Natural heritage

Natural heritage comprises the components of the natural environment that have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations, as well as for the present community, and includes:

  • the biological environment (flora, fauna, habitats and ecosystems)
  • the geological and geomorphological environments (rocks, rock features, landforms, landscapes and geosystems).

Natural heritage is a core part of the Australian environment and helps define Australia, and us as Australians, through iconic species and distinctive natural landscapes. Australia’s natural heritage ranges from vast areas to small, localised sites of high natural conservation value. Many people believe that nature has an intrinsic value in its own right (Australian Government 2019b), and that natural heritage should be protected not only for the benefits it provides to humanity (economic, emotional and spiritual wellbeing) but also for its ‘existence value’ (i.e. an inherent right to exist, and to co-exist with humans) (AHC 2002a).

Natural heritage provides wellbeing and economic benefits from ecosystem services, recreation, tourism and educational opportunities. Natural heritage is also an integral component of Indigenous heritage, and there are very few places in Australia that do not belong to one or several Traditional Custodian groups. The exceptions are a small number of islands now considered part of Australia and Australia’s external territories, which include parts of Antarctica.

Significant actions have been taken in the past 30–40 years to protect our natural environment, including large areas of land being added to the National Reserve System (see Protected areas), and areas of particular significance being included on the World Heritage and National Heritage lists (see Heritage recognised under the EPBC Act). Impacts from various pressures that are occurring across Australia (i.e. climate change, land-use modification and introduced species) are significantly affecting natural heritage, and urgent action is needed to increase its protection.

The condition, pressures and management of the broader natural environment, including specific parts of Australia’s natural heritage, are the focus of other chapters (see the Biodiversity, Climate, Coasts, Inland water, Land and Marine chapters). The discussion in this chapter focuses on protected areas.

Types and condition of natural heritage

Natural heritage includes significant landforms and features, and significant plant and animal populations and habitats, or whole landscapes or seascapes with complex values. Small areas and sites may be landscape features such as a cave, glacial moraine, lake or a rock outcrop; or localised areas of rare plant or animal habitat; or good-quality examples of botanical communities or animal populations. Natural heritage may also include iconic, rare or vulnerable species, the remains of extinct species or relict species, specialised communities such as those with high endemism or high species richness, and aesthetically exceptional landscapes.

Australia’s terrestrial natural heritage is present throughout the country. It largely occurs on public land and outside highly developed areas and areas of intensive cultivation, but there are pockets of natural heritage in urban areas and on agricultural land.

In Australia today, the concept of natural heritage recognises the role Indigenous Australians have played in managing and shaping the Australian landscape for 65,000 years, and possibly much longer.

The integrity of natural areas contributes importantly to natural heritage significance. Maintenance of ‘wilderness quality’ is an important means of maintaining natural integrity. However, notions of ‘wilderness’ and ‘reserves’ used in natural environmental management can be deeply problematic for Indigenous people because they can work against the recognition and empowerment of Indigenous perspectives and aspirations (Levitus 2016). Such concepts may be seen to actively lock Traditional Custodians out of their homelands, both physically and in having a voice in management and protection. There is no place that is or was ‘untouched’ or ‘pristine’ – most of the Australian environment is the result of active land management by Indigenous peoples over time (Bridgewater 2021).

Despite sustained critique by Indigenous peoples, Indigenous scholars, and various others in the academe and civil society, the continued use of the wilderness moniker in conservation practice serves only to disempower Indigenous and local peoples and to deceive non-Indigenous people into the false belief of a transcendent ‘nature’ free from the influence and active intervention of humans. It is past the time to abandon the wilderness trope, to deprioritize disembodied notions of objectivity and universality, and to embrace situated Indigenous and local knowledge systems in scaled and relational approaches to eco- system and landscape management. (Fletcher et al. 2021)

This issue is being increasingly recognised, and the general practice now is to talk about ‘wilderness quality’ (remote and with no active recent use and disturbance) rather than ‘wilderness’ (Langton 1998, Hausheer 2016, Crabtree et al. 2019). However, this does not resolve the issue for Indigenous people, and further discussion is required to find an acceptable way forward.

