Cash-strapped national park managers have put spending on visitor facilities ahead of environmental management, according to a Queensland study.
Researchers at James Cook University spent years interviewing managers of 41 protected areas across the state and said all were suffering the effects of insufficient and shrinking budgets.
The result was a trade-off, with biodiversity management losing out to infrastructure maintenance, including toilets, campsites and walking trails.
“Visitors vote and other species don’t,” says study co-author Bob Pressey, a conservation planning professor.
Pressey says park managers have been told to skew resources to support good visitor experiences.
“You can’t find any emails saying to take money out of biodiversity conservation and fund visitor facilities, but that’s what they were told to do (by) someone one upstream.
“That’s what they say. They can’t be made public, but I can. There has been a deliberate denial of the primary purpose of national parks and nature reserves…which is to conserve nature.
The study examined the adequacy of funding for 24 management activities common to national parks and nature reserves.
Maintaining visitor infrastructure topped the list, while monitoring biodiversity came last.
Managers who participated in a series of workshops indicated that the focus on visitor facilities was intended to avoid complaints that could affect support for protected areas.
“When budgets are constrained, as is almost always the case, the implications of prioritizing visitor-related activities over biodiversity-related work are clear: biodiversity will be inadequately protected and managed and, in the long term, more likely to decline,” Pressey said.
This means a shortage of resources for activities focused on biodiversity protection – for example, fire, wildlife and weed management, and the management of endangered species, according to Pressey’s research.
The study was based on a combination of financial analysis and information provided by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service officials in face-to-face workshops.
It was conducted over five years, starting in 2011, but was halted twice when the Newman government was in power, which Pressey attributes to political concerns.
He says experienced managers say the problems that existed then remain today, but he doubts there will be money on the table for similar studies in the future.
“It’s a matter of management funding, adequacy of management funding and it’s just never been done before,” he says.
“I would be pleasantly surprised if a parks agency in Australia was willing to take on such a project, as it exposes them to what they are not doing.”
The Queensland Department of Environment and Science said it was aware of the report, noting that it “is based on data from 2014”.
“Although the department has not had the opportunity to analyze the report, it ensures that protected area management funding is allocated and used to enable DES to meet the requirements of managing and preserving national parks. Queensland,” the department said in a statement. .
It also highlights the government’s recent decision to spend $262.5 million to expand the state’s network of protected areas.