It is said that opportunity presents itself not often, and opportunity did indeed seem to present itself for Queensland’s protected areas at the 2017 state election.
During the February 2017 election campaign, then Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said:
“A re-elected Palaszczuk Government will release and implement a Queensland Protected Area Strategy that will establish a world leading protected area system that effectively conserves the State’s unique natural assets for the benefit of all Queenslanders.
The strategy will set the direction for the management and growth of Queensland’s protected area estate for the next ten years, better connecting the community with their protected areas as well as sustainably growing and managing our existing protected area estate.”
As the time lagged between that election and the upcoming October election this year, it has become apparent that the opportunity was not made the most of – three years and waiting for the Queensland Protected Area Strategy, not yet released and far from being implemented.
At present, Queensland’s land-based protected areas cover just over 8 per cent of the state. Of this 8 per cent, about 70% are State lands such as national parks (owned, managed or jointly managed Indigenous land), while about 30% are protected areas on private land (Nature Refuges and Special Wildlife Reserves), which are owned and managed by private individuals, businesses and not-for-profit organisations.1
As a paradox to the opening quote on opportunity, there is also a saying that ‘opportunities are like buses, there is always another one coming’. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown open the door of opportunity to Queenslanders to reconnect with nature close to home. Many sought reprieve in protected areas, to find solace and inspiration to survive a very real human need that was, and still is, necessarily deprived of us through social distancing. ‘The natural places fill up our bucket’ my 6-year-old son says, or as I like to say ‘quenches that part of us that has an evolutionary need to connect with nature’.
We have seen a revived Queensland government focus much of the COVID-19 economic recovery on domestic travel to our national parks. Beautiful pictures of Queensland’s natural assets are plastered on billboards and buses looping the CBD and outskirts, showing off our splendid national park assets and begging of us to visit. As the economic recovery continues and we grapple with the possibility of a second wave, it has not been lost on the Queensland Government that national parks are a key economic asset for the state, offering regional employment and sustained income through domestic tourism.
As the focus in society at the minute is on economic recovery, we should not lose sight of the role protected areas play in restoring endangered wildlife populations. In a number of instances, protected areas such as national parks have provided the last refuges for threatened species. For example, the northern hairy-nosed wombat is found only in Epping Forest National Park, north-west of Rockhampton. The last wombat census at Epping Forest National Park estimated a population of about one hundred and sixty-three northern hairy-nosed wombats.
This was the remaining population following the demise of the species in its original range. It is unclear why the wombats were able to survive at Epping Forest National Park, but it is likely that the positive and deliberate management by the Dennis family (who managed the land before it was gazetted as a national park) was a contributing factor. Without national park protection, the northern hairy-nosed wombat could already be extinct today.
New national parks will support Queensland’s rich and diverse wildlife; further invest in Queensland’s tourism industry and progress state and national protected area promises. In the Lost Opportunities report2 released in February 2020, five Queensland conservation groups including NPAQ, identified 175 properties with very high biodiversity value that could have been bought and protected since 2015, but were not. An inadequate acquisition budget for the Department of Environment and Science, and now exacerbated by a delayed Protected Area Strategy, is leaving our state behind.
In fact, over these last three years, funding for the purchase of land for new national parks has been dramatically cut, from nearly $20 million per year over the period 2012-15, to less than $6 million per year subsequently.
In the lead up to the 2020 election in October, the campaign to increase the protected area estate in Queensland is in full swing. The NPAQ is focused on bipartisan outcomes for national parks, and the alliance of environment groups working on the issue in Queensland is ever growing. NPAQ recommends an ambitious strategic expansion of the Queensland national park system to save our unique wildlife, while also boosting the state’s nature tourism economy.
It is reasonable to expect the allocation of an acquisition budget to allow the purchase of land for national park protection, to secure high priority properties needed to save ecosystems and species threatened by habitat loss and degradation. Parks management budgets must also be substantially boosted to ensure parks are resourced and managed to save nature as best they can in the face of the escalating climate crisis. Additional investment is critical to protect habitat through active land management, including tackling destructive fire, noxious weeds and feral animals.
Opportunities will present themselves once again in the lead up to the election, and then the question that needs to be asked: to what extent is the government prepared to support nature outcomes in a time of unparalleled societal upheaval?
National Parks Association of Queensland’s election asks for the upcoming October state election:
- Premier and Treasury support of the State’s National Park Estate for their inherent biological importance, value to the community and fundamental importance to the tourist industry and regional employment.
- Release and implement a fully funded Queensland Protected Area Strategy to provide a clear pathway to achieving strategic protection of 17% of the State (a long standing commitment); include sufficient management funding to ensure the integrity of the National Park Estate and to build threatened species and climate change resilience.
- Prioritise a nature based regional economic stimulus for Black Summer Bushfire ecosystem and COVID-19 recovery in national parks.