Annual Report 2011-12 - Director's review | Director of National Parks

Sunrise view of Uluru and Kata Tjuta at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku - Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

© Director of National Parks, 2012 | ISSN 1443-1238

The year in review

As the head of a terrific and committed team working in the always challenging field of nature conservation, it is sometimes tempting when reviewing our performance to concentrate on the inevitable highs and lows, the occasional great successes and the sometimes devastating losses. In contrast, the year just past has been one of solid achievement across a range of fronts, with incremental improvements in the areas of conservation, visitor services and stakeholder involvement.

We reached a number of significant milestones this year. The Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area was declared, our 51st IPA and also Australia's largest terrestrial protected area of any type - at more than 10 million hectares, it is around the same size as Portugal or Hungary. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park celebrated its 35th anniversary and, at Booderee National Park, the Wreck Bay Community celebrated 25 years since the first handback of their community lands at Jervis Bay.

We are immensely proud of Kakadu traditional owner and park ranger Jeffrey Lee, who was honoured in this year's Australia Day Awards as a Member of the Order of Australia. This prestigious award recognises Jeffrey's long battle to protect his ancestral lands, Koongarra, now part of the Kakadu World Heritage Area.

Bush Blitz - a multimillion dollar national biodiversity discovery partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton and Earthwatch Australia - successfully completed five expeditions across National Reserve System properties. Scientists surveyed almost 605,000 hectares in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Bush Blitz has now completed 15 surveys across 67 properties and uncovered more than 600 species that are new to science. Spiders feature prominently among these new discoveries and include the evocatively named wolf spiders, wishbone spiders, flying peacock spiders, wing-footed goblin spiders and tarantulas as big as a hand.

An independent audit by WWF Australia has again praised efforts to build the National Reserve System as 'arguably the Australian Government's biggest conservation success story'. The independent report described the critical role of the National Reserve System in protecting biodiversity and saving threatened species from extinction.

A successful year at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) began with a gold medal at Canberra's Floriade spring festival for the creation of a stunning Australian bush tucker garden. The Gardens launched new afterDARK tours and, in partnership with Earthwatch Australia, a ClimateWatch trail, funded by Friends of the ANBG. Our talented horticulturalists successfully propagated an endangered small purple pea for planting out as part of an ACT energy company's offset program. And, in late May, the Gardens finalised its new 10-year management plan, with a strengthened horticultural and conservation focus, expanded education programs and an emphasis on state-of-the-art biodiversity science and information management.

Supporting tourism

Our national parks, particularly Kakadu and to a lesser extent Uluru-Kata Tjuta, have suffered a visitor downturn from the fallout of the GFC and the high Australian dollar, as have many other Australian destinations. Our challenge in a slow and increasingly competitive market is to present a compelling reason for domestic and international tourists to visit by providing unique experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Our National Landscapes partnership with Tourism Australia provides the framework to revitalise our visitor offerings by working with partners on a regional basis. Kakadu will now be marketed to the world as part of Australia's Timeless North. Uluru-Kata Tjuta is already reaping the benefits of planning as part of Australia's Red Centre, with a host of new Indigenous experiences on offer from tour operators and a new Indigenous-owned company in the park, Uluru Aboriginal Tours.

We continue to work with traditional owners to share their cultural stories. At Uluru-Kata Tjuta, staff have worked closely with Anangu to ensure the right stories are told in the right way - and now a major revamp of interpretation is underway. This includes, for the first time, stories from senior men at Kata Tjuta, an area of great spiritual significance to them. Anangu and park staff have also worked together to develop an online audio guide to help people learn Pitjantjatjara, a great introduction to Anangu culture for our park visitors and a useful resource for schoolchildren. At Booderee, signage for five new information shelters included local Dhurga and Dharawal language and cultural knowledge concepts.

