In Brief | Heritage

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee


Main messages

Our extraordinary and diverse natural and cultural heritage generally remains in good condition.

Australia is a complex, layered natural and cultural landscape in which unique geodiversity and biodiversity provide the stage for an ancient Indigenous culture and two centuries of post–colonial settlement history. The current condition and integrity of Australia's listed heritage generally appears to be good, with some deterioration evident over recent years. However, it is challenging to draw a single cohesive conclusion about the condition of Australia's natural and cultural heritage, given the diverse and fragmented nature of available information.

Australia is recognised internationally for leadership in heritage management.

We have a range of well–resolved processes for identification, protection, management and celebration of our heritage that should reduce pressures, minimise risk and retain those values that make our heritage places special.

Our heritage is being threatened by natural and human processes and a lack of public sector resourcing that does not reflect the true value of heritage to the Australian community.

Australians place a high value on our rich natural, Indigenous and historic heritage. However, the nation's protected natural and cultural resource does not include all the places with heritage value, nor is it truly representative. Management and protection of Australia's heritage is under–resourced and, despite our internationally recognised processes, some of the systems used to manage our heritage are cumbersome. This is out of line with community perceptions of heritage value. Consequently, our heritage is at great risk from the impacts of climate change, threats arising from development and pressures that flow from population growth.

Improvement will require change.

Comprehensive assessments, more flexible approaches and better resourcing are needed to support conservation. The future for Australia's heritage will depend on government leadership in two key areas: undertaking thorough and comprehensive assessments that lead to adequate areas of protected land and comprehensive heritage inventories, and changing heritage management paradigms and resource allocation in response to emerging threats.

State and trends

Our heritage includes those places with natural, Indigenous or historic values that we have inherited and want to pass on to future generations.

Australia's listed natural heritage and reserved lands are in good condition, and the value of our natural heritage is widely recognised. However, neither private nor public natural heritage places are adequately protected and face threats from invasive species, fire, erosion, use and impacts on threatened species. The National Reserve System continues to improve, but reservation of a truly representative set of landholdings is hampered by factors such as perceived economic values.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of Australia's Indigenous heritage by all Australians. However, Indigenous heritage in Australia is inadequately documented and protected. Loss of language, knowledge and traditional practices continues to erode Indigenous cultural traditions and connections to country, and incremental destruction of Indigenous sites continues. Closing the Gap is a welcome initiative, as is the increasing involvement of Indigenous people in sustainable land and sea management.

There are many well–managed Australian historic heritage places that remain in good condition. However, statutory lists and registers are inconsistent and incomplete, and historic heritage conservation is not well supported by planning and assessment systems.


Climate change, population growth and economic growth create a range of general pressures on Australia's heritage and some specific pressures on natural, Indigenous and historic heritage. Some of these pressures, such as those arising from our legacy of extensive land clearing, cannot readily be addressed through short-term management. Other pressures, such as changes to rainfall patterns or fire regimes, warrant responses even though the root cause cannot be removed.

Climate change is leading to higher temperatures, more rainfall in northern Australia and less elsewhere, rising sea levels, increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, more soil erosion, and additional damage and destruction from extreme weather events. These pressures have high impact and will irreversibly damage our heritage if unchecked. Changes to our population can reduce resources for conservation in rural areas and create pressure for change and development in coastal and urban areas. Individual sites are also subject to neglect and vandalism or, conversely, damage from increased visitation. Economic growth affects heritage through development projects that directly threaten heritage areas and sites, large–scale resource extraction or growing tourism.

Pressures particular to natural heritage include the fastgrowing number of invasive species, progressive loss of habitat, conflict in land use and tension between the potential economic value of land (e.g. for development, agriculture or mining) and its conservation.

Indigenous heritage in Australia is under pressure from loss of knowledge and tradition. This loss is manifest in social disconnection, extinction of language and discontinuation of cultural practices. Indigenous sites are subject to an ongoing process of incremental destruction associated with urban and industrial development that is often approved despite the identification of heritage impacts.

Historic cultural heritage is particularly threatened by pressures for redevelopment on both large and small scales. The impacts range from complete destruction to inappropriate change and adverse effects on associated attributes such as visual setting. Other pressures arise from population shift, including redundancy, neglect and decay. Inadequate incentives for private owners also threaten historic heritage. A wider range of management approaches would enhance the place of historic heritage in the community and facilitate effective conservation.

Effectiveness of management

Australia is recognised internationally for leadership in heritage management. We have a range of systems and processes for identifying, protecting, managing and celebrating our heritage that should lead to reduced pressures, minimised risk and retention of those values that make our heritage places special. However, despite our excellent understanding of the context for heritage management and good planning processes, the resources allocated to heritage identification and protection fall well short of what is needed to achieve effective outcomes.

The systems we use to manage our heritage are cumbersome: land reserves, inventories and statutes. These structures do not adequately identify, protect, manage, resource or celebrate our nation's cultural landscape. Consequently, our heritage is at great risk from the impacts of climate change, the threats arising from development and the resource implications of population growth.

Identification processes for Australian heritage are erratic. The National Reserve System offers a proactive approach to identifying a representative system of natural heritage places, and more than half of the 85 bioregions in Australia have at least 10% of their area within reserved land. In contrast, there is no national picture for Indigenous heritage (either tangible or intangible) and reliance is placed on 'blanket' provisions in legislation, leading to ill-informed decisions. Many historic heritage places have been identified, but the ad hoc approach of heritage registers means they are skewed towards particular aspects of history and a select group of values.

Heritage places in public ownership are often supported by well–prepared, values-based management plans. For nonpublic heritage places, planning systems, land zonings and related regulations do not necessarily help to achieve conservation outcomes, and some building codes and standards create pressure for demolition or inappropriate change. Decisions about development usually consider stakeholder perspectives, especially for Indigenous places, but the reactive nature of the process and an inadequate knowledge of the total resource tend to militate against conservation outcomes; heritage is identified only after a project is proposed and is therefore perceived as 'the problem'. Resources available for heritage conservation are declining in real terms, as evidenced by the erosion of core funding for heritage in the 2011–12 Budget. Although some programs, such as the Jobs Fund initiative, have targeted heritage conservation with excellent outcomes, a combination of dwindling public sector resources (both human and financial) and progressive erosion of the specialist skills required for heritage management are threatening historic heritage values.


The notion of outlook is a fundamental concept for heritage. Heritage is important for our perception of ourselves as Australians, and is part of the 'social glue' that binds communities together and expresses identity. Australians see natural and cultural heritage as important and vulnerable, but these sentiments are not reflected in the resources devoted to heritage assessment and conservation.

Australia's heritage includes a diverse array of places with a wide spectrum of different natural and cultural heritage values. Different types of place and different heritage values will vary in their resilience and response to current and future pressures, giving rise to a range of potential outlooks.

Overall, the outlook for Australia's heritage will depend on government leadership in two key areas: undertaking thorough assessments that lead to comprehensive natural and cultural heritage inventories and truly representative areas of protected land; and changing management paradigms and resource allocation in response to emerging threats and responding strategically based on integrated use of traditional and scientific knowledge.