The condition of natural heritage in protected areas is not well understood because it is inadequately monitored and evaluated. Geoheritage is poorly understood in general (see Geoheritage). This is an ongoing issue noted in all previous state of the environment reports. The key exceptions are Australia’s World Heritage properties, which are subject to periodic reporting (such as the 5-yearly Great Barrier Reef outlook reports) and the properties that have regular high-level assessment as part of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Heritage Outlook reporting, although few of these properties have routine values monitoring (see Heritage recognised under the EPBC Act). The Australian Institute of Marine Science’s Long-Term Monitoring Program has routinely monitored the condition of reefs of the Great Barrier Reef since 1983 (AIMS 2021).

Case Study The koala – protecting an iconic species as part of natural heritage management

Dr Sarah Munks and Dr Daniel Lunney

The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is an iconic tree-dwelling marsupial of cultural significance to all Australians (DAWE 2021f). It is endemic to Australia and has a wide but patchy distribution across eastern and southern Australia (Martin & Handasyde 1999). Its natural range includes:

  • the coastal and inland areas of north-eastern Queensland
  • westwards into the inland, hotter and drier semi-arid climates of central Queensland and New South Wales
  • south into Victoria and South Australia.

The koala is closely associated with the distribution of trees of the genera Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora on which it feeds (Moore & Foley 2000, Au et al. 2019, Marsh et al. 2021).

The size of koala populations varies greatly, with marked fluctuations since European colonisation. Large increases in population in some locations in the southern part of the koala’s range have led to overbrowsing. In the northern parts of the range, extinction has been an issue. Population decreases have resulted from the fur trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, habitat loss and fragmentation, drought, wildfire, disease, dog attack and vehicle strikes (Melzer et al. 2000, McAlpine et al. 2015).

In 2012, the koala was listed as Vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (but not Victoria or South Australia) under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). In late 2021, the koala came under Commonwealth consideration for uplisting to Endangered (DAWE 2021f), largely in response to the impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires (Legge et al. 2021).

Increasing threats to koala populations include climate change–related impacts. For example, a reduction in climatically suitable habitat has been predicted, which would significantly contract the koala’s range further to the east and the south in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (Adams-Hosking et al. 2011). Fires have a direct impact, with at least 5,000, and potentially many more, koalas dying in the 2019–20 fires in New South Wales alone (NSW Parliament Legislative Council 2020). These fires highlighted the considerable knowledge gaps on how populations change, how that differs across the range of the koala and what management actions are needed. Threats in combination, such as drought followed by fire, compounding the loss of habitat and fragmentation of the habitat that remains, will have the most significant impact (Lunney et al. 2012).

Long-term studies are lacking, although there has been valuable use of modelling and expert opinion, and research continues on many aspects of koala biology. An emerging finding from these studies is the relative importance of local-level threats and the need to prepare management plans tailored for local conditions. Overabundant populations also need to be managed (Menkhorst 2008).

Researchers have called for prioritisation of koala research and a proactive approach to conservation planning to protect the koala and other species that depend on eucalypt forests (Lunney et al. 2012). Recent conservation actions include:

  • formal reservation of habitat under the NSW Koala Strategy (DPIE 2020)
  • a draft national koala recovery plan, released for discussion in 2021 (DAWE 2021c)
  • surveys and field studies of koala populations
  • amendments to conservation planning frameworks to increase habitat protection in Queensland and New South Wales.

Figure 03 A koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) – one of Australia’s iconic species

Photo: Geoff Williamson

Recognition and protection of natural heritage

Protecting Australia’s natural heritage is generally achieved by:

Natural heritage protection can be provided at the state and territory level in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and South Australia by including natural heritage in the state or territory heritage register. However, this mechanism is rarely used except in the Australian Capital Territory. Natural heritage protection at the local government level varies markedly among places, but is generally considered inadequate.

The types of conservation status for reserves, generally reflected by reserve type, is established by protected area legislation, which differs between each state and territory as well as the Commonwealth (McConnell & Janke 2021). The most common state and territory legislated terrestrial reserve types recognised in Australia are national parks, regional parks or reserves, nature reserves, conservation areas or parks, nature recreation areas or reserves, and game reserves. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria also specifically provide for the conservation of ‘wilderness’ areas and parks (noting that notions of ‘wilderness’ areas can be deeply problematic for Indigenous people because they can work against the recognition and empowerment of Indigenous perspectives and aspirations). Marine protected areas are largely marine parks. Natural heritage may also be recognised and protected at the local government level by including it in local statutory plans (see Statutory planning), but these usually focus on conserving historic heritage and culturally significant aspects of the natural environment (e.g. scenic corridors).