I am proud to say that all our hard work with our tourism stakeholders is being recognised. In particular, congratulations to Kakadu, which in March was named as one of Australia's top three major tourist attractions at the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards. The park also hosted more than 50 film crews, who are showcasing its natural beauty and conservation efforts to domestic and international audiences.

We continue to develop self-guided tours for visitors. On Norfolk Island, visitors can hire an iPod with a 'Walk in the Park' tour already uploaded, and Booderee and Uluru-Kata Tjuta now have downloadable audio tours with a wealth of entertaining stories relating to local history, Indigenous culture and the natural environment. With limited resources for marketing, our parks have also worked with our Canberra-based communications staff to step into the social media space. Our Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Vimeo offerings and our Parks Australia blog are attracting increasing numbers of followers and we are engaging with visitors on TripAdvisor. Our talented web team built a successful app on Booderee's diverse range of birds, with downloadable maps and visitor information, and that will now be followed by a series of apps for all our parks.

The stunning environment of Australia's Indian Ocean Territories that we help to protect has been captured for posterity by Australia Post, with two stamp series: the colourful marine life of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and the beautiful ferns of Christmas Island. Our rangers starred in an Australian Geographic film, Jewels in the Indian Ocean, celebrating the attractions of these spectacular but remote tropical islands.

Protecting biodiversity

Our conservation challenge is not diminished but this year we have celebrated successes too. Efforts to control invasive bitou bush at Booderee continue to proceed well, with high density infestations now reduced by 90 per cent since control by aerial spraying began in 2004. Small mammals are flourishing at Uluru-Kata Tjuta after above average rainfall over the past 12 months produced the best environmental conditions since 2002. The brush-tailed mulgara, a rare species previously found only in one area of the park, has established a new population at least 15 kilometres away. Unfortunately, the good conditions also support a boom in vertebrate pest populations - foxes, rabbits and feral cats are on the increase, challenging the control methods in place.

Fauna and flora surveys are vital management tools for park staff. Traditional owners, park staff and volunteers completed the 17th annual flatback turtle survey on Kakadu's Field Island, or Gardangarl, a critical habitat for this nationally vulnerable species; numbers continue to be healthy and the population is breeding. After a 10-year hiatus, Uluru-Kata Tjuta rangers are again preparing to go bat hunting, working with a bat ecologist to develop a new survey methodology. On Christmas Island, staff from the ANBG lent their expertise to update knowledge of the island's native and invasive plants. The plant collections from their field trip are destined for Australian and international herbaria and will form the basis for a reference herbarium for Christmas Island staff.

Monitoring to quantify the health of the waterholes at the base of Uluru and to gain an improved understanding of the cause of previous frog mortality found water chemistry and heavy metal concentrations to be within the normal ranges. A further mortality event in 2012 has sparked further research via a dedicated PhD study.

We continue to confront new invasive pests and to take prompt action to try to prevent them taking hold. Argentine ants, present on Norfolk Island for some years, were detected in the Norfolk Island Botanic Garden for the first time and were hopefully contained by swift staff action. At remote Pulu Keeling National Park, a beached asylum seeker boat with reports of rats on board sparked very real fears. Pulu Keeling is an internationally significant seabird rookery and the only habitat in the world for the endangered Cocos buff-banded rail. Rats would pose a major threat by raiding nests and destroying eggs on this near pristine atoll. Thankfully, rangers have found no rats but have set up bait stations, cameras and ink tracking cards to make sure - and are pursuing a translocation project for the rail to a nearby rat-free island as an insurance policy.

On Christmas Island, biodiversity threats are managed under the guidance of the Australian Government's response to the final report of the Christmas Island Expert Working Group, released in November. A collaborative program to remove feral cats from key areas of the island is now established and targeted rat control is being planned. Captive breeding of two species of declining native reptiles is also proceeding well, both on-island and in partnership with Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Although resources remain a challenge, improvements to biosecurity procedures and better monitoring of biodiversity condition are the current focuses of further work.

