Speech to National Parks 50:50 - a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

In Parliament | 30.11.17

A celebration of the 50th anniversary of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

The Hon Penny Sharpe MLC, Shadow Minister for the Environment

Parliament House, 30 November 2017

(check against delivery)

Thank you to everyone who has made time to be here today.

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we gather on today – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

All Australians owe the traditional owners of this land a great deal of gratitude for their care of country, the landscapes, the water, the animals and the plants that are part of this country. We still have a long way to go to right the wrongs of the past.

If I am ever privileged to become the Minister for the Environment I commit to working closely with our indigenous communities to find ways to better integrate ownership, custodianship, employment and cultural connection for traditional owners within our parks.

I want to pay special tribute to the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, after the terrible accident and tragedy yesterday at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains I ask that we stand  to spend a minute thinking of those who have given their lives undertaking the public duties as staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and have a special thought for those individuals, their families and work colleagues who are deeply affected.

At the beginning of 2017 I thought that this year would be filled with events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

I thought that the NSW Government and the Minister for Environment would embrace the incredible achievement of what has been built in this state.

The 50th anniversary was an opportunity to bring together all sides of politics, the conservation movement, former and current staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the community to celebrate the creation of something unashamedly that exists for the public good.

Arguably our most precious of public assets.

Alas, the celebration of our of national parks and reserves has been somewhat more muted.

It was under the Liberal Askin Government and Minister for Lands Tom Lewis that the National Parks and Wildlife Act established the National Parks and Wildlife Service in October 1967.

The National Parks and Wildlife Act’s aim was to reflect and conserve the diverse landscapes and biodiversity across New South Wales.

The passage of this Act was the result of a decades long campaign from the conservation movement who could see the urgent need for protection of the unique and diverse ecological systems and biodiversity in this state.

At its inception the land managed under the act covered just 1% of the land in NSW a mere 861,000 hectares.

The service was put in charge of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, the Fauna Protection Act and the Wildflowers and Native Plants Protection Act.

In 1967 it included the Royal National Park, Bouddi State Park, Dorrigo National Park, Brisbane Waters, New England National Park and of course Kosciusko State Park.

In the western division Kinchega National Park was the first park declared in the Western Division. The Act also protected  Mootwingee Historic site and Hill End Historic site.

Over the decades the parks and reserves system has grown to include and protect much of our coastal areas, particularly those that were in danger from sand mining, we have protected many of our fragile coastal lakes, the northern rainforests have been world heritage listed and many of the southern forests saved.

The Blue Mountains has also been world heritage listed.

There has been increased reservation and conservation of our western lands and we have specifically recognised and protected wilderness areas.

Increasingly the importance of Aboriginal sites, aboriginal cultural heritage and aboriginal input into the management of our parks and reserves has been recognised.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is also the custodian of much of the story of the non indigenous history of Australia. The heritage sites contained within our parks estate are each important places in their own right.

The staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service are also one of its greatest strengths.

When individuals have come to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the focus has always been on service.

Service to the community, service to the flora and fauna under their care and passion for protecting these very special places.

It takes a lot of effort and expertise to manage a world class national park service.

Rangers, field officers, scientists, archeologists, historians, customer service officers, managers, guides, volunteers and others have all been part of that great story.

For many in this room it has not always been easy, hostility to national parks from some, stakeholder groups with very strong views about what can and can’t be done in a national park, the ever present threat of bushfires, the challenge of weed and pest control, the politics how to deal with invasive species and the fluctuating reality of the political cycle and ever present push for doing more with less.

The wonderful joy of seeing many millions of people visit our parks and reserves brings with it other challenges. Challenges that continue to be met every day with professionalism and care.

To all the staff past and present and to all those who volunteers and continue to campaign for our national parks, today I want to say thank you.

In 2017, 50 years since its establishment the NPWS manages over 870 protected areas covering over 7 million hectares and representing more than 9% of the land area of the state.

Over 51 million visits were made to our national parks in the past year and the number keep on growing.

Every day in every corner of this state there is work being done to protect threatened species, there is education of our community about the importance of these places and there are simply those who are spending time in nature, restoring health and wellbeing and connecting with the fragile land humans rely upon to exist.

50 years on it is time to take stock of the present and build for the future.

Apart from being a long time lover of and visitor to national parks it is only as Labor’s shadow minister for the Environment that I have delved into the detail and the challenges of the role of state government in caring for our national parks.

As I spend more time in these places, spend more time with those in this room and spend more time with those who have gone before me I am only just beginning to understand the legacy that I am a part of and the responsibility to protect that legacy into the future that has fallen on my shoulders and those of my colleagues.

Labor takes very seriously the role our governments have taken in building the National Parks estate.

It is why we refuse to be silent as we see the neglect and sheer lack of commitment from the current government towards the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the environment generally.

Deep funding cuts, the loss of experienced staff, the move towards temporary and casualization of the workforce, the failure to plan for and continue to build a comprehensive adequate representative reserve system, the push for ever greater commercialisation are all symptoms of a looming crisis in our national parks.

This is in addition to the tearing up of native vegetation laws and the determined progress of rolling over national forest agreements without a proper scientific assessment.

Our current government has not gazetted one new reserve in the last twelve months but is contemplating the de - gazetting of the Murray Valley National Park and putting a toll road through the Royal National Park.

I will continue to raise these issues, fight the cuts and campaign with those to stop the neglect but most importantly I seek to work with those who seek nothing less than a world class national parks and wildlife service for New South Wales.

As we look forward to the next 50 years of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Luke Foley will set out later today in more detail Labor’s commitment and directions for the future.

As Labor’s spokesperson on the environment my aims for our National Parks and Wildlife Service and the NSW environment are pretty simple:

I want New South Wales to have the best National Parks and Wildlife Service in the world.

I want a clear establishment plan to continue to reserve, protect and grow the national parks and marine parks estate and I will find the funding within government to do so.

As hopefully one day the Minister for the Environment I want this world class National Parks and Wildlife Service to report directly to me, not through a broader environmental agency.

As Minister I will not sign off on regional forest agreements until there has been a proper scientific assessment of the forests, including the role they play in supporting threatened species, their role as carbon sinks and their role in our water systems.

Labor will restore the environment protections lost through new biodiversity laws and work with private landholders to reverse the decline in biodiversity.

I want our National Parks to be the jewels in the crown for tourism, must see destinations that bring people to enjoy the wonder of nature.

Today as we gather here today I look forward to hearing from our guest speakers and from you in the audience.

50 years anniversaries are opportunities to reflect on achievements, learn from mistakes but most importantly chart a path to the future.

Our speakers today will do just that.

This forum is the beginning of the policy process that I will undertake in the lead up to the 2019 election and I look forward many other opportunities to work with you to flesh out a national parks policy that is focussed not just on the next four years but on the next 50.