Australia Geography: National Parks and Reserves

Australia has more than 500 national parks - nonurban protected wilderness areas of environmental or natural importance. Each state defines and runs its own national parks, but the principle is the same throughout Australia. National parks include rainforests, vast tracts of empty outback, strips of coastal dune land and long, rugged mountain ranges.

Some national parks are so isolated, rugged or uninviting that you wouldn't want to do much except look unless you were an experienced, well-prepared bushwalker or climber. Other parks, however, are among Australia's major attractions and some of the most beautiful have been included on the World Heritage List (a United Nations list of natural or cultural places of world significance that would be an irreplaceable loss to the planet if they were altered).

Internationally, the World Heritage List includes 440 sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon, and 12 Australian areas:

The Great Barrier Reef;
The Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta national parks in the Northern Territory;
The Willandra Lakes region of far western New South Wales;
The Lord Howe Island group off New South Wales;
The Tasmanian Wilderness (Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers and Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair national parks);
The Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves (15 national parks and reserves, covering 1000 sq km in the eastern highlands of New South Wales);
The Wet Tropics of far north Queensland, in the Daintree-Cape Tribulation area;
The Shark Bay on the Western Australian coast; Fraser Island off the Queensland coast;
The Fossil Mammal sites at Riversleigh (western Queensland) and Naracoorte (coastal South Australia).

Before a site or area is accepted for the World Heritage List it has first to be proposed by its country and then must pass a series of tests at the UN, culminating, if it is successful, in acceptance by the UN World Heritage Committee which meets at the end of each year. Any country proposing one of its sites or areas for the list must agree to protect the selected area, keeping it for the enjoyment of future generations even if to do so requires help from other countries.

While state governments have authority over their own national parks, the Federal government is responsible for ensuring that Australia meets its international treaty obligations, and in any dispute arising from a related conflict between a state and the Federal government, the latter can override the former.

In this way the Federal government can force a state to protect an area with World Heritage listing, as it did in the early 1980s when the Tasmanian government wanted to dam the Gordon River in the south-west of the state and thereby flood much of the wild Franklin River.

State Forests. Another form of nature reserve is the state forest. These are owned by state governments and have fewer regulations than national parks. In theory, state forests can be logged, but often they are primarily recreational areas with camping grounds, walking trails and signposted forest drives. Some permit horses and dogs.

The logging of state forests for woodchips has long been a contentious issue in Australia, and in recent times has once again come to the fore. The Federal government issues the woodchip licenses and decides which forests will go and which will stay.

Its most recent forest policy in late 1995 set aside a number of areas for woodchipping, while protecting others. The loggers say more should be logged, the conservationists naturally enough say it should be less, and the confrontation often gets quite ugly. One of the more high-profile campaigns by the pro-logging lobby in recent years saw hundreds of logging trucks descend on Canberra, blockading Parliament House and forcing the politicians to walk the last bit to work.