IN the world outside Australia, things are quite often done differently. The ownership and management of national parks is a good example.
Australia has over 500 national parks comprising 28 million hectares, accounting for about four per cent of the land area. A further six per cent is protected in state forests, nature parks and conservation reserves.
In our national parks, commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly controlled. Few dare to challenge the assertion that humans are the main threat to environmental values and should be kept as far away as possible.
There are just 15 national parks in the UK but their size relative to the country is equally substantial. In England they account for 9.3pc of the land area, in Wales 19.9pc, and in Scotland 7.2pc.
But that is where the similarity ends. A large amount of land within the UK national parks is owned by private landowners including farmers, the thousands of people who live in the villages and towns within the parks, plus organisations like the National Trust, RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, English Heritage and Historic Scotland.
The management of UK national parks is also profoundly different. Whereas ours are subject to central control, mainly by state governments, each park there has its own National Park Authority. While these sometimes own bits of land, they work with all landowners to protect the landscape.
National Park Authorities are run by boards comprised mainly of locals. They employ staff who work in offices, fieldwork stations and visitor centres, and have many volunteers who undertake jobs such as leading guided walks, fixing fences, dry stone walling, checking historic sites and surveying wildlife.
Every Authority is obliged to produce a National Park Management Plan setting out a five year plan for the park. Local communities, landowners and other organisations are asked for their opinions and help in achieving the plan.
Farming plays a key role in shaping the landscape of UK national parks. Sheep are common in the hillier and more rugged areas, while there is some cropping in the lower areas. Quite a few farms in national parks have diversified by opening farm shops to sell their produce direct to visitors, or opening their farms for school trips. They are also given preference in grant applications for environmental projects.
Earlier this year I visited a farm in the Lake District National Park in England. It ran sheep and also had a farm shop and café. It is obviously not a source of riches, but it supports a farming family adequately well.
The farmer explained that there were areas of the farm where he was subject to a range of constraints on such things as grazing, fencing, pasture renovation and use of fertiliser, and where tree preservation was a higher priority. On other parts he was relatively free to farm as he chose, receiving the same agricultural subsidies as farms outside the park but additional grants for tree planting, maintenance of dry stone walls and other environmental initiatives. He must also allow access to his land by walkers and put up with a certain amount of misguided advice as to how he ought to run his farm.
Importantly, he took enormous pride in the fact that he was a custodian of both a productive farm and an environmental legacy for the benefit of future generations, including his own children. He was adamant that both productivity and environmental values had been enhanced under his care.
When something is owned by everyone, it is effectively owned by no one. That is the problem facing Australia’s national parks. Management is centrally controlled, governments can never employ enough public servants to manage them properly, and there is little volunteer involvement. Nobody is personally responsible. As a consequence, feral animals and exotic weeds run rampant while bushfires are more serious and difficult to prevent.
Imagine if the UK approach was adopted in Australia, so that significant parts of national parks were privately owned, the parks were managed by locally run boards in accordance with agreed management plans, farming was permitted where it was viable and tourism was encouraged, with some of the money currently utilised for park management offered as incentives for owners to preserve environmental values.
Would the environment be any worse off than it is under a policy of locking it up and looking at it through binoculars, with just a privileged group of park staff having free access?
Potentially, it could be better. Sheep and cattle could displace destructive goats. The additional livestock numbers would contribute to our agricultural output, while farmers would have a strong incentive to control pests such as pigs, foxes, rabbits, cats and wild dogs. Their presence in the parks would also help keep tracks open and detect problems. The proceeds from selling the park, with environmental caveats, could be used to upgrade visitor facilities and fund research.
The very idea of this offends some people, not least the public sector unions that represent national park employees. But it is not radical - indeed, as the UK shows, it is perfectly feasible. Australia is a big country with plenty that is unique, but we sometimes forget that others might have better solutions than us to the same problems.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org