National Parks

Collin Harris

The development of a national parks system in South Australia

Early thinking - change in societal attitudes

From as early as classical times writers deplored improvident attitudes to nature, and game animals were protected for the pleasure of noblemen for centuries.  But against this Christianity gave Man dominion over every living thing, the world seemed wide and resources limitless.  Such was the strength of these attitudes that it was not until the mid nineteenth century that Western society gave any serious thought to setting aside areas for nature conservation and recreation.

It was the coincidence of two great events which challenged the existing orthodoxy, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and industrialization.  Out of Darwin's work came the realization that the Old Testament account of creation might be wrong, and out of industrialization came urbanization and a progressive alienation of people from nature and the countryside.

The result was a fundamental reappraisal of the relationship between humanity and nature.  In America, especially, influential writers such as Thoreau, Catlin, Marsh and Powell did much to provoke and direct early thinking towards the preservation of nature.  It is no coincidence that in 1864, the year in which George Perkins Marsh published his seminal work Man and Nature, Congress granted to California the spectacular Yosemite Valley on the condition that it be held in perpetuity for public use and recreation.  Eight years later, in March 1872, Yellowstone - the world's first national park - was established by Act of Congress and the foundations of America's impressive national parks system had been well and truly lain.

Early Australian developments

Many overseas countries followed the American example. In New Zealand, Tongariro National Park was established in 1887 and in debate on the Bill for its creation attention was drawn to the emerging American system. It was the same in Australia, the American developments were known about and were frequently used to inspire support at the local level.

Royal National Park, established south of Sydney in 1879, was Australia’s first and Belair National Park near Adelaide was the second in 1891. Victoria’s first national park was at Tower Hill in its Western District, followed by Wilson’s Promontory (1908). In Queensland the first large national park was Bunya Mountains, also in 1908, and in 1915 Lamington National Park was created. Similar patterns emerged in the other states, the increasing urbanization of Australia’s population throwing into sharp relief an emerging community expectation that natural or near-natural areas near capital cities would be set aside for recreation and conservation purposes.

The early years in South Australia

The controversy which awakened interest in the national parks concept in South Australia centred on plans to dispose of the Government Farm at Belair in the Mt Lofty Ranges, 11 km south east of Adelaide. Set aside only a few years after establishment of the colony, the 800 ha farm appeared to have outlived its usefulness by the late 1870s and plans were drawn up for its subdivision into small rural holdings. There was nothing remarkable in that, what was remarkable was that for the first time in the State’s history such a move was opposed on the grounds that the land should be retained for public benefit, rather than passing into private hands. Numerous public interest groups, including an emergent and influential Field Naturalists Section of the Royal Society (later the Field Naturalists Society of South Australia) lobbied successive (and largely indifferent) governments with considerable vigour throughout the 1880s, frequently drawing attention to the American example. Their persistence was, ultimately, rewarded with passage through State Parliament of the National Park Act 1891.

The Belair success emboldened a loose coalition of lobby groups to embark on an even more ambitious campaign, this time to have the entire western end of Kangaroo Island set aside for conservation and recreation purposes. It was, eventually, successful, but it needed 27 years and an enormous amount of sustained effort before 53 500 ha was set aside as Flinders Chase under the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Reserve Act 1919. In the process, individuals and community groups tired and little more was achieved for some time. One of the few modest successes was the 1938 reservation of 648 ha of mallee scrubland, later to become Ferries-McDonald Conservation Park, near Monarto South on the Murray Flats south east of Adelaide.

An early expansion: 1937 - 1954

One of the lessons to emerge from the early campaigns was that successive governments had no source of expert advice on flora and fauna conservation and to redress this situation a Flora and Fauna Advisory Committee was established in 1937. As an advisory body it had no statutory powers, but it was influential as a link between government and outside bodies with an interest and expertise in conservation needs.

It was an opportune time for the Committee to press for more reserves: in the late 1930s South Australia was undertaking a fundamental reappraisal of agricultural prospects in its climatically marginal cropping lands. Drought, depression and an expansion into unreliable areas had combined to produce large areas of drifting country in the mallee lands and there was much official and public concern. An immediate outcome was the setting aside in 1940 of the Peebinga and Billiatt reserves in the Murray Mallee, primarily for erosion control, but also as habitat for the rare mallee whipbird. Further reserves followed in 1941 on Eyre Peninsula with Hambidge, Hincks and Lincoln, and closer to Adelaide Obelisk Estate – later to become Cleland Conservation Park – was purchased in 1945. Other areas set aside for conservation and recreation purposes around this time included Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges (1945), Mt Rescue in the Upper South East (1953) and Kellidie Bay on lower Eyre Peninsula (1954).

Tempering these gains was the knowledge that in many cases the reasons for establishment of the reserves had little or nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. In the case of Peebinga and Billiatt it was a concern over marginal lands and soil erosion; with Lincoln, Kellidie Bay and Mt Rescue it was because the land was considered worthless for agriculture, and with Hambidge and Hincks it was seen by officialdom as reservation for only so long as the land was not needed for agricultural development.

Time losses and reassessment: 1954 - 1962

In the years immediately following World War 2 primary production lifted markedly, with stabilization of prices on the grains markets, a windfall gain in wool returns from the Korean War and the application of heavy machinery and soil science to land clearance and development. Unsurprisingly, this translated into resumption pressures on a number of the existing reserves.