Protected areas

Australia has a proud early beginning in relation to natural values conservation. Starting in 1879 (Boer & Gruber 2010), a diverse reserve system of protected areas has developed across Australia and its territorial maritime waters, supported by a raft of statutory protections (McConnell & Janke 2021). The full suite of terrestrial protected areas and other reserves across Australia, including private land and Indigenous Protected Areas, is known as the National Reserve System (see the Land chapter).

The total reserve system in Australia, including marine areas, is approximately 483 million hectares (ha). Of this, 380.15 million ha are managed by government, with the balance being primarily Indigenous Protected Areas (see the Indigenous chapter) and private conservation reserves. Terrestrial protected areas comprise approximately 148 million ha (19% of Australia’s land mass); 54 million ha of this are categories I and II under the IUCN classification for protected areas, the management priority for which is the preservation of conservation values, including heritage (Dudley 2013). Marine reserves comprise approximately 335 million ha (37% of Australian waters), with 84.5 million ha being IUCN categories I and II (Figure 4).

Approximately 1.7 million ha of terrestrial protected area has been added to the system in the past 5 years, equating to an additional 1.5% of terrestrial protected area (Figure 5). Approximately 2.3 million ha of marine protected area has been added in the past 5 years, equating to an additional 0.7% of marine protected area. However, these changes include a loss of 3.4 million ha of IUCN category I and II terrestrial reserves and 40.1 million ha of IUCN category I and II marine reserves (DAWE 2020a).

This is a considerable slowing in reservation compared with the level of reservation reported in the 2016 state of the environment report (Mackay 2016a). Terrestrial protected areas increased from 98.5 million ha (13.4% of Australia’s land mass) in 2008 to 137.5 million ha (17.9% of Australia’s land mass) in 2014 (i.e. 5.7 million ha per year compared with 0.34 million ha per year in 2015–20). For marine protected areas, the reported increase was from 89.6 million ha in 2009 to 323 million ha in 2014 (i.e. 38.9 million ha per year compared with 0.46 million ha per year in 2015–20).

Figure 04 Australia’s terrestrial and marine protected areas, including Indigenous Protected Areas, highlighting new places since end of 2015
Figure 05 Australia’s National Reserve System, showing the protection level of Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia regions, 2020 (left); and change in protection level of regions, 2016–20 (right)

Gaps in natural heritage protection

Establishing and managing the Australian reserve system is directed by an explicit, science-based goal: the comprehensive, adequate and representative reservation of ecosystems and species. However, the National Reserve System lacks an explicit goal to address gaps in the reservation of natural heritage, and protective lists that include natural heritage are not comprehensive. Gaps occur in relation to both significant places and areas, and the comprehensive, adequate and representative protection of natural heritage systems, landscapes and seascapes.

Mackay (2016a) noted that, as at 2016, there were ‘vast “unlisted” natural heritage resources that have not yet been formally assessed, but may be of sufficient heritage value to justify inclusion on the National Heritage List or reservation within national parks’. The limited increase in natural listed places and protected areas over the past 5 years means that this is still the case. The Australian Government and state and territory governments were unable to provide data on the actual extent and nature of this gap (McConnell 2021d).

For terrestrial protected areas, the gaps are largely because the National Reserve System was established ‘in a relatively uncoordinated and haphazard manner over the course of the 20th century’ (Boer & Gruber 2010:11). Australia’s marine protected areas are more comprehensive, adequate and representative because they are more recent and are largely an outcome from the 1998 Australia’s Oceans Policy, which set out a framework for integrated ecosystem-based planning and management for all of Australia’s marine jurisdictions (Boer & Gruber 2010).

Significant recognition and protection of natural heritage can be achieved through the Strategy for Australia’s National Reserve System 2009–30 and its marine equivalent the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, which provide direction on building a more comprehensive national terrestrial and marine reserve system. However, to achieve this, these strategies need to be amended to also specifically recognise natural heritage, or to develop a parallel strategy for a natural heritage, as both these reserve systems focus on ecosystems and biodiversity. There is also a lack of clarity around what exactly natural heritage reservation needs are, as opposed to biodiversity conservation reservation needs.

Pressures on, and management of, natural heritage

Increasing pressures and existing management deficits continue to threaten Australia’s natural heritage.

Pressures on natural heritage

Natural heritage, both identified and unidentified, across Australia and in its oceans, is at risk from a variety of pressures, particularly:

  • development pressures, primarily land clearance and other substantive land modification
  • climate change impacts
  • extreme bushfires and other burning
  • invasive species
  • inadequate management and protections.

