Australia's protected areas

Protected areas are the best available means to ensure the recovery and survival of our threatened native animals and plants.
WWF - Australia

Protected areas conserve the healthy ecosystems that sustain human life. Our food and water, our agricultural industries and much of our infrastructure all rely on healthy functioning ecosystems.

CSIRO has estimated the value of Australia's ecosystems, its air, water, forests, flora and fauna at more than $1,300 billion per year.

For example, protected wetlands and water catchments purify the water we drink. Forests and plant life filter and oxygenate the air we breathe, native vegetation helps protect against floods and soil erosion. Healthy functioning ecosystems help plant pollination and seed dispersal. Healthy ecosystems also help maintain our biodiversity: the genetic diversity and resilience of our flora, fauna and micro-organisms.

Since European settlement, landclearing, grazing, urban development, changed fire regimes, agriculture and irrigation have all impacted on our ecosystems. Human activity has fragmented the habitats of our native plants and animals. The introduction of invasive weeds and animal predators has compounded the challenges. There has been a dramatic decline in the number and distribution of our native species and in some cases, extinction.

The National Reserve System, with its network of protected areas, is conserving our biodiversity and protecting our ecosystems. These protected areas are managed to reduce threats such as wildfire, weeds and feral animals. The reserve system is building more resilient landscapes that will provide refuges and wildlife corridors for plants and animals to adapt as climate change alters their existing habitat.

Protected areas are not locked away or isolated, but are a valued part of our land use. They provide a range of social, economic and scientific benefits, from healthy outdoor activities to new eco-tourism businesses for regional economies.

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Adapting to climate change

The values and many benefits which society derives from protected areas will be dramatically affected by climate change. In turn, they are the essential core lands of any adaptive response to secure Australia's biodiversity.
The IUCN World Commission On Protected Areas, Australia And New Zealand

Building resilience

The National Reserve System is Australia's natural safety net in the face of threats from climate change.

Healthy, functioning and resilient environments are our best defence against a changing climate. Protected areas build resilience by controlling other habitat threats such as weeds and feral animals, by managing water resources and regenerating vegetation. They form a buffer against the impacts of climate change, providing refuges for species to survive and adapt, reducing the extinction risk for our native species.

By creating these havens across the landscape, the National Reserve System is providing the best conditions for Australia's native plants and animals to adapt to climate change.

The vast protected areas in arid Central and Western Australia, home to a wide range of fauna and flora, are resilient self-sustaining ecosystems in themselves. However along the agricultural zones of the south-western and eastern seaboards, the country is fragmented by land clearing, extensive pastoralism and intensive agriculture. Here the reserve system is building resilience by extending and linking protected areas to extend habitat ranges, to increase connectivity, protect water catchments and to reduce soil erosion.

Storing carbon

The National Reserve System also plays a vital role in storing carbon. More than one-quarter of Australia's above ground biological carbon stock, some 20 million hectares of international Kyoto forest, lies in our protected areas. This part of our Kyoto forest accounts for 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon, equal to 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - more than the total emissions produced by Australia in a decade.

Making sure this carbon stays put is a management priority. Around the world, to avoid even faster global warming, management to retain and enhance carbon sinks will play a critical role in climate change mitigation. By reducing soil erosion, disease, wildfire and feral damage, and by regeneration and rehabilitation, National Reserve System managers are protecting and increasing our massive carbon stocks.

Scientific research

In addition, many protected areas in the National Reserve System are centres of scientific research, providing important data on how native species are coping with changes in their environment. This data is the foundation for future adaptation strategies.

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Water resources

Australia's future prosperity lies in the management and wise use of our water. The National Reserve System is an important tool in the national endeavour to protect the water resources of the driest continent on earth.

A vital part of Australia's water management involves protecting terrestrial and wetland vegetation. Increased plant cover helps hold moisture longer and slows down the drying of soils. The native vegetation cover of our protected areas also helps control water tables, preventing rising salinity from destroying the productivity of the land.

These reserves provide a shield against natural disasters such as floods and storm surges, protecting floodplain forests and woodlands, freshwater wetlands, mangroves and coastal wetlands.

Healthy ecosystems provide many benefits for water flow and quality. The vegetation in wetlands and rivers slows down the flow of water, giving particles of mud and pollution time to settle on the bottom. Without them cities and towns downstream would not get the same clean, clear water that they rely on.

Some of our most important water catchments, such as the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, are protected within the National Reserve System.

In the face of protracted droughts and long-term climate change, protected areas have a vital role to play in conserving our water resources. The protection of coastal environments and critical aquatic habitats is one of the six national priorities under Caring for Our Country.

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Supporting regional economies

As well as conserving our biodiversity, the National Reserve System's protected areas have significant economic and social benefits. For instance:

  • In 2009 the nature-based tourism sector contributed over $33 billion to the Australian economy, with more than 28 million visitors taking part in nature-based activities. Bushwalking and visiting national parks were the most popular activities for nature visitors.
  • In regional Australia, tourism accounts for 9.6 per cent of total employment and more than 200,000 jobs. (DITR Tourism Facts & Figures at a Glance 2007)
  • Protected areas offer visitors experiences that are uniquely Australian, such as camping, bushwalking, river cruises, educational camps, wildlife tours and engagement with Indigenous culture. For many regional economies, tourism brings much needed jobs and a new cashflow to local businesses.
  • Many new non-government reserves are finding new business opportunities in ecotourism.

The reserves not only create direct local jobs in land management, but also support businesses in rural areas by buying goods and contract services locally. In remote Australia, Indigenous Protected Areas are a powerful driver of economic development, providing communities with meaningful jobs looking after country and measurable benefits in health, education and social cohesion.

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