Private protected areas have been an important environmental policy objective for Australia for decades and have helped our country build the world’s largest network of privately owned conservation areas. Unfortunately though, these protections don’t exclude all activities that are incompatible with conservation, such as mining or state timber harvesting.
The primary mechanism to permanently protect private land is called different things in different states and territories: conservation covenant, nature refuge, biodiversity stewardship agreement, and heritage agreement, to name but a few. Sometimes they cover all of a given property, but more often on part of a property. There are over 6000 private protected areas across Australia.
The agreements are voluntary, with landowners committing to stewarding and conserving the land to protect its environmental values in perpetuity. This binds the current and future landowners to uphold specific conservation objectives, providing a critical public good, namely, sustaining our unique biodiversity for current and future generations of Australians.
Beyond this, private protected areas contribute to making sure protected areas for conservation include the full range of ecosystems and protect enough of them that they can remain viable. Think of them as important pieces of a bigger puzzle, where taking good care of each piece is equally critical to keep the whole picture safe.
Private protected areas will be necessary for Australia to meet its commitment to protect and conserve 30% of Australia’s land by 2030. This is widely considered the absolute minimum we will need to achieve if we are to have any hope of halting and reverse the accelerating nature crisis. To meet this target on land, we will need to protect an additional 60 million hectares . That’s three times the size of Victoria. It’s an ambitious goal, but it is achievable – although we need to make sure there are no disincentives that create unnecessary barriers for landholders to contribute any pieces to that bigger puzzle.
Extractive activities like mining not only threaten the cultural and natural integrity of protected areas, conservation covenants often don’t meet the level of protection required for some philanthropic foundations and major private donors to invest. Just as in financial markets, international investors and donors seek the opportunities that secure their objectives whilst minimising the risks.
Special Wildlife Reserve but until then, no conservation covenant in Australia provided complete protection from destructive land uses like logging and mining. Going back just a decade, around 40% of Qld’s nature refuges had mineral exploration permits within their boundaries, and today, hundreds are still potentially threatened by mining interests.
For example, the 8000 hectare Bimblebox Nature Reserve in central Queensland is one of the largest tracts of intact woodland in the state, home to hundreds of bird and animal species, many of which are rare or endangered. It is also an exceptional example of how sustainable agriculture and conservation can co-exist. Under the Galilee Coal Project proposal from Waratah Coal Pty Ltd, roughly half of the Refuge would have undergone large-scale clearing for two open-cut coal pits, were it not for a long, but ultimately successful legal battle fronted by the Environmental Defenders Office.
The good news is that following Bush Heritage Australia’s (BHA) Pullen Pullen reserve being declared a Special Wildlife Reserve in 2020, five additional declarations are now in process. These include BHA’s Pilungah and Ethabuka reserves, which together, have 20 active mining applications or leases. If actioned, the mining threats would be significant, impacting species and ecosystems unique to the reserves, and the exceptional cultural values of the Wangkamadla Traditional Owners. If granted Special Wildlife Reserve status, the reserves will be protected in perpetuity from mining and timber harvesting. What an important peace of mind this will create for Bush Heritage Australia and its supporters by ensuring that funds raised can be spent on the conservation of the property and its natural and cultural values, and not on contesting mining applications.
Increasing the number of Special Wildlife Reserves in Queensland and adding enhanced protection conservation covenants to the suite of conservation investment tools in all States and Territories will attract larger scale private conservation investment and maximise the social, economic, and environmental benefits for all Australians that are being delivered by the private land conservation sector.