Wetlands Conservation 1: Land Use


Adelaide River floodplains, endangered by mimosa (M. Michie)

The wetlands are subject to various types of land use. In much of Kakadu National Park, Aboriginal owners hold title to the land and lease it back to the government, and all of the land east of the East Alligator River is in Arnhemland. There are two main mineral leases, Ranger and Koongarra, which operate under strictly controlled conditions. Some pastoral leases are held in the district for both buffalo grazing and cattle production, notably in the Mary River area. Both horticulture and aquaculture industries operate in the same area, although on a comparatively small scale.The Top End wetlands are fortunately located in a part of the world that has been left relatively unchanged by humans. The only significant change to the environment was the regular use of fire by the Aboriginal hunters and gatherers, and in 40,000 years or more, the wildlife of the region had adapted to this regime. The wetlands of the NT have retained their dramatic landscapes and ecosystems for thousands of years and, as part of the national estate, it is hoped that they will continue to hold these values intact well into the future.

Commercial operators run nature-based tours on land and on three of the main rivers. The tours focus on both cultural and wildlife aspects of the region and cater for Australian and overseas tourists. More than 20,000 tourists visited Kakadu National Park in 1993; in 1999/2000 the number was over 200,000. Tourists are accommodated at wilderness camps (Wildman/Mary Rivers), hotels (Jabiru, Cooinda, Mary River), budget hostels (Border Store) and a tourist village on the South Alligator River. There are also camping sites within Kakadu National Park.

Recreational fishing is very important for both locals and tourists alike, and this aspect of land use is linked strongly to the identity and lifestyle of the Top End.

            The freshwater swamps that sustain all these activities support one of the two most important breeding aggregations of the unique magpie goose. The swamps are under threat from saltwater intrusion and invasion of exotic weed species. To encompass all of these factors within a broad conservation framework is a challenge to all involved in the Mary River floodplain: government landowners, the tourism industry and visitors. The parks and reserves in the area play an increasingly important role with respect to the overall conservation of the natural values, although conservation measures taken outside the park estate on private land by private individuals will be equally important. (Conservation Commission of NT, 1993)

Parks and reserves take up 25% of the Top End wetlands region. Besides Kakadu National Park (under Commonwealth Government administration through a management board) there are a number of parks and reserves which are the responsibility of the Northern Territory Government, such as Fogg Dam and Mary River Conservation Reserves. The Wildman reserve has been incorporated into the Mary River National Park that lies on either side of the Arnhem Highway. There are plans to develop the lower Adelaide River into a tourist attraction, linking up with Fogg Dam and Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre at Beatrice Hill.

The use of such a significant proportion of the Top End land for conservation purposes is a consequence of the area being lightly populated in comparison to other parts of coastal Australia. This gives the government control over the activities of visitors to the area, and reduces the risk of wetland sites being degraded by unrestricted access and activities harmful to local ecosystems. In Kakadu, offroad driving is forbidden, as are pets, firearms, and camping outside designated areas.

Multiple land use: grazing

The government can control the activities that takes place on reserves and national parks, but it depends upon the good will and attitudes of those in the pastoral industry to follow environmentally sound practices. The Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries is involved with the Parks and Wildlife Commission in planning a multiple land use program for landholders. In addition to a program of education on wetland ecology, the government provides practical assistance in mapping and surveying properties, identifying sensitive areas prone to degradation and determining stocking rates. There is a conflict of interest between pastoralists and the government on the issue of introduced grasses and this is discussed below in Management Issues.

Multiple land use: tourism

The term ecotourism has been so misused since it first appeared that the term nature-based tourism is now sometimes used in the same context. No matter what it is called, this form of tourism is a complex issue. Ecotourism has its roots in the genuine desire of many to escape from the confines of urban existence and to seek a renewal of spirit through a close contact with nature. Through the influence of the media, people today are probably more aware of the importance of natural ecosystems the world over than ever before. Many have an increased desire for experiences that are authentic and incorporate learning rather than contrived entertainment.

The problem is that areas of natural beauty and interest carry a potential for environmental self-destruction by the sheer weight of numbers they attract. The relentless pressures on natural sites over a long period of time can lead to subtle changes that are not at first recognised: the gradual withdrawal of bird species from well-used walking trails or changes in the numbers of plant species brought about by soil compaction near camp sites.

The tourism industry has the ability to generate large amounts of foreign exchange earnings, and where money is concerned there is always a possibility of ecological considerations taking a second place, even when we are discussing the national heritage. However, there is always hope. People are realising that ecosystems cannot be measured solely in monetary terms and that environmental and social factors are independent of economic development.

Nature-based tourism model

Baseline studies should be part of the planning stages of a program of nature-based tourism. By taking inventory of animal and plant populations in an area before intensive tourism commences (or at least in the early stages), the effects of tourist visitations can later be assessed. A study of the region's ecology and wildlife is also a necessary part of ecotourism because of visitor interests in these areas.

            Ecotourism has developed with relatively little data and knowledge on which to base effective decisions. This issue is of particular importance for the management of visitor impacts and has been highlighted throughout the process of developing this strategy - in academic literature, workshops and public submissions. (Commonwealth Department of Tourism, 1994)

The tour experience itself should be a model of sensitive environmental behaviour with concerns for being nonintrusive and leaving no evidence of the visit in the way of litter or waste. Infrastructure can increase the capability of sites to withstand the environmental impacts of tourism. This can be done by confining tourists to site-hardened areas through the provision of carefully sited boardwalks and walking trails. The experience should also include an educational component through visitor centres and interpretive signs.

Monitoring is an essential component of nature-based tourism. Besides on the spot observations by rangers, the application of modern scientific techniques such as geographic information systems and computer modelling can assist in determining sustainable levels of usage in different areas and habitats. By such methods, it should be possible to anticipate and control degradation. The final requirement for effective monitoring would be a built-in response system, producing prompt and effective action without any administrative delays or cracks in the floor through which problems could conveniently disappear.

  2. Management issues 3. Heritage values 4. Activities

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