Are National Parks enough?

Eighty years. A lifetime for us, but just a quarter of a life for a mountain blue gum – Eucalyptus deanei.  And only a fleeting moment for the Blue Gum Forest in the Blue Mountains, a community which stretches back over 30 tree lifetimes.

1932 – Building National Parks

But for a brief moment eighty years ago, the continuity of the Blue Gum Forest was threatened. What saved Blue Gum Forest eighty years ago was Do-It-Yourself conservation.

Shocked at the prospect of the forest being cleared a group of bushwalkers and conservationist came together to raise £130, more than $10,000 in today’s money, to buy the lease from local farmer Clarrie Hungerford.  All the more remarkable is that this happened in 1932 during the Great Depression.

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Eighty years on and Aboriginals, bushwalkers and conservationists came together in Blue Gum Forest to celebrate its continuity and remember those pioneers who were prepared to put their money where their conservation values were in 1932.

Eighty years. During this period the conservation efforts have focussed on the protection of large areas of public lands to build today’s conservation estate. The Blue Mountains personifies this. The sixteen hectares of Blue Gum Forests purchased in 1932 was swallowed up in the new 62,000 hectare Blue Mountains Nation Park in 1959. By 2000 more than one million hectares was declared as the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Today nine percent of New South Wales, and thirteen percent of the nation, is protected in our national parks and reserves.

But this era of conservation is coming to a close. While battles over what can occur in the conservation estate will continue, the era of grand new national parks is drawing to a close.

The next 80 years – Conservation outside National Parks

Spending that October weekend in Blue Gum Forest provided the time to reflect on the next eighty years. What should we be doing in 2013 that would be celebrated in 2093? Maybe we also need to be looking beyond our national parks and reserves and at the landscape as a whole.

Our parks and reserves don’t exist in isolation. Increasingly our landscapes have been dissected into a patchwork of paddocks producing our food and fibre. Within this sea of agriculture sit our protected areas, increasingly isolated and vulnerable as surrounding production becomes more intensive and extensive.

If the integrity of these protected areas is to survive long-term, then conservation needs to increasingly occur across the bulk of the rural landscape managed by farmers.  We need our farmers to not only grow our food but also manage parts of their farmers for conservation. And the signs are promising.

A growing number of farmers are volunteering to put conservation covenants on their farms. In 2009 there were 4,900 conservation covenants, covering 3.6 million hectares. From Tasmania to the Northern Territory and across to Western Australia farmers have recognised the need to give nature some space in rural landscapes.  These farmers are not only producing our food but also building landscape-wide conservation required to look after nature.

But this is not something they can do on their own. They need our support, as the benefits are for all.

If you think State or Federal Governments will provide the ongoing support for landscape-wide conservation – think again. Recent cuts to Catchment Management Agencies and the biodiversity  and carbon farming initiative are part of a wider run down in the public investment in land management.

A leading ecologist, Hugh Possingham has called for a new order, where maybe more than half of all conservation of Australia’s wildlife needs to be done by individuals, not governments.  Clearly, a more sophisticated and ongoing DIY conservation approach is required.

Individuals again need to put their money where their conservation values are. This time not to buy a forest, but instead to support and encourage farmers to manage parts of their farms for conservation.

This could be to provide habitat for an endangered bird like the regent honeyeater, reduce sediment and nutrient run-off into your favourite waterway, to protect and restore bushland in a favourite walking area, maintain the landscapes aesthetic beauty and inspiration in a valley where you holiday, or to increasing carbon stored in the landscape to regulate the climate.  The gate needs to be opened to bring urban and country people together to support tomorrow’s landscapes.

Imagine eighty years on – 2093.

We have come together on a farm in Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains, to celebrate and remember those who started supporting landscape-wide conservation.  The songs of the regent honeyeater can be heard as they feed along the now revegetated banks of the upper Capertee River.  Farmers, while still grazing the fertile flats, have reduced the invasive weeds, salts and sediment washing into the Colo River as it cuts through the Wollemi wilderness.  Regenerated corridors now connect the larger surrounding National Parks with remnant bush further west. This ongoing partnership between urban and rural people, started eighty years ago, now sustains both the people and landscapes where nature can flourish.

This article originally appeared on the ABC website