Dr John Benson

This article was published online on 19 September 2017 in the blog Pearls and Irritations

The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was the first of its type in Australia. Established by a Liberal government, its lyrebird emblem became world-renowned. But the Service is not valued by the present Government and now faces grave uncertainty.

Lands Minister and later Premier Tom Lewis withstood bureaucratic turf wars, echoes of which ripple today, to establish the Service 50 years ago this October. It was modelled on the National Parks and the Fish and Wildlife Services of the United States. Its first director, Sam Wiens, was an American.

Over the years, the NPWS achieved mighty things for nature conservation. It increased conservation reserves from 1 per cent of the area of New South Wales in 1967 to 9 per cent today; it biologically documented and developed a comprehensive policy framework to cease rainforest logging and protect NSW rainforests subsequently inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List; it was a world leader in the development of remote-area bushfire control techniques now used by all fire agencies throughout Australia; it evolved new scientific conservation planning tools and protocols; and instigated natural history education and interpretation programs. By the 1990s the protected area division of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) graded the New South Wales NPWS among the top five of its type in the world. Now the Service itself and biodiversity generally in New South Wales are under threat.

There are public institutions that warrant national treasure status. When the US Parks Service was threatened with severe cuts by the Reagan regime in the 1980s, citizens protested in the streets and stopped the cuts. Governments in Australia are using more subtle means to weaken environmental agencies and laws incrementally.

Far from celebrating 50 years of conservation achievement the present New South Wales Government has even supressed publication of historical material already prepared in draft form. A short history of NPWS written for its 40-year anniversary, which might easily be updated, remains unpublished. Its existence is only known through an access to government information application made by a highly respected conservationist, the late Jim Somerville.

The current New South Wales Minister for the Environment did praise national parks in a parliament speech recently. Parks are, she said, “an extraordinary asset and feature of amenity for our community across New South Wales.” She pointed out that there are over 800 national parks and reserves across the State and then sought to demonstrate her Government’s commitment by indicating that nine new Parks have been created since 2011. She was apparently unaware that the previous Carr Government had created 500 new Parks, expanded many more and increased funding for protected area management.

Today, significant park management issues are not being addressed. Presently, for instance, between 6,000 and 8,000 hard-footed feral horses roam the World Biosphere Reserve Kosciuszko National Park, trampling fragile alpine and subalpine habitats. Rapidly increasing wild deer numbers are exacerbating catchment erosion damage at a time when the Prime Minister is proposing more hydro storage with “Snowy 2”. The Government’s long delayed and still reluctant response is a plan to reduce numbers over the lengthy time of twenty years.

At a time when the NSW Government is riding high financially, it is making serious cuts to NPWS staff, eliminating knowledge and experience in the process. The number of rangers has been reduced by more than 90 over seven years. Only two of 14 regional managers have been appointed after a restructure, and a similar threat faces critical staff at the area management level. Staff is so reduced in some regions that basic amenities cannot be maintained and a lack of field staff presence disappoints public visitor expectations.

It is quite possible that the New South Wales Government wants to amalgamate NPWS into some form of pre-1967 Public Lands agency. Crown lands agency administrative boundaries are being aligned. But why weaken an agency of such international standing, highly regarded by the public and widely viewed as a critical asset for the tourist industry?

The reason is that the NPWS has been highly effective in raising environmental awareness, protecting resource-disputed areas and influencing new laws, some of which impede rampant unsustainable development and short-term profits. While governments are beholden to developers the environment suffers. The NPWS was the first to call for environmental zones in local and regional planning, followed by land clearing controls and the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act(1995), one of the best laws on threatened species anywhere in the world. There is opposition to environmental regulation and so, when the politics has allowed, enemies have struck.

Witness the mid-2017 Four Corners ABC TV program concerning alleged illegal Murray Darling irrigation extractions, which demonstrated the degree of greed and improper behaviour of wealthy agribusinesses. The result will likely be ecosystem failures and ultimately a loss of agricultural productivity through loss of the benefits that native vegetation and species bring to agriculture.

Concurrent with the decline of the National Parks Service, the New South Wales Government recently enacted its new Biodiversity Legislation and amended the Local Land Services Act. These new laws emasculate previous comprehensive laws for the control of broad-scale clearing and the protection of threatened species. Of most concern are Local Land Service farm and equity codes that: provide for self-assessment by landholders, most of whom are not experts in biodiversity; allow more than 600 hectares per property to be cleared every three years; and fail to protect listed vulnerable and endangered ecological communities. Even critically threatened ecological communities with less than a few per cent of their pre-European extent remaining can be cleared within 35 metres of fence lines.

The new laws, and the expenditure from a new Biodiversity Fund to assist private conservation, will in part be guided by the results of environmental models and maps depicting areas of biodiversity significance and threatened vegetation types. However, New South Wales possesses very patchy data of relevance so modelling is more than often unreliable. For example, the >$10 million modelled New South Wales State Vegetation Type Map has been independently validated to be no better than 20 per cent accurate to the correct vegetation type at the site scale (other methods of mapping more accurately are being downplayed). Yet these data tend to be used in land use decisions, fire planning, expenditure of incentive funds, determination of offsets for vegetation clearing and the calculation of biodiversity credits.

In summary, over a 50-year period the State of New South Wales developed a world leading National Parks and Wildlife Service and enacted advanced biodiversity laws to protect threatened species and to control land clearing. These achievements are being gravely damaged by the most pro-development Government of New South Wales since the 1960s. Unless the current Government changes its tack, it will be left to a future Government to rebuild biodiversity protection and restore the NPWS as a world-leading, protected area, land management agency.

In 1949 Aldo Leopold wrote: To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. We are failing to heed this advice as species extinction accelerates across the world in part due to inadequate government response.

From 1977-2014 Dr John Benson worked with the New South Wales NPWS and the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens in the science of vegetation and threatened species and the establishment of conservation reserves across New South Wales