These pressures have been increasing over the past 20 years, and are forecast to further increase (see Pressures).

There is a lack of data to evaluate the present level of impacts of stresses and pressures on Australia’s natural heritage as a whole, and separate from biodiversity, at the national and regional scales. However, expert opinion (McConnell 2021a) identifies climate change as the greatest pressure on natural heritage (see Climate change). More specifically, rising temperatures are regarded as the most concerning climate change pressure; extreme weather events and altered fire regimes are also significant (Figure 6).

In the past 5 years, climate change and climate change–related impacts have been the most evident impacts on natural heritage. Sea temperature warming and marine heatwaves have resulted in:

  • extensive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef
  • major loss of significant seagrass beds, with associated loss of significant species, on the Western Australian coast (see case study: Climate change and the Shark Bay World Heritage Area)
  • ongoing decline in the extent of southern kelp forests
  • a general shift in location of species as habitats change
  • an expansion in the range of marine pests.

Extreme weather conditions have resulted in major bushfires across large parts of Australia that have burned large areas of protected area, with significant impacts. For instance, the 2019–20 bushfires had significant impacts on many National Heritage places: the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves, the Stirling Range National Park and the West Kimberley. These all have significant natural heritage values.

After climate change, the next greatest pressure is regarded as inadequate resourcing for natural heritage protection and management. Invasive species (see Invasive species and disease) and rural development, including land clearance, are also seen as highly significant pressures on natural heritage. Invasive species are the most commonly listed pressure on species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), affecting 82% of threatened taxa in Australia in 2018, and identified as a primary cause of extinction. Disease is also having a significant impact on natural heritage (see Population). Land clearing is implicated in the listing of 60% of Australia’s threatened species.

Figure 06 Pressures that are considered to have the greatest impact on natural heritage, in terms of survival, condition and integrity, 2021
Case Study Lord Howe Island Rodent Eradication Project

Lord Howe Island is home to many unique and endemic species, including:

  • 241 species of indigenous plants, almost 50% of which are found nowhere else in the world
  • 207 species of birds, including the endangered Lord Howe Island woodhen
  • 1,600 terrestrial insect species, including the world’s rarest insect, the Lord Howe Island phasmid (a stick insect).

Because of its outstanding natural values, the Lord Howe Island Group – which includes Lord Howe Island and several other islands and marine environments – is on the National Heritage List and the World Heritage List.

Exotic rodents on islands are one of the greatest causes of species extinction in the world. Rats have already been implicated in the extinction of 5 endemic bird species, at least 13 endemic invertebrate species and 2 plant species on Lord Howe Island. Rodents are also a recognised threat to at least 13 other bird species, 2 reptile species, 51 plant species, 12 vegetation communities and 7 species of threatened invertebrates on Lord Howe Island. Of these species, 7 are listed as Critically Endangered under New South Wales and Commonwealth legislation (LHI REP 2017).

Since 2017, a major rodent eradication project has been conducted on Lord Howe Island. The issue was identified in 2001; planning and logistics took place in 2017–19, and baiting happened in 2019–20. Poison was placed inside 22,000 lockable traps around the island, and pellets were distributed via helicopter in inaccessible areas.

By February 2021, this $15 million eradication project program had shown remarkable success, with no rodents being sighted on the island in 15 months. Two rats thought to have come from mainland Australia were caught in April 2021 (Kurmelovs 2021). The population of the endangered flightless Lord Howe Island woodhen has more than doubled since the start of the program (Martin & Rubbo 2021).

This island-wide holistic ecological restoration program also included the eradication of cats and pigs in the 1980s, feral goats in 1999, and myrtle rust in 2018 (a world first) (LHI REP 2017).

The ecological restoration program is underpinned by the Lord Howe Island Biodiversity Management Plan and managed by the Lord Howe Island Board. The rodent eradication project is funded by the Australian Government, the Lord Howe Island Board and the NSW Environmental Trust.

