June 13, 2005 | Graham

Rethinking National Parks in the light of Terra Nullius

There is a myth around that declaring something a National Park represents a return to a former pristine state, and that this can be done by merely leaving the property alone. This idea is in many cases just another expression of the idea of Terra Nullius.
A recent example is contained in this report by Nance Haxton on ABC Radio’s Saturday AM. It is about the declaration of the Cooingie Lakes National Park, a former pastoral lease incorporating that part of Cooper’s Creek where Burke and Wills died.
Since shortly after Burke and Wills’ time the area has been managed as a pastoral property. Before that it was home to hundreds of aborigines for thousands of years.
Haxton says, “So really this area has almost come full circle from its untouched state before Burke and Wills through pastoralism and the management of the pastoralists, through that next century, and now back, hopefully, to the untouched state it was.”
Untouched? Only if you accept that the aborigines didn’t manage the land using fire-stick farming and harvesting plants and animals. While not all land in Australia was managed by Aborigines – presumably jungles and rainforest were harvested but not substantially modified – large tracts of it were.
So, without traditional aboriginal management techniques, this land will not return to its state prior to its pastoral history. But nor will it return to something prior to Aboriginal occupation. Aboriginal farming techniques will have changed the mix of flora and fauna to such an extent that it is unlikely to spontaneously regenerate into the form it held before just because it has been left alone.
So declaration of the area as National Park will not represent a return to anything, but merely a change to another form of less active management (perhaps better described as benign neglect) than either that of the aborigines or the pastoralists.
Which makes me wonder whether the declaration of this park proceeds from clear objectives, or is just a reaction to romantic sentimentality. What is the park meant to protect? Is it the flora and fauna that currently exists there? If so, given that it has existed there in company with the pastoral industry, why the requirement for change of land use? And mightn’t that change in land use actually be detrimental to the species that currently live in the habitat?
It’s about time we rethought the concept of National Park.

Posted by Graham at 11:32 am | Comments (8) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. Perhaps we Romantics would rather have land declared as National Parks, even if it is neglected benignly rather than have it owned by private individuals to use for their own ends.
    Pehaps it is also a myth that private individuals have a tendency to exploit resources for their own benefit, even if they currently manage them in an acceptable or even beneficial way.

    Comment by Julie Thomas — June 13, 2005 @ 2:55 pm

  2. So it’s not about the environment at all?

    Comment by Graham Young — June 14, 2005 @ 2:48 pm

  3. From my experiance of National Parks they are managed Including burns and animal culling. Maybe some confusion with Wilderness areas.

    Comment by John Miller — June 15, 2005 @ 1:04 pm

  4. Tell me more John. Where are you from. What parks are you talking about? What flora and fauna?

    Comment by Graham Young — June 15, 2005 @ 2:22 pm

  5. Many National Parks in N.T. have a major input by Aborigines, 70% of Kakadu and Litchfield are burnt each year. Francois Peron N.P. in W.A. has a fabulous programme called “Project Eden” reintroducing native animals that have become extinct on the mainland. I have just spent 15 months travelling Australia staying mainly in National Parks and was most impressed by the Park Rangers. All were very aware of the impact that the Aborigines had on the environment. We came across many Europeans who were very impressed with Australias National Parks more so than most Australians appear to be. Nature tourism is going to become huge in the future and Australia with its many magnificent National Parks will benefit greatly.
    I live in Melbourne am a builder and keen birder.

    Comment by John Miller — June 16, 2005 @ 9:34 pm

  6. Unfortunately Bulldozers are the only form of management some people will be happy with.
    Year after year, national parks departments light fires to burn off areas. Year after year farmers fences that adjoin such national parks are destroyed and the law suits begin!
    Yet if they didn’t burn farmers always complain about lack of active management.
    So as i said the only thing that will make many national party members will be to bulldoze the lot and concrete it.
    The only thing that will make many liberal party members is to sell the lot and use the resulting funds to continue middle class pork barreling exercises.
    This is my greatest fear of the liberal / national party coalition winning the next state election. The loss of our heritage.
    Why do we preserve heritage listed buildings?
    How about statues of past political figures and old books in the state libary?

    Comment by alphacoward — June 17, 2005 @ 1:30 pm

  7. John,
    Was interested in your comments about 70% of Kakadu and Lichfield being burnt annually. Can you give us some links/references – more information?
    There is some discussion currently happening at my blog about burning in WA National Park http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/blog/archives/000672.html.

    Comment by Jennifer Marohasy — June 18, 2005 @ 1:32 pm

  8. Figures of 70% were given by park staff at the numerous talks walks and slide nights I attended in both parks. The staff were greatly amussed by the concern of Southern visiters who often reported fires to staff. The figures were often quoted, especially in Litchfield and were bassed on aboriginal knowledge.
    Most National Parks, if not all, that I visited, some 50+, had management plans, comprehensive species lists and local community based “Friends of the Park” involved in weed eradication maintenance of buildings establishment of walking tracks etc. I often came across “Green Corps” members working in parks. I suggest to anyone to spend some time in National Parks, talk to the rangers look for birds, insects, lizards, plants and discover how fortunate we are to have these parks and those that work in them.

    Comment by John Miller — June 24, 2005 @ 10:06 am

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