Australia's heritage includes a diverse array of places with a wide spectrum of natural and cultural heritage values. Different types of place and different heritage values will vary in their resilience and response to current and future pressures, giving rise to a range of potential outlooks. Although some factors, such as existing land clearance, species extinction and climate change, are beyond the scope of management responses, leadership in two key areas will ultimately determine the future condition and integrity of Australia's heritage:
- the willingness of governments to undertake thorough and comprehensive assessments that lead to truly representative areas of protected land and comprehensive heritage inventories
- the ability of governments, heritage place owners and communities to adaptively manage our extensive heritage places with limited resources and in response to continuing pressures and emerging threats by adopting a strategic response based on integrated use of both traditional and scientific knowledge.
The impacts of climate change will be an important issue to be addressed as part of any future heritage management plan or national heritage strategy— at present, heritage is almost invisible in the climate change debate.
Climate change is causing rising temperatures, alteration to rainfall patterns (with more rainfall in the north of the country and less in the south), and greater frequency and intensity of storms, wind, run-off, floods, droughts, fires and heatwaves. These changes directly affect many biological processes, increasing the risk from invasive species and loss of habitat. It is inevitable that natural heritage areas will be affected by these processes. The ability of natural heritage places to retain their key values will depend on adaptive responses by species and appropriate management responses that prevent, minimise or repair environmental damage, assist in habitat migration, or manage or prevent the arrival of new species that may have negative effects.
Altered rainfall, higher sea and land surface temperatures, more severe storm events, altered fire regimes, ocean acidification and rising sea levels are all likely to significantly affect the values of both natural and cultural heritage places. The effect on natural values is largely self-evident, but cultural sites such as Indigenous middens, sea-cave deposits, archaeological sites and rock art are also highly dependent on the maintenance and protection of their underlying landforms from climate change impacts. Other cultural values, such as architectural heritage, may also be affected by climate change but to a lesser extent, at least in the short term. Without management intervention, altered fire regimes are likely to lead to additional impacts on biodiversity and Indigenous cultural values.
Pressure on natural and cultural heritage arises from population growth and the uneven distribution of people around the country.
In rural centres, for example, population decline arising from new land uses and technology has a compounding negative effect. The demand for services decreases, and historic assets can become redundant; at the same time, the community has fewer resources to conserve heritage places. One potential approach to this dilemma (apart from funding subsidies) is to adopt a more flexible approach to conservation by encouraging greater change and adaptation, or accepting that some places may be managed as ruins.
In contrast, in urban areas and parts of the coast that are experiencing residential and commercial intensification, heritage is under pressure from associated development that seeks land uses with higher economic return. In this context, while available community resources are greater (and flexible approaches to adaptation and change are to be encouraged), good conservation outcomes are more likely to depend on early identification of natural and cultural heritage resources so that the expectations of owners and potential developers can be reasonably managed.
Knowledge of the heritage resource through systematic and comprehensive survey and assessment is an essential precursor to values-based heritage conservation and management. At present, although there is a large number of entries and registers spread across multiple jurisdictions, there is no longer a national picture (as was previously provided by the Register of the National Estate). The absence of comprehensive heritage data continually gives rise to conflict with development.
Public sector resourcing for heritage or any other environmental consideration is often a question of community perception. The outlook for the nation's heritage may therefore rely on the ability of community groups and advocates to communicate their message effectively. Heritage is clearly perceived as a public good, yet this value is not reflected in public sector support. Indeed, in 2011, core funding for heritage management by the Australian Government was reduced by 30%, yet:
The majority of the community believes that inadequate support is provided to heritage conservation. In essence, the majority of the community believes that there are benefits from additional government commitment to heritage conservation. The Allen Consulting Group,116p. viii
Community perception is also manifest in the way we treat our heritage places. In remote and rural areas particularly, historic sites may be damaged through vandalism or neglect. Indigenous places may be affected by deliberate acts of damage or culturally inappropriate behaviour. Natural areas can be degraded through community actions, such as dumping of invasive weeds, inappropriate use of vehicles, shooting and resource extraction. Management of these community impacts will depend on a combination of regulation, enforcement and effective communication about heritage values.
Economic growth has multiple environmental effects, particularly arising from increased consumption and waste generation. For heritage, economic growth increases the threat posed by new development and resource extraction. To a lesser extent, economic growth may also lead to impacts from changing land use, or increased activity in heritage places from tourism.
Development is a major threat to all aspects of heritage. This is particularly so because of the reactive nature of the heritage and environmental impact assessment system in most Australian jurisdictions. All too often, significant heritage assets are identified late in the planning and assessment process, with the inevitable result that heritage is damaged or destroyed, although usually accompanied by some form of mitigating action. However, this need not always be the case. Initiatives such as the Australian Regional Forest Assessmentss clearly demonstrate the benefits of proactive survey and identification of both heritage places and available resources. The main obstacle to such a rational and proactive process is government (and to a lesser extent industry) reluctance to allocate substantial up-front resources for surveys.
For example, the Kimberley is known as a place of outstanding natural and cultural value, but it also contains vast bauxite deposits. How will this intersection of potentially conflicting economic and heritage values be addressed in the future? Early proactive assessment of all resources—including natural and cultural heritage—maximises the chance of well-informed decision-making and appropriate conservation outcomes. Reactive approaches that pitch natural and cultural resources head-on against potential economic benefits are likely to spiral downward into conflict and adverse impact.
Parallel issues arise in urban areas where underlying land values and development potential collide with history and heritage; but this also need not necessarily be the case. Early consideration of all types of heritage place within land-zoning, planning and development processes has potential to reduce conflict and increase both heritage and economic value. Whether or not this can become standard practice on a national scale depends on leadership and coordination at a national level.