Rangers Sally Bowman, Troy Dare and Dan Carmody show off the new Australian National Botanic Gardens brand

Rangers Sally Bowman, Troy Dare and Dan Carmody show off the new Australian National Botanic Gardens brand

Improving infrastructure

A continuing priority for us is developing new infrastructure to support the management and appreciation of our reserves. To make boating safer and simpler, Booderee is building a short-term tie-up and loading jetty to replace the old Murray's Wharf. After nearly two years of planning and construction, the visitor centre for Norfolk Island National Park has been completed (with the fit-out scheduled for next year), and the Captain Cook Monument visitor area has been refurbished. Thanks to the hard work of Kakadu staff, we were able to open up the popular visitor sites of Twin Falls, the Yurmikmik Walks, Mamukala and Red Lily Billabong weeks earlier than usual.

International developments

In January, Australia signed the Nagoya Protocol, an international treaty that will establish a legally binding framework for the use of genetic resources in a rapidly expanding multibillion dollar industry. The Nagoya Protocol will help ensure researchers and companies around the world deliver benefits to Australia from their use of our genetic resources, and it will give those researchers and companies certainty by making sure the same rules apply to all, regardless of where they are in the world. Parks Australia manages Australia's globally recognised access and benefit sharing system covering Commonwealth land and waters.

We have now commenced the more detailed work needed to support a decision to ratify (and therefore fully implement) this new international legal regime. Since January, we have been consulting industry, researchers and Indigenous Australians on how the Nagoya Protocol could work in Australia.

To help our Pacific neighbours to implement the Nagoya Protocol, we have been conducting in-country workshops in Samoa and Fiji, with support from AusAID's Environment and Climate Change Program Fund. We will build on this work in November 2012 when we conduct the first-ever Oceania Biodiscovery Forum.

A particularly exciting development was the June announcement that Australia would host one of the world's most influential conservation conferences when the World Parks Congress comes to Sydney in November 2014. The congress is only held every 10 years and will bring 3,000 conservation experts to Australia. We will be partnering with the IUCN and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to host this landmark forum.

Marine conservation

In June, the Minister released the Government's final network of marine reserves which - once proclaimed under national environmental law - will more than double the number of Commonwealth marine reserves to 60, expanding the national network to cover over a third of Commonwealth waters. The new marine reserves take the overall size of the Commonwealth marine reserves network to 3.1 million square kilometres, by far the largest representative network of marine protected areas in the world. Following a further consultation process, it is expected that the final marine reserves will be declared before the end of 2012.

Financial matters

The Minister for the Department of Finance and Deregulation approved an operating loss of $12.7 million for the 2011-12 financial year primarily as a result of the asset revaluation in 2010-11. The actual operating loss for 2011-12 was $12.4 million.

Our financial control framework remains sound and is well regarded by internal and external auditors, continuing our history of good financial performance. This year was the fourth consecutive year with no adverse audit findings. I would like to acknowledge the contribution from all of our staff involved in financial management and control for this excellent result.

Overall entry fee revenue continued to be below budgeted projections, largely as result of declining visitation to Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta national parks. We are working closely with Tourism Australia and Tourism NT to promote and increase visitation to both parks.

Revenue from Government (Grants from Portfolio Agency) was lower than the previous financial year primarily due to receiving the bulk of new policy funding for asbestos removal in previous years and the impact of the efficiency dividend.

Our people

Our achievements and the obstacles we overcome each year are directly related to the commitment and experience of our staff. We have been fortunate to have a stable management structure for the past few years which was further strengthened by the permanent appointment of Anna Morgan as Assistant Secretary for the Parks Operations and Tourism Branch.

