The state of Western Australia, almost as big as the 11 mainland states of the American West put together, occupies one-third of the island continent, with vast and varied terrain and seascapes featuring red-rock desert, teeming coral reefs, lush forests, and thundering rivers. While some of those places have long been protected, many have remained vulnerable to a range of threats. But on Feb. 20, the Western Australian government took a big step toward safeguarding the state’s territory by committing to conserve an additional 19,300 square miles of land and water over the next five years.
The move includes the largest single expansion of the national park system on land in Australia—and increases the amount of protected territory in Western Australia by 25 percent. With its announcement, the state government says it is also fully implementing safeguards in the Great Kimberley Marine Park, which experts say will rival the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in biodiversity.
The parks plan also includes new protected areas, including former leasehold lands in the Outback. These properties extend from the wildflowers of the Mid West region to the gorges of the Pilbara and the beaches, cliffs, and islands of Shark Bay, which harbor vibrant coastal ecosystems and are home to a rich variety of birds. Also among the planned new protected areas is a South Coast marine park that is home to killer whales, endangered Australian sea lions, and other marine life.
Western Australia’s natural heritage has evolved during the country’s 30 million years of geographic isolation, with thousands of flora and fauna species found nowhere else on Earth. The Outback of Western Australia is one of the very few great natural places remaining on the planet, ranking alongside the Amazon, Antarctica, and the boreal forests of Canada and Siberia. Equally impressive is the fact that this huge swath of land had been actively managed and cared for throughout millennia by Indigenous Australians.
Many of these newly protected areas have suffered for decades because not enough people have been managing them. In Australia, far more than in other parts of the world, effective conservation requires active management of the land to deal with threats to the continent’s immense natural spaces: uncontrolled bush fires, invasive feral animals, and noxious weeds, all of which can take over and degrade a landscape quickly.
Partly because of those threats, The Pew Charitable Trusts, in collaboration with our Western Australian partners, has been advocating for a parks expansion in Western Australia for years, with a focus on large, contiguous protected areas.
“You need huge moves to protect whole river catchments, mountain ranges, and ocean ecosystems and maintain healthy rivers and abundant wildlife and fisheries,” says Barry Traill, who directs Pew’s conservation work in Australia. “A scattering of small parks across land and sea simply cannot stand up to the threats of today, let alone those certain to come with climate change and an expanding global population.”
Traill, a zoologist by training who has been a leading voice for conservation in Australia for more than two decades, adds: “Throughout its history, Australia has sensibly protected some amazing places—Uluru, Ningaloo Reef, Mitchell Falls, Kakadu, and the Great Barrier Reef—and we’ve learned through this process that in conservation, size matters. In fact, the very scale of this latest expansion will be vital to its success.”
And although the final, fine-tuned boundaries of the new parks have not been set, government officials have promised that these areas will be large—not a checkerboard of small or modest-sized parcels—and protected for the long term.
Traill notes that to guarantee the plan’s success, the government must follow through on its promises to establish genuine partnerships with landholders, local communities, and Indigenous people to confirm the places that will be protected and ensure that they are properly funded and actively managed.
Working with Indigenous landholders is especially critical, Traill says, calling the announcement “an opportunity for the government to establish positive ways of working with Aboriginal people in genuine and empowering partnerships to manage the land.”
The next step in making the parks expansion a reality is a consultation process—which has already begun—between the state government and Indigenous landholders, the resources sector, pastoralists, commercial and recreational fishers, conservation groups, and local governments. From this process, officials and stakeholders will refine park boundaries and management approaches before the individual parks and reserves are created over the next five years.
In the big spaces of the remote Western Australian Outback, the bush remains standing, rivers run freely, and wildlife still moves over vast areas. Great flocks of birds that have traveled from as far as Siberia still soar over the land searching for nectar, seeds, and fruit. Floods come and go, driving sporadic productivity and new growth. Across ephemeral wetland oases that stretch beyond the horizon, thousands of banded stilts, plumed whistling ducks, great egrets, and many other water bird species congregate, as they have for millennia. Offshore lie coral reefs, sea-grass meadows, and mangrove forests that are among the most unspoiled in the world.
Now more of those spaces will be protected, offering what Traill calls “a growing hope that Australia can hand its children and grandchildren a healthy and prosperous continent.”
John Briley is a staff writer for Trust.