Identification: Types of Heritage


In Australia, heritage is defined by both statutory and nonstatutory listing processes, which result in inventories and areas of reserved lands. There is an inherent tension in the philosophical difference between identifying a series of individual sites as heritage (a ‘dots on the map’ approach) and listing whole cultural landscapes or reserving areas that may incorporate individual significant places, but that may also have multiple layered values. Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the difference between a single Indigenous site and the broader Indigenous perspective of Country.

Natural heritage

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 1 considers the ‘process of listing, area and distribution of identified natural heritage places’

Appropriate statutory protection of Australia’s natural heritage requires a combination of individually listed places and an adequate, representative set of reserved lands. The National Heritage List includes 35 places that are predominantly included for natural heritage values (2 more than in 2011). At the state and local level, information on places included in heritage lists for natural values is inconsistent between jurisdictions.

Australia’s reserved lands and waters include:

  • commonwealth, state and territory parks and reserves (both marine and terrestrial)
  • other lands and waters reserved for conservation purposes
  • Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs)
  • areas managed by conservation organisations
  • ecosystems protected by farmers on their private working properties

Together, these areas comprise more than 10,000 protected areas across more than 36 per cent of Australia’s marine areas and more than 17 per cent of Australia’s land mass (DoEE n.d.[f]; see the Marine environment and Biodiversity reports).

Between 2008 and 2014, the number of terrestrial protected areas in Australia increased from 9340 to 10,339, and the total terrestrial protected area increased from 98.5 million hectares to 137.5 million hectares (Figures HER8 and HER9). The total terrestrial protected area as a percentage of the terrestrial area of Australia increased from 13.4 per cent in 2011 to 17.9 per cent in 2014. By 2016, this total terrestrial protected area increased to at least 19.2 per cent through the addition of IPAs since 2014. To January 2016, the Australian Government has funded the establishment of 72 IPAs, across approximately 8 million hectares, now covering about 44 per cent of the National Reserve System (Figures HER13 and HER14). However, not all IPAs have the same protected status, and the allowable land use and the statutory controls for some may not ensure protection of natural and cultural heritage values.

The Convention on Biological Diversity has the following as one of its Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Target 11):

By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes. (CBD 2011)

These last key elements of Target 11 have not yet been satisfied. For example, the National Reserve System seeks to reserve representative areas of land within Australia’s bioregions, each of which is a geographically distinct area of similar climate, geology, landform, vegetation and animal communities (Figure HER10 and Box HER17).

However, only 48 bioregions achieve the current target (3 fewer than in 2011), and 32 of the 89 terrestrial bioregions have less than 10 per cent of their area protected. During the past 5 years, reserved lands have decreased in 4 bioregions, but increased in 77. Figure HER11, which presents Australia’s terrestrial bioregions according to their current level of protection, highlights that there are substantial and extensive under-represented regional areas (see ‘Comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness of the terrestrial reserve system in the Biodiversity report).

Some of these changes reflect administrative decisions, rather than actual change in land status.2 The size and resilience of reserved lands are also a consideration: approximately half of the natural heritage areas in Australia that occur in public reserved lands are in pockets of less than 100 hectares. By contrast, more than 80 per cent of the area of public reserved lands occurs in blocks of greater than 100,000 hectares. To date, there has been no national evaluation of the natural conservation value or biodiversity status of reserved Indigenous lands (see ‘Investment in Indigenous land and sea management’ in the Land report).

By contrast, the total marine protected area increased from 89.6 million hectares to 323 million hectares (Figure HER12) and now substantially exceeds the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 (CBD 2011). The National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) includes 62 Commonwealth marine protected areas (MPAs), a major increase of 34 between 2008 and 2014 (see the Marine environment report). Australia has also delivered on the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio+10)3 commitment to establish representative networks of MPAs by 2012.

Australia does not have a national system for identification and protection of geological sites, other than through inclusion on the National Heritage List or state heritage registers. Kanawinka, an area with hundreds of volcanic and other geological sites and features, extending across the South Australian and Victorian border in south-eastern Australia, was declared Australia’s first Geopark in June 2008, but was deregistered in 2012. No other Australian places have been dedicated as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Geoparks.4

There is no longer funding specifically allocated by the Australian Government for acquisition of lands to be added to the National Reserve System and the NRSMPA, but resources can be made available through the National Landcare Programme and through establishment of IPAs (see ‘Management initiatives and investments’ in the Biodiversity report).

Although the National Reserve System and the NRSMPA are recognised as the major current instruments for protection of intact ecosystems (see the Biodiversity and Marine environment reports), issues arise in relation to what constitutes a comprehensive, adequate and representative system (DoEE 2017b). In addition, protected lands and waters will need to support biodiversity conservation under current and future climatic conditions.

Areas of natural heritage occur in both publicly and privately owned and managed lands and waters, and heritage values transcend ownership boundaries. 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 within the National Reserve System and the NRSMPA, as part of a broadly interconnected ecosystem (see Box HER11). A collection of baseline data on natural heritage values within regions would also be valuable (see Box HER18).

Indigenous heritage

A major achievement since SoE 2011 is a very substantial increase in dedication of IPAs (DPMC 2016a), which provide protection for significant sites and landscapes, and facilitate ‘working on Country’ (Figures HER13 and HER14). As noted above, the expansion of the National Reserve System to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity 17 per cent target has relied heavily on new IPAs. SoE 2011 (relying on Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database [CAPAD] data from 2008) noted 25 IPAs, covering more than 20 million hectares. As of January 2016, there were 72 IPAs, covering more than 65 million hectares (data from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet), which is more than a three-fold increase in area. As before, IPAs predominantly occur in the north and north-west of the country, reflecting the location of Indigenous owned and managed lands (Figure HER14).

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 2 considers the process of listing, area and distribution of identified Indigenous heritage places

Survey, assessment and listing of Indigenous heritage places around Australia are inconsistent. Most national parks include significant Indigenous heritage places (which are thereby afforded some statutory protection). State and territory jurisdictions prepare registers or statutory lists of Indigenous sites and hold information about them, which may or not be publicly available. State and territory statutory legislation also includes ‘blanket’ protective provisions, which are important to provide protection for unknown significant sites. Some highly significant Indigenous places are included on the National Heritage List or included within IPAs (see Box HER19). In many cases, it is the wider land or sea Country that is significant, rather than individual sites. Overall, it is likely that the representation of Indigenous places within reserved lands and on major statutory heritage lists is inadequate.

At the state and territory level, consistent and comprehensive data relating to Indigenous heritage lists and registers are not available. Partial information, provided by some jurisdictions, suggests that survey and assessment programs have continued to contribute to Indigenous heritage inventories and registers (Figure HER15). There have also been reductions—for example, 2319 sites were removed from the Western Australian register in 2013–14 following a review of a compliance report that demonstrated that these sites had