“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” —Jimmy Carter
It is easy to argue for strict and pristine protection of our natural landscapes as the most environmentally friendly measure to ensure their ongoing environmental quality. Many would suggest locking away significant swathes of our landscape and excluding as many people from these areas as possible. However, this turns a blind eye to the costs of environmental protection, mitigation and remediation required to face new threats such as species invasion and climate change. It also fundamentally ignores the value of appropriate development in delivering access and therefore appreciation and broad support for environmental values across all sectors of society. Appropriate development within national parks can provide the means for individuals to connect with the environment and to better understand its intrinsic value.
Despite sustained environmental pressure throughout the last two centuries, Australia has maintained large areas of pristine natural environments across some of the most diverse landforms. The coast, desert, tropics, bushland and ranges cater for a variety of ecosystems which in turn provide clean air and water for both basic human needs and the wider productive capacity of our land. But the continual biodiversity loss due to insufficient acknowledgement, funding, and effort allocated to ensure protection and remediation threatens their future. We undervalue these resources because they are freely available and do not notice or allocate appropriate concern to their loss. Preventing biodiversity decline requires an appreciation of the need to protect theses resources coupled with an increase in funding for mitigation and remediation.
With stronger connections and a better understanding of value, there is a stronger protective response from the community which generates the political will to channel public funding to protection. For instance, commercial operators provide tourists and locals with access to the Great Barrier Reef giving it a world-renowned status and strong contribution to the local economy. They were also some of the first to draw media and public attention to coral bleaching largely due to their direct need to prevent such events in future.
However, development must weigh the potential gains with the real environmental costs and ensure good outcomes for local communities. It must be planned in such a way as to ensure ongoing and enhanced conservation as the primary objective. On the Great Barrier Reef, we may have gone too far, possibly reaching beyond the bounds of appropriate tourism development in national parks. Tourism activity has provided a level of accessibility that has overcome the natural barrier to physical access. We are seeing implications of sheer volumes of tourists visiting, for instance in the reef-damaging sunscreen coming off individuals’ skin when they swim. We can also see implications in the focus on the reef as an icon rather than as part of holistic environmental concern. This focus is then an easy escape for pressure at a political level, resulting in knee-jerk (rather than carefully considered) policy responses such as the enormous yet ill-defined $444 million grant allocation to a small organisation which does not appear to be the best use of that funding.
Increasing access to national parks by establishing or upgrading roads, accommodation or other service activities, can also provide opportunities for highly regulated access that carefully balances a range of competing priorities. Access to Cradle Mountain for instance provides significant revenue to maintain the park through park fees while also applying strict boundaries, limiting the number of people and cars with access. In some ways this access restriction adds to the perception of scarcity and therefore value and underpins further appreciation of the park itself. It is important however that this access is limited in terms of volume with the primary purpose to manage environmental outcomes, not exclusive access determined by private business to manage revenue and profit which can have detrimental impacts on social outcomes particularly for local communities.
Finding the balance between economic gains and environmental protection requires not only a case by case assessment but also the political will to encourage development for economic gain while also enforcing boundaries and environmental values. It’s a particularly difficult tightrope to walk, but one we must push our political leaders to take if we are to overcome our history of draining Australia’s stock of natural resources. We must fight for balance that can drive access into achieving environmental gains through appropriate, tightly regulated but open access to national parks.
For the love of nature, we must find the path to achieving our Cradle Mountains, and find a way back from our dive into the Great Barrier Reef.
Catriona McNaughton is the Communications Analyst at FPL Advisory.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.