Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Applying ‘Nature Needs Half’ in Australia

Related: Applying Colong is a champion for Nature Needs Half

by Bob Debus and Haydn Washington

A former Prime Minister famously remarked that we had “enough” national parks now. He was quite wrong: we don’t have nearly enough if we want to protect most of Australia’s unique species and ecosystems. The Colong Foundation is a champion for the visionary global campaign called Nature Needs Half which seeks to reserve half of all lands to protect the world’s biodiversity.

Today there is a widespread understanding in the community about the threatening global reality of climate change. There exists much less understanding about the reality of rising habitat destruction in the natural world and the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity. The Earth’s atmosphere cannot absorb ever-growing greenhouse emissions, and neither can its species survive ever-growing loss of habitat.

In 2019 the intergovernmental science policy organisation IPBES reported that a million of the Earth’s species are at risk of extinction. Wilson (2003) notes that if we continue in this way then we may lose half of life by century’s end. The work of conservation biologists led by eminent Harvard biologist Prof. E.O. Wilson (2003; 2016) and others (e.g. Dinerstein et al 2017) show why species loss has accelerated to unprecedented levels, not least in Australia, despite the brave and indispensable efforts of the conservation movement. Science now suggests that in order to save 85 per cent of species, and allowing for the variations in the characteristics of individual ecosystems, we need to keep around 50 per cent of the world in an intact natural state (Wilson 2016; https://www.half-earthproject.org/discover-half-earth/).

The reality is confronting. If most ecosystems are to be preserved, if the natural patterns and populations of native species are to be maintained, if ecological processes like fire, flood and gene dispersal are to continue uninterrupted, then we must keep far larger areas in their natural state than we had previously understood. Slightly less than 20 % of Australia’s land surface is now included in the National Reserve System (NRS), made up of more than 10,500 protected areas (over 150 million hectares). It is made up of Commonwealth, state and territory reserves, Indigenous lands and protected areas run by non-profit conservation organisations, through to ecosystems protected by farmers on their private working properties (https://www.environment.gov.au/land/nrs). Not too many years ago most conservationists would indeed have regarded this situation as the welcome achievement of a long-held ambition. However, only 8.6% of New South Wales is reserved in national parks estate (https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/conservation-and-heritage/our-parks). The State has thus fallen a long way behind Australia as a whole.

Wilderness reserves in Australia

The International Convention on Biological Diversity has set a global target of conserving 17% of the land through ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas. However, as eminent conservation biologist Prof Reed Noss (2019) explains, this target arose not from what was needed to protect the majority of biodiversity, but from what was deemed politically possible. In Australia we have also long held an idea that a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system of protected lands (CARP) would be achieved if over 10% of the land in each of Australia’s 89 bioregions (IBRA) were protected. A few of those bioregions, especially along the Great Eastern Ranges, have levels of reservation as high as 50 %; many others contain intact habitat that could be reserved to significantly increase protected area; around a third of our most heavily cleared and grazed bioregions have levels below 10% (http://environment.gov.au/land/nrs/science/ibra).

Scientific research has well established that a large well-managed system of protected areas is the most effective way to conserve species and ecosystems (Wilson 2016; Dinerstein et al 2017). Nevertheless, the established numerical targets for the creation of protected areas, the result of political agreements, have nothing to do with scientific evidence about what is needed to protect the majority of life on Earth into the future.

To achieve a 50% goal we need to entirely change the perverse government policies of recent years. Expenditure on conservation programs needs to be very greatly increased, not cut. Laws for the protection of native vegetation and the conservation of forests need to be strengthened, not weakened. We need to expand the NRS: to greatly increase the area of national parks and Indigenous protected areas and to gazette remaining eligible wilderness. We need also to promote re-wilding and rehabilitation programs on degraded lands, to expand private conservation and to support other effective means of nature conservation in the community and at all levels of government (e.g. travelling stock routes and roadside vegetation reserves).

The protection and rehabilitation of natural values in biological “hotspots”, refuges for threatened species like the Great Eastern Ranges, Southwest Western Australia and Tasmania, is clearly of particular importance. A 50% goal is unlikely to be achievable in Australia’s more productive agricultural areas - although many landholders carry out important conservation work and can be assisted to do more. A 50% goal is not of course possible in the heart the metropolitan areas where most people live - although we can indeed make our cities far more biodiversity-friendly. However such a goal can be achieved across the largest part of the Australian landscape: on the coast, in the ranges and in the interior, if our society has commitment to protect our unique natural heritage.

It is widely recognised that up to one third of greenhouse emissions could be saved by the preservation and rehabilitation of forests and wetlands (https://theconversation.com/want-to-beat-climate-change-protect-our-natural-forests-121491; http://naturalclimatesolutions.org/). A movement for the protection of half the habitat of native species is also therefore a critical strategy for limiting climate change impacts.

So what sort of time-line might we have to reach the NNH vision? Quite simply, extinction is worsening rapidly, so the short answer is ‘the sooner the better’. Certainly it must be over the next two decades. Colong is a champion for the Nature Needs Half vision, especially the key aspect of reserving all large natural areas – the wilderness that is Colong’s prime focus.

This vision is needed if we are to keep into the future the wealth of unique life we have in Australia. We invite you to join us in the campaign!

Wilderness in Australia

References

  • Dinerstein, E., Olson, D., Joshi, A. et al (2017) ’An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half the terrestrial realm’. BioScience, 67: 534-545. doi: 10.1093/biosci/bix014.
  • IPBES (2019) ‘Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’’, press release Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, see: https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.
  • Noss, R. (2019) ‘The Spectrum of Wildness and Rewilding: Justice for All’, in Conservation: Integrating Social and Ecological Justice, H. Kopnina and H. Washington (eds). New York: Springer.
  • Wilson, E.O. (2003) The Future of Life, New York: Vintage Books.
  • Wilson, E.O. (2016) Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. New York: W.W. Norton.