On Eyre Peninsula, especially, the pressures were strong and in 1954-55 5250ha were resumed from Hambidge. Further resumptions followed, with 392 ha taken from Peebinga in the Murray Mallee in 1958, and 9168 ha from Hincks on central Eyre Peninsula in 1960.

Pressure for further resumptions, especially from Hambidge on central Eyre Peninsula, continued well into the 1960s, but times and attitudes were changing. Returns from primary production were losing some of their immediate post-War impetus, newly emerging conservation groups, such as the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, were providing well-organised opposition to farmer groups still lobbying for resumption, and the level of scientifically credible advice provided to government on conservation matters was increasing. A new rigour was entering the establishment process for parks and reserves and a tangible expression of this was to be found in the number of areas under active consideration as future parks and reserves, some of the better-known names in this category including Para Wirra, Kyeema, Deep Creek and Mt Remarkable.

A major expansion: 1962 - 1972

In early 1962 South Australia listed 19 key parks and reserves occupying 233 620 ha. A decade later the corresponding figures had risen to 99 parks and reserves occupying 3 546 465 ha.

As indicated in Time losses and reasseement: 1954-1962, developments in the late 1950s and early 1960s had set the scene for such a remarkable expansion. Whilst groups such as the Field Naturalists and the Nature Conservation Society had always had a clear picture of what areas were of particular value, pressing the need for their protection at every opportunity, influential government agencies such as the Department of Lands and Department of Agriculture generally believed that one area was as good as any other, the subtleties of changing plant and animal populations largely eluding them.

With more academic and professional rigour injected into the selection process all of this changed, and a hall mark of the 1962-72 expansion was the targeting of quite specific areas: Torrens Island, Pt Gawler and Clinton for mangroves; Elliot Price, the Simpson Desert and Gammon Ranges for arid plant and animal communities, Calectasia in the South East for the blue tinsel lily, Swan Reach for the hairy nosed wombat and Para Wirra and Kyeema for recreation opportunities on the outskirts of greater Metropolitan Adelaide.

Continuing expansion with institutionalization: 1972 - present

In 1972 two important developments took place: one was the passage through State Parliament of what was, at the time, the most modern piece of parks legislation in Australia, the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972, and the second was the consolidation of park acquisition and management into a newly created State Government agency, the (then) Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

One of the key components of the new legislation was management of parks and reserves, a criticism of progress to date having been that many areas, once acquired, were subject to infrequent inspection and almost no on-ground management. It was an accurate, if unfair criticism, given the limited resources available to the various bodies trying to acquire and manage important areas. With the establishment of a National Parks and Wildlife Service within the new Environment agency, professionally trained staff were recruited and funding became more freely available for management purposes: park acquisition and management had, effectively, become institutionalized as part of main-stream government within the State.

Conservation groups argued persistently that the resources were never adequate for the scale of the task and berated successive governments for their parsimony, but progress continued to be made. With support at times from Commonwealth Government funding, important new areas were acquired, with an emphasis in the 1980s on large arid and semi-arid inland areas. The process was not always simple, with the mining industry, in particular, opposing the establishment of most parks and reserves unless access for mineral exploration (and in some cases extraction) was preserved. In a response to such pressures a new category of Regional Reserve was created, effectively allowing multiple land use in a protected area. The highest profile example in this new category became Innamincka Regional Reserve, where petroleum exploration and production, and pastoralism (cattle grazing) continue to the present in an area of prime conservation and recreation importance. Such pragmatism did not always sit well with conservation groups, but successive governments argued that it was the only practical way of reconciling competing claims to resource-rich areas.

From the early 1980s the formal parks and reserves system was complemented by some significant off-park conservation initiatives, including the introduction of controls on the broad-acre clearance of native vegetation on private land. Controversial at the time of their introduction, the measures were subsequently consolidated and strengthened to the point where, by the early 1990s, large-scale land clearance was brought to a close. In the process, over 1250 Heritage Agreements were negotiated with individual property owners, providing for biodiversity management over more than 550 000 ha of privately owned land within the agricultural regions of the State.

Special joint management arrangements were also entered into with traditional Indigenous land owners in selected parks, and more can be expected into the future.

New areas continue to be acquired in biogeographic regions under-represented in the parks and reserves system to date, with acquisition carried out within the framework of a State and National comprehensive and representative reserves system. The number of protected areas in South Australia now exceeds 335, with a total area of just under 21 million ha, which is over 21% of the State’s total land area. The management implications of this are significant: South Australia is a large state geographically, but with a small population it has a low tax base to raise revenue for the management task. Many protected areas in remote locations fare little better than they did almost half a century ago, with few inspections and negligible on-ground management.

Those who are sanguine about the future argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing: the important thing, they say, is that the areas have been secured by their inclusion in the parks and reserves system. Whatever deterioration there might be through lack of management is always going to be minor by comparison with the loss of conservation and recreation values that might well have accompanied use of the area(s) for some other purpose. What is not in contention is that whilst South Australia has indeed lost much of its biodiversity stock, there is still a great deal of value that remains both on and off the formal parks and reserves system which has been put together over the past century.