their ability to run the enterprise. NSW NPWS employees love their jobs, but they have no faith whatsoever in the way the organisation is being managed.

So, what does all this mean for the future. With fewer experienced, knowledgeable, qualified field employees, managing even greater areas of the national estate, serious questions can and should be asked about the ability of the NPWS to cover fire management (mitigation and suppression), feral animal control, weed eradication, soil conservation and management practices to adjust to climate change. And adding to this, managing extensive ecosystems that must account for the protection of biodiversity and individual threatened species, as well as cultural assets and historic infrastructure.

Then there is the big push from both sides of politics for national parks to help pay their way through revenues generated by tourism. Visitation to national parks is soaring  Certainly, there is great scope to improve the visitor experience in parks, especially to those outside the metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, the evidence from USA national parks is that parks can be ‘loved to death’. There must be a balance. The fulcrum for that balance is why a national park has been dedicated in the first place and that is embedded in the legislation. In NSW, the primary legislated goal is nature conservation, and visitor and tourism policy and commercial considerations are subordinate to this.

‘Being in nature’, the buzz term for younger generations, has different meanings for different people. Each to their own; for some it’s hiking into an isolated mountain stream to fish and camp or hurtling down a mountain bike track in a high-country park, for others it might be a four-day full pack walk through a wilderness area or spending an hour spotting wildlife or wildflowers in bloom.

Catering for different experience options that respect the conservation values of protected areas, and the experiences of their fellow park visitors, will be the ongoing challenge for the NPWS bean counters.

Carolyn Pettigrew is a member of Park Watch. Park Watch. Park Watch is a group of former senior NSW NPWS officers.



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