PARK WATCH June 2018 |
Our national parks may be legally protected, but they are being neglected in our state budget, reports Matt Ruchel.
We love parks, and so does the vast majority of the community. But seemingly not the politicians who we elect to manage our state on our behalf. The best indication of this is the pitiful levels of funding provided to management of our prime protected natural areas.
Every year, 42 million people from near and far enjoy Victoria’s national and state parks. This number increases by a further 24 million if you include metropolitan parks, and roughly the same number again visit piers and jetties managed by Parks Victoria.
These priceless assets include over 100 national, state, regional and metropolitan parks and reserves and wilderness areas; thousands of Aboriginal and post-European settlement cultural and heritage sites; several local ports and major rivers; around 80 per cent of Victoria’s coastline and 24 marine national parks and sanctuaries.
Our terrestrial and marine parks estate covers about 18 per cent of the state – over four million hectares – and about five per cent of our state waters.
While home to 888 threatened plant and animal species, the great value of protection under the National Parks Act (1975) is that parks protect whole ecosystems and habitats, so many species benefit. Protecting our natural areas provides a whole raft of benefits to individual and community health and wellbeing. And then there are also contributions to the economy. A few that can be quantified in dollar terms include:
- Tourists spend $1.4 billion per year associated with their visits to parks, which generate $1 billion gross value added and 14,000 jobs in the state economy.
- The market value of water runoff supplied in nine of the highest yielding Victorian national parks is estimated at $244 million per year.
- The value of water filtration from metropolitan parks is estimated at $33 million per year.
- The value of protecting mangrove, saltmarsh and dunes in parks along Victoria’s coast is conservatively estimated to avoid costs of $24–56 million per year.
- Avoided healthcare costs and productivity impacts associated with undertaking physical activity regularly in Victorian parks could be up to $200 million per annum.
But our conservation estate requires appropriate levels of management to ensure ecosystems remain healthy and visitor impacts are managed effectively to continue to have these natural and societal benefits.
Pest plants and animals are a significant cost pressure for parks. Deer numbers have exploded across Victoria, with some estimates above one million. Feral pigs, goats and horses are also impacting on key habitats, the weed menace is a constant challenge, and resources are inadequate.
Parks are also at substantial risk from climate change; an increased incidence of extreme bushfire weather, storms and periods of drought are already upon us. Management of national parks receives less than 0.5 per cent of $68 billion of annual state expenditure. It is hardly comparable with the funding for health (about 27 per cent of state expenditure), education (about 24 per cent) and infrastructure (13–15 per cent). Even if you doubled existing government funding of parks and reserves across Victoria, it would still equate to only one per cent of state government expenditure, and have no impact on these other critical services. In fact, increasing parks funding would likely provide dividends for health.
Parks Victoria has a complex funding mix, with its two main sources of funding coming from the state government and the Parks and Reserves Trust (from the Parks charge levied on properties in parts of Melbourne). While Parks Victoria does raise some of its own funds from fees and charges, these funds represent a small proportion of its overall budget.
State government funding comes initially in the form of an annual budget allocation. Then there is a range of grants from other government departments for specific projects, such as weed control, fire management and infrastructure.
As the graph shows, Parks Victoria had a steady annual increase in funding of about $13 million from 2005 until 2013. After this there was a significant funding cut. There has been a rebuilding since 2015, but total government funding is still approximately $17 million less than at its highest point in 2013.
Additional funds have been allocated over the last three Andrews Government budgets, both for infrastructure and core funding. Other than major projects, such as the Grampians Peak Trail, in the 2015– 2016 budget the Andrews Government committed $20 million over four years for parks infrastructure and a one-off increased allocation of $15 million ($10 million operations and $5 million in infrastructure) from the Parks and Reserves Trust. In its 2016–2017 budget, the Andrews Government allocated $31.8 million increase in Parks Victoria funding, mostly over two years, with the bulk to be spent on much-needed core operations, such as rangers, and $22.8 million for additions to Victoria’s national parks estate (mostly new regional urban parks).
The most recent 2018–2019 state budget allocated $70.6 million over four years to “manage and improve our parks”. $14.4 million in year one, $16.9 million in year two, $19.4 million in year three, and $20 million in year four.
At best, these budget allocations over the past three years will merely restore funding to 2013 levels by 2019. While this boost is a good start, it is not nearly enough. Long-term funding would ensure certainty of operations and effort, especially for programs such as weed and pest animal control, which often require long-term efforts. Parks Victoria is still in many ways rebuilding after the period of severe cuts.
Between 2005 and 2012, the Parks Victoria budget grew about $13 million per year (not CPI adjusted). This trend must be re-established, and expanded to deal with increased costs as well as increased pressure from population and tourism, climate change and pest plants and animals.
To bring the budget up to scratch, there needs to be an allocation of further funds to fill an estimated shortfall of about $50 million from previous years, in addition to an immediate ongoing long-term $50 million increase, with subsequent annual increases of at least $15 million in core government funding (non-tied). For example: year one, $50 million; year two, $65 million plus CPI; year three, $80 million plus CPI etc. In addition, appropriate funds should be allocated when there are significant additions to the reserve system.
This is not huge in the scheme of the billions of dollars allocated to health, transport or education, and would have tangible benefits to nature and the community.
Improved funding would allow a significant investment in rangers, enhance planning, support Indigenous co-management arrangements, prepare our parks for climate change, and stop the spread of invasive species.
There are still significant gaps in Victoria’s protected areas estate. By our estimations there is still a gap of around 3.1 million hectares (1.5 million on public land and 1.7 million on private land). Even the state government’s own Biodiversity 2037 strategy estimates that to meet Australia’s criteria for a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system, an extra 2.1 million hectares of protected areas are required in Victoria.
While we need to fill these gaps, we also need to manage what we have to a high standard.
National parks are legally protected, but run the real risk of being neglected. Every Member of Parliament needs to take responsibility for parks funding. In the lead up to the next state election, please write to your local member of state parliament, and ask them to support an increase in core funding for management of national parks. Find your MP contact details here.
With your support, we’ll campaign for increased funding for our parks in the lead up to November’s election and continue to highlight the problems caused by insufficient funding.
Please support this work by making a tax-deductible donation. Together, we can stand up for national parks.
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