I am unable in this review to describe all the great work undertaken by our staff over the past year. Special mention must be made, however, of the role of Mike Misso and his team at Christmas Island National Park in assisting other agencies in managing the environmental consequences of the sinking of the phosphate cargo vessel MV Tycoon at the island's port in January. Christmas Island is a beautiful but challenging place to work at the best of times and their efforts were superb, especially as the sinking coincided with the march of baby red crabs from the sea to the rainforest following a major breeding event. Fortunately, follow-up monitoring suggests there has been minimal impact on the island's marine environment from the sinking. Well done Mike and the team.

The departmental Australia Day awards to staff are reflective of the highly skilled and professional staff we have working in parks. An award went to Kerrie Bennison for leading and managing Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park's natural and cultural resource management team. Kerrie has been instrumental in developing natural and cultural management programs to assist in maintaining the park's World Heritage values, including building support from key academic and other stakeholders for the programs. Awards also went to Martin Fortescue for providing strong and effective leadership to the staff of Booderee National Park during a particularly challenging period and to Michael Te Velde for consistently delivering high quality business support services to the Director of National Parks, especially through significantly improved accuracy and rigour of our financial forecasts and budget outcomes.

In August the Parks Australia Forum, where our senior managers meet to discuss how to do our business better, was held at the ANBG. These meetings reinforce the relationships and structures that make our organisation strong and ensure we have a shared sense of priorities and focus for the future. The Parks Australia Science Forum and Network also enhances the use of science in our decision making, especially in relation to biodiversity and natural resource management. We are especially pleased to be making good use of the scientific expertise available via the department's National Environmental Research Program; better targeting of our efforts in weed control is an anticipated early outcome of this work.

Parks Australia and particularly Kakadu lost a great friend and leader early this year with the passing of a senior traditional owner of the Manilakarr clan, Na Godjok Nayinggul. Na Godjok, a former chair of the Kakadu Board of Management, will be remembered for his strong leadership and gentle diplomacy and wisdom as well as his generosity and sense of humour. He will be missed by all who knew and loved him.

After 42 years of dedication to the ANBG, plant expert, photographer and illustrator Murray Fagg has retired. His legacy includes one of Australia's biggest collections of botanical line drawings and a vast photographic library of native plants. Parks Australia will nevertheless be able to call on Murray's outstanding botanical knowledge as a volunteer and adviser to the botanic gardens with which he has had such a long association.

I cannot avoid ending this part of my overview on a sad note by recording the loss of Dot Fitzpatrick, my Executive Officer for many years and, in many ways, the heart and soul of Parks Australia. Her sudden passing has been keenly felt by her many friends and colleagues and our thoughts remain with her loving family. Dot truly will be missed by us all.

Looking ahead

As is the case for other Commonwealth agencies, the Government's requirement for budgetary constraint, combined with the continuing impact on our revenue streams arising from the downturn in international tourism, will challenge us to find new and better ways of doing business. We will continue to review how we can provide even better experiences for our visitors and we will be striving to make even greater use of new media so that the incredible values of the places we protect are as well known to the Australian and international public as they possibly can be.

The selection of Australia as host of the World Parks Congress in November 2014 means that preparations for this landmark forum will be a major priority for 2012-13 and beyond. The congress will be an unparalleled opportunity to showcase Australia's superb network of protected areas and we will be working hard with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders to ensure the congress is a worthy addition to Australia's proud track record in hosting international events.

Peter Cochrane plants the first tree, a native wattle - Acacia elongata - as part of a stunning redeveloped entrance to the

Peter Cochrane plants the first tree, a native wattle - Acacia elongata - as part of a stunning redeveloped entrance to the
Sydney sandstone gully at the Australian National Botanic Gardens

Certification

This annual report was prepared in accordance with the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, Finance Minister's Orders under that Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The Director's review and the rest of this annual report, except the financial statements for the Australian National Parks Fund and the Auditor-General's report on those financial statements, constitute the Director of National Parks' report of operations.

The holder of the office of the Director of National Parks is responsible under section 9 of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 for the preparation and content of the report of operations in accordance with Finance Minister's Orders.

Signed,

Peter Cochrane Director of National Parks 4 October 2011