The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a huge impact on Queensland, Australia and the rest of the world. How we emerge from the devastating impacts on our economy, environment, social cohesion and personal health will set the direction in Queensland for decades.
The Global Scene
A recent article in the IUCN Parks journal1 examines the impact of the pandemic on protected and conserved areas across the world through direct and indirect impacts. Where will conservation feature in the policy responses to rebuild economic growth and human wellbeing? The paper outlines three scenarios on how protected and conserved areas could fair in global recovery:
- A return to normal i.e pre-pandemic situation,
- A global economic depression and decline in conservation and environmental protection,
- A new and transformative relationship with nature.
The last scenario envisages a new nature- and climate-friendly future for our planet based upon humanity’s relationship to nature. Is this just a “green dream”? Could a nature-based recovery scenario have potential for Queensland?
Applying a Global Perspective to Queensland
The paper specifies three principles to guide a pandemic recovery in line with a nature-based recovery together with three phases of actions. How could this apply to Queensland?
Principle 1: COVID-19 is a symptom of the wider environmental crisis – i.e. unsustainable development leading to environmental degradation and fragmentation of ecosystems.
In Queensland, Cubbie Station has water licences for 460 giglalitres2; new coal development in the Galilee basin is estimated to impact 6285 kms of streams3; and koala habitat destruction increased by 7% to over 17,000 hectares between 2012 and 20184.These examples suggest we may not have the balance right.
Principle 2: We must commit to and act to achieve a healthy sustainable planet – i.e. COVID-19 shows us that human-animal-ecosystem health is intricately linked. An integrated approach could generate significant jobs and better rebuild the economy incorporating custodianship of nature as a core component.
Principle 3: Protected and conserved areas provide broad benefits to society, subject to enormous stress due to societal response to COVID-19 – i.e. better recognise how conservation areas help our response to climate change, supply clean air and water, mental and physical health, and provide livelihoods via tourism and rural businesses. Queensland needs to better account for these benefits to the economy and allocate budgets for protected areas management accordingly. For example, national parks visitor associated spending in Queensland is estimated at $4.4 billion, a nine-fold return on investment5; the economic value of all pollinators contribution to crops in Queensland is estimated at $5.6 billion6. Rather than simply a cost, protected area expenditure should be regarded as an investment in a range of benefits that provide a healthy return on the dollar.
The Way Forward
Three phases of action are proposed to address the pandemic and recent bushfires: Rescue, Recover and Rebuild.
Rescue: In Queensland, parks have benefitted from COVID-19 restrictions and closures allowing rangers time to assess bushfire impacts and plan immediate remedial measures needed to aid recovery. The Commonwealth has allocated $200 million for Wildlife and Habitat recovery with $1.95 million allocated to Queensland for immediate rescue works7. The Queensland Government has allocated $8.9 million for a Jobs Boost from upgrading existing park infrastructure8. This is very modest given the overall value of these natural assets.
Recover: With the Government emphasis on rebuilding the economy, reducing “red/green tape” and “jobs-jobs-jobs” we must ensure that the role of protected areas in supporting mental and physical health, regional employment through visitation and tourism, and environmental services such as pollination of crops and clean water are fully recognised, and not threatened by relaxing regulations. NPAQ has proposals to help people reconnect with nature through grassroots activities in parks. We, and others such as the Pew Foundation, also are formulating proposals to Government and business to fund protected area programs that will provide local employment opportunities, including First Nations employment, through protecting our biodiversity and developing better visitor facilities.
NPAQ consider that our national parks system has been underfunded for decades and now is the time to re-invest in our protected area system to advance the Governments’ commitment to bring the protected area estate up to 17% from the current 8%, alongside adequate long term funding to ensure better management. Queensland’s National Parks budget for the entire State, excluding capital funds, is currently $319 million, less than half the cost of an 11 km upgrade of the Bruce Highway9. This appears a low commitment to resourcing one of our most important State assets.
Rebuild: ‘Never waste a crisis”. The pandemic provides an opportunity to re-think Government priorities and to put national parks and private protected areas onto a firm financial footing whilst providing new job opportunities, particularly in regional areas.
A Nature-based Recovery
A comprehensive Protected Areas Strategy is still outstanding despite this being an election commitment made in 2015 and re-stated in 2018. Whilst the delay has been disappointing, perhaps the response to the pandemic could now include the expansion of the Protected Areas Strategy into a more integrated Government Policy document that brings together health, tourism, business, and agriculture considerations centred on revitalising Queensland’s parks and protected areas estate (see Figure below). Approximately $4.4 billion is delivered into Queensland’s economy from expenditure associated with national park visitors supporting 4,400 full-time jobs5. Mental and physical health benefits derived from Australia’s national parks are estimated at around $29 billion10. Bringing all these sectors together into an integrated Protected Areas Strategy could be a powerful driver for enhancing Queensland’s economy and environmental wellbeing with associated job opportunities.
Looking after the environment and rebuilding our economy should go hand in hand and we must take this opportunity to argue for a better integrated approach. “There is no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing”11. So, let’s base our recovery from the pandemic on re-connecting with nature and building on Queensland’s strategic advantage of spectacular national parks, World Heritage areas and private conservation areas which underpin a large segment of our economy and general wellbeing. Let’s invest in finishing the acquisition of our protected area estate and properly resourcing management, so we deliver improved opportunities for ecotourism and regional businesses, better health outcomes and secure increased jobs for the long term.
The time is upon us to advance a transformative relationship with nature.
1 Hockings, M. et al (2020). COVID‐19 and protected and conserved areas. IUCN Parks Journal, Vol 26.1 May 2020.
2 Davis, A. et al. (2018). When rivers run dry. The Guardian. https://bit.ly/2OLPADO.
3 Australian Government (2018). Assessing impacts of coal resource development on water resources in the Galilee subregion: key findings. https://bit.ly/2Bg7WK7.
4 WWF (2020). Destruction of koala habitat after listing as vulnerable in 2012. https://bit.ly/2E41M0Q.
5 Driml, S & Brown, R (2019, Dec 2). Queensland’s National Parks: an economically important tourism resource. Presentation to the Global Eco Asia-Pacific Tourism Conference, Cairns.
6 Karasinski, J. (2018). The Economic Value of Australia’s insect crop Pollinators in 2014/15. Curtin University. https://bit.ly/30tk5UE.
7 Australian Government (2020). Media Release: Wildlife and habitat recovery funding for Queensland National Parks, 1 June 2020. https://bit.ly/2BipZiR.
8 Queensland Governnment (2020, June 16). Media Release: National Parks funding to create jobs as part of economic recovery plan.. https://bit.ly/2CnqlWc.
9 Queensland Government (2019). Queensland Budget (2019-2020) Service Delivery Statements, Department of Environment and Science, https://bit.ly/3eM1Wqc, pg 23, and; Departmentn of transport and Main Roads https://www.tmr.qld.gov.au.
10 Layt, S (2019, November 13). The Simple way national parks are worth $145 billion to the economy, Brisbane Times. https://bit.ly/3jqQYtZ.
11 Richardson, M (2020, July 8). A New Relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do. Nature Connectedness Research Blog. https://bit.ly/2WIUaaC.