Extinction Crisis: Director of National Parks slammed by audit amid decade funding squeeze

by | Jul 14, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Government

IN APRIL 2017, the Commonwealth Director of National Parks (DNP) translocated eight endangered Norfolk Island green parrots from Norfolk Island to what was hoped would be their new home on Phillip Island. Once endemic to Norfolk Island, by the 1970s their numbers had dwindled to a few dozen. Conservation efforts since then have lifted their numbers to about 400. Little more than a month after translocation, seven of the birds were dead. The eighth was returned to Norfolk Island, where it subsequently died. Triskele reports on the crisis in National Parks. 

This tale of the Norfolk Island green parrot would be just another unfortunate anecdote in the annals of failed attempts at species conservation were it not for the broader context. That broader context is the frightening reports about the current state of species extinction in Australia. In a recent ABC Four Corners report Extinction Nation, Professor Brendan Wintle said:

“We are in an extinction crisis and it’s real. Mass extinctions in historical times have occurred due to cataclysms. You know, the impact of a meteor on Earth, and the equivalent of a nuclear winter. Now we’re seeing extinction rates akin to those historical extinction events, brought about by humans.”

The Commonwealth Director of National Parks plays its part in this drama, as per the conclusions of the recent report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) entitled Management of Commonwealth National Parks. This document is effectively a report card on the Director of National Parks.

The Director of National Parks is a corporation established under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to administer and manage Commonwealth National Parks. Parks Australia is a division of the Department of the Environment and Energy and it assists the Director of National Parks to fulfil these functions. The national parks cover over 2.1 million hectares, and conserve natural and cultural heritage that is both nationally and internationally significant.

There are six terrestrial Commonwealth national parks, three of which are jointly managed by the Director and the traditional owners via a leaseback arrangement — Booderee, Kakadu, and Uluru-Kata Tjuta. There are also three island national parks — Norfolk, Christmas, and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The Director is also responsible for 59 marine reserves and national botanic gardens.

The work of the DNP is extremely important. The areas covered by the DNP include RAMSAR listed wetlands, and World Heritage listed sites, historical sites and artefacts from World Wars One and Two, and many threatened species. Uluru-Kata Tjuta hosts three EPBC Act listed threatened species. Kakadu hosts 33; Booderee hosts 15; Christmas Island hosts 18; Norfolk Island hosts a stunning 58; and Keeling/Cocos hosts three. Between them, therefore, the terrestrial parks host 130 endangered species. And then there’s the marine environment.

DNP map

The glittery language of the DNP’s annual reports are a master class in modern managerial business school PR. Reports are the product of the tossing together of buzzwords into a word salad which must include (but not be limited to) the use of the following: innovative; agile; flexible; dynamic; adaptive management; evidence based; partnership; informed decision-making; valued collaboration; long term vision. Don’t forget accountable and transparent. The mood must be positive; optimistic; enthusiastic.

DNP reports also contain a lot of pretty pictures, some of them featuring (live) parrots.

The DNP’s upbeat positivity is totally at odds with the ANAO report card, whose bureaucratically glum word salad comprises downers like: “no appropriate administrative arrangements”; “ineffective risk management practices”;  “insufficient engagement”; “plans not monitored”; “employment pathways weren’t established”; “performance agreements… not developed”; “low levels of compliance with the established process”, and “duplication of corporate services”.

In plain English, the audit reports evidence of failures in governance, in planning, in implementation practices, and in oversight. The DNP’s governance arrangements are apparently in such a mess that it is not able to inform itself of how well it is actually meeting its management objectives, and correspondingly is unable to inform anyone else, including stakeholders. It can’t deliver on its objectives, or plan appropriately, or engage adequately with the traditional owners so as to achieve its park management objectives.

In the case of the green parrots, it appears that the project staff eventually determined that there were major gaps in planning for the translocation, the method was inappropriate and lacking in the necessary expertise, and the translocation plan was “not written with reference to available knowledge and other reintroduction attempts worldwide”.

Amazingly, the ANAO found that the information about the status of the reintroduction program given to the Project Board was green (meaning that success of the project was likely) until August 2017, when the parrots had been pushing up the daisies since May.

In August 2017, the status was downgraded to the colour amber until a report in September 2017 finally accorded the project status as red. Maybe, for a number of months, a bunch of dead parrots were “just resting”.

Under the EPBC Act, the Director of National Parks must establish a ten year park management plans for each national park. However, all parks had been left without management plans at some stage. Booderee had been left without one for six years and eight months; Kakadu for two years; Uluru-Kata Tjuta for two years and nine months, and both Keeling and Christmas Islands, more than four years.

Not managing the joint

Satisfied stakeholders tended to be those from other government and natural resources management entities. By comparison, in all three jointly managed parks, the traditional owners reported that the principle of joint management was not working, and even that “the principle of joint management has disappeared”.

All these concerns had been reported to the Director of National Parks. Ominously, since 2017, all three boards of management of these national parks have requested a lease review, and the Booderee Board of Management issued a formal notice of dispute.

Someone is letting down the management of Commonwealth national parks, but on the evidence afforded by the ANAO report, it isn’t the Aboriginal communities.

In its response to the report, the Director of National Parks responded by accepting the ANAO’s verdict, and said it would address the deficiencies. Notably though, in 2002, the Director had already agreed but then failed to implement changes in response to deficiencies discovered in that ANAO audit. The ANAO noted that:

“The Director monitors and evaluates its performance but has not incorporated lessons learnt into its ongoing operations.”

Is the shambolic state of the DNP the result of bureaucratic incompetence or is this an organisation trying to do too much with too little, or both? In her response to Extinction Nation, the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley commented that:

“It’s not about waving a cheque book at the levels of threatened species. It’s about sensible funding, which we do”.

As Michael West has repeatedly demonstrated on this site, there is never any shortage of billions that can be spent on defence, including senseless boondoggles.

Pay Day: Christopher Pyne’s Defence bonanza a fee fillip for EY

Likewise, the cheque book is regularly waved at the Big Four for millions of dollars worth of “advisory services” and “consultant services” every year. Millions are spent on the the creeping privatisation of public service functions, and the trend is up.

Funding in decline

By comparison, funding for national and state government run parks has been in decline for the last decade, and the parks may have reached an environmental tipping point. One conservationist stated:

“We need about a billion dollars annually from the Federal Government to lead environmental restoration and management across the country because what we’re seeing in a lot of places is ecosystems collapsing.”

The DNP receives around $45 million of government funding annually. This must be spread across six terrestrial parks and 49 marine reserves, the botanic gardens, covering a very wide range of differing ecosystems, and addressing a wide range of serious environmental challenges. This sounds like chump change compared to the $444 million that the Turnbull Government accidentally discovered in the bottom of the sock drawer for the then barely known, big business-connected Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The DNP is persisting with its very worthy project of translocating a population of endangered green parrots from their current home on Norfolk Island to a new home on Phillip Island. I wish them luck.

———————–

The above investigation is published anonymously at the author’s request. Triskele’s identity and bona fides are known to us. Triskele is an academic and journal editor as well as independent researcher interested in politics, history, current affairs, books, languages, and “all things nerdy”.

You can follow Triskele on Twitter @Triskeltic .

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Triskele Triskele

Triskele Triskele

The above investigation is published anonymously at the author’s request. Triskele’s identity and bona fides are known to us. Triskele is an academic and journal editor as well as independent researcher interested in politics, history, current affairs, books, languages, and “all things nerdy”.

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