PARK WATCH December 2017 |

National park management plans are noble in ambition, but they are short on commitment and lack a true landscape context, writes Phil Ingamells.

With the Victorian Government’s new Biodiversity 2037 strategy in the starting blocks, it might be a good time to fix some national park management planning dilemmas.

While the strategy’s four-year implementation plan is being developed, Parks Victoria might be in a position to put park management plans into a more usefully comprehensive planning framework. There’s been a lot of talk about ‘crosstenure’ or ‘landscape-scale’ planning over the last few years, a process that recognises that pest species, for example, don’t recognise park boundaries. But national park, state forest and any other public land plans (let alone agendas for private land) have no clear, overarching biodiversity management context in which to sit.

This is an odd situation to be in. Although fire management has been planned across all public land for some time, pest plant and animal treatment plans have been less frequently inclusive. And while tourism has a rough statewide context, things like new mountain bike trail ideas lack cross-tenure context or, more frequently, simply lack plans at all.

Giving everyone a go

One significant problem with the current highly-consultative national park planning process is that a park plan is generally the only process inviting public participation in a region. So tourism developers, sporting shooters, trail bike or mountain bike enthusiasts, or anyone else wanting access to public land, is more or less invited to put pressure on Parks Victoria for access to the park or parks in question.

If Parks Victoria’s plans were truly landscape in scale (rather than simply planning for several parks in a broader landscape), decisions could be made to allocate activities incompatible with the conservation priorities of parks to suitable public or private land nearby.

Or, even better, if we had overarching statewide or regional land management plans, park plans could fit into that framework, allowing their important minimal impact recreation priorities to proceed unchallenged. It’s fair enough that people should have access to public land for many activities, but it’s not very sensible if the only land for an activity is the land most valuable for the protection of nature.

It might also be time to be clear about what a park plan should actually contain.

A plan should be a plan

Some years ago a fisheries management plan was challenged in court because it lacked clear prescriptions. The judgement was simple and clear: a plan has to say what you actually ‘plan’ to do.

I was reminded of that judgement recently, when the High Court ruled on the remarkable case of some of our politicians’ countries of origin. The court’s unanimous judgement relied on a ‘plain language’ interpretation of the Constitution.

Victoria’s National Parks Act (1975) states the obligations of a park’s managers (“preserve and protect indigenous flora and fauna”, “exterminate or control exotic fauna” etc.), and then adds:

“… prepare a plan of management in respect of each national and state park”.

That wording is plain and unambiguous, and it’s there for good reason. Victorians have a right to know how our natural heritage will be looked after, and Parks Victoria can’t be expected to manage that heritage if it doesn’t have a clear, well-informed strategy to work to.

But that’s not always what we get.

The recently released River Red Gum Parks draft management plan, for example, contains some good initiatives. But there are at least 60 instances where the ‘plan’ is to ‘investigate options’, ‘review current management’, or several other vague statements of ambition. Those decision-making processes should have already taken place during the development of the draft.

Management actions have to be adaptable, but you can’t adapt (or monitor the implementation of) management prescriptions if you don’t have them in the first place.

A confusion of layers

In recent years, Parks Victoria has claimed that, while the park management plans are designed as 15-year overarching objectives, the detail will appear in three-yearly ‘corporate plans’ setting out what ‘will be done’, and annual ‘business plans’ detailing works programs. That trilogy of planning layers (the claim is still on their website) might answer obligations under the Act, but we are yet to see either a corporate or business plan.

In a new twist, Parks Victoria is now producing ‘conservation action plans’ for some high profile national parks such as Wilsons Promontory, which follow another path: ‘Parks Victoria’s cyclical ten-step conservation action planning process’. A conservation action plan for the Prom is welcome, but the overall planning strategy remains confusing.

A clear role for expertise

One of the inevitable effects of a steady reduction in park funding over the last decade or so has been the loss of experienced park managers. That situation has improved somewhat under the current state government, but building workable levels of expertise will take more time and money.

When the Alpine National Park was proclaimed in December 1989, five experienced staff, all with a good knowledge of the park, could be spared from their duties to draft the management plan. A comprehensive four volume plan emerged by September 1992, firmly establishing a management regime designed to put the much-abused alpine landscape on the path to recovery.

In 2008, when a revised alpine plan was initiated, the availability of expertise was greatly reduced. Even though four more national parks, the Avon Wilderness and several historic areas had been added to the Alpine National Park’s planning area, not one experienced park manager could be spared to take the job on. The process inevitably struggled until a much depleted plan appeared eight years later, towards the end of 2016.

Traditional Owners and park plans

In recent years a series of native title determinations have been made, and others will appear in the near future. They require national parks within the areas determined under Victoria’s Traditional Owner Settlement Act, or a federal determination, to be jointly managed between the Traditional Owners and the Victorian Government. The Act establishes various rights of access to Country, and other cultural rights, but the overall objectives of the National Parks Act remain, including the obligation for a plan.

In practice, the Traditional Owner organisations develop a draft in consultation with the government, which then goes to the public for consultation. This could well be the breath of fresh air our parks need.

Gippsland’s draft Gunaikurnai and Victorian Government Joint Management Plan (due for public comment by 15 December) is the most recent. It demonstrates, once more, the considerable contribution Indigenous voices can bring to park management.

Hopefully, future plans will also give park managers the clarity and clear direction required to ensure our natural heritage survives and thrives for the benefit of future generations.