Natural heritage management

It is difficult to assess the management of natural heritage across Australia because management is not routinely audited and data are not routinely collected. The key current management priorities for natural heritage that have been identified by expert opinion for this report are improved governance (resourcing, government leadership, improved protections) and improved management in relation to threats (Figure 7) (McConnell 2021a). Specific key natural heritage management issues that have been identified are (Samuel 2020, McConnell 2021a, McConnell 2021b):

  • inadequate statutory protections at all levels of government
  • complex shared management approaches that result in gaps and overlaps, and are of questionable effectiveness
  • inadequate broadscale strategic planning and management
  • lack of active management of pressures, particularly in relation to condition monitoring and adaptation, and risk management planning
  • poor processes for development impact assessment and approvals
  • management plans that are not comprehensive or are not being renewed
  • inadequate participation of Indigenous people in protected area management, and inadequate access to land and waters
  • inadequate numbers of natural values expert staff to undertake research and guide management.
  • The 2016 state of the environment report noted that Australia’s natural heritage would benefit from a whole-of-landscape or seascape approach that addresses management regimes across land tenure, and considers individual places, different land holdings and subregions as part of a broadly interconnected ecosystem, and from collection of baseline data on natural heritage values within regions (Mackay 2016a:55). No substantive action has been undertaken in these areas since 2016.

These management failures are occurring in spite of clear guidance on best-practice natural heritage management being available, including the Australian Natural Heritage Charter: for the conservation of places of natural heritage significance (AHC 2002a) and various Australian and international IUCN documents. The Australian Heritage Strategy (Australian Government 2015) provides another important framework and contains many valuable actions, but these are not underpinned by clear, knowledge-based goals for natural heritage conservation.

Figure 07 Expert opinion on priority management actions for improving protection of Australia’s natural heritage

Managing pressures on natural heritage

With the increasing pressures on natural heritage, particularly climate change–related pressures and increased use, more active ongoing management of these pressures is needed. It is difficult to determine the costs for managing pressures in protected areas (McConnell 2021d), but the annual cost of invasive plant control in national parks alone was estimated to be $29.11 million in 2018 (McLeod 2018).

Data and opinions provided for this report (McConnell 2021a, McConnell 2021b) indicate that there is very little active management of pressures, except in a small number of locations (e.g. the Great Barrier Reef). Natural heritage experts are very concerned about this, as indicated by the high priority given to greater monitoring of the condition of natural heritage, and improved risk assessment and risk mitigation planning for new threats (Figure 7).

Areas that have been identified as needing greater action to manage pressures on natural heritage are:

  • researching the nature and progression of key pressures and their potential impacts
  • researching the effectiveness and impacts of responses to pressures, especially bushfires and fire management (e.g. fuel reduction burning, ecological burning, cultural burning)
  • removing and controlling invasive species, including at their source points
  • restoring ecosystems, habitats and communities
  • compensating for population and community shifts due to climate change through altered reservation strategies (e.g. larger reserve areas, a greater number of representative reserves)
  • ensuring reserve connectivity and use of buffer zones
  • improving response planning, including disaster preparedness plans
  • developing criteria for natural heritage sustainability for different uses
  • better incorporating Indigenous perspectives and aspirations in relation to natural heritage.

Governance and management issues are currently contributing to a poor outcome for natural heritage, but they could assist in managing the pressures on natural heritage if they were addressed.

Indigenous involvement in natural heritage management

Other than for Indigenous Protected Areas, Australian Government–managed terrestrial protected areas have the highest level of shared management. Of the 6 national parks managed by Parks Australia, Indigenous people own 3 (Uluṟu–Kata Tjuṯa, Kakadu and Booderee national parks). They are leased to the Australian Director of National Parks, based on legal and procedural cooperative joint management arrangements (see the Indigenous chapter). Another example of joint management between the government and Traditional Owners is the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage area. Here, the government can enter into or facilitate cooperative management agreements (including joint management agreements) with Indigenous people under Schedule 1 of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act 1993 (Qld) (Boer & Gruber 2010).

Other co-management and participatory arrangements that go beyond consultation are being developed for protected areas. This is a strong trend for natural and mixed World Heritage and National Heritage places, with various arrangements being put in place, including Indigenous advisory groups and co-designed Indigenous management strategies. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, which includes the Budj Bim National Park, was the first Australian World Heritage property to be inscribed solely for its Aboriginal heritage values and is managed by Traditional Owners (see the Indigenous chapter).


Although natural environmental management attracts a significant amount of government funding, much of this is directed towards biodiversity conservation, rather than natural heritage protection and management. The notable exception is the Great Barrier Reef.

Protection and management of natural heritage across Australia are struggling to meet basic requirements for heritage protection and management, even where substantial volunteer support exists. This includes meeting emerging issues, especially addressing climate change impacts. Calls for increased government resourcing to improve all areas of natural heritage management, particularly identifying and managing key pressures, have been ongoing for many years.