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Our first national park – campaign for world heritage listing

I love Royal National Park so this campaign for world heritage listing for these very special places means a lot to me.

Sutherland Shire Environment Centre is spearheading the First National Park campaign. I strongly recommend their book “A Natural for world heritage” by Dr Geoff Mosley. Geoff, a geographer and environmental historian, has produced a stunning publication.

In 1975 I made weekly visits to the heathland and woodlands of Royal. At the time I was studying endemic Banksia species for my honours in botany at the University of NSW. This is a stunning area – in beauty and biodiversity – that very much deserves the recognition world heritage status would bring.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell should read Geoff’s book about the history of this national park and support the campaign to have it world heritage listed. It would be a wake call for him and his party to work with the community to protect our wonderful natural environments not open them up to logging, shooting and horse riding.

Royal has a wonderful history and a close connection with the NSW parliament. It was 134 years ago that environmental history was made when the NSW government had the foresight to create Australia’s first national park.

Royal National Park was established, “for public health and recreation, convenience, or enjoyment” under the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1861. Its architects saw the new park as a key way to address Sydney’s growing public health problems. Geoff documents the work of John Lucas, an MP in the NSW lower house, who in setting out the case for Australia’s first national park argued that, “places where people could breathe the fresh air were indispensable”.

NSW was in the vanguard of the emerging ‘national parks movement’ of the late nineteenth century. This was initially a ‘New World’ phenomenon with national parks and protected areas established in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Arguably the world’s first national parks were Yosemite  (first protected in 1864) and Yellowstone (first protected in 1872) in the United States. But the NSW Royal Reserves were the first to use the term ‘national park’ when created in 1879.

Improving public health and providing recreation opportunities were often the driving force for the establishment of this first wave of national parks. But conservation and the protection of wilderness became increasingly important over time.

Today Australia has more than 500 national parks,  spread throughout the country. They are a vital part of our heritage, our ecology, and contribute hugely to our happiness.

But it would be a mistake to think that their status was always uncontested.

In 1922 possibly the first major conservation battle in Australia erupted in Royal National Park. Environmentalists and the Park Trustees fell out over persistent logging for mine pit props. These early green groups succeeded in winning new protection from the State Government

While that campaign was eventually won and logging was not permitted in Australia’s national parks some conservative governments are trying to turn the clock back.

Premier O’Farrell has left the door open with his statement that no commercial logging will be allowed in NSW national parks. This is deceptive language that does not rule out all logging.  Logging called “ecological thinning”  has been undertaken in a joint operation by the Victorian and NSW governments in national parks on either side of the Murray River. The wood has been used for firewood.

While it is hard to imagine any government allowing logging in Royal as it is so close to Sydney, the ecological integrity and cultural value of this park and the surrounding parks need the additional protection world heritage listing would bring. If achieved the Australian Government would be duty-bound to ensure it is properly conserved for future generations. Furthermore, as a site of universal values other countries are granted a say in its fate.

If granted, Royal National Park would become only the 20th site in Australia to be recognised as having universal cultural and natural value and part of the common heritage of humankind. As the only significant national park in the world contained within a city (Sydney) Royal National Park is well-placed to qualify.

It would also be an important spur to action both in Australia and around the world. Countries have already agreed that the world needs more national parks. Three years ago the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed that by 2020 17 per cent of the world’s land would be protected from development,  an increase of nearly 4 per cent on 2010 figures.

I hope you consider buying “A natural for world heritage”  and learning how you can support this most important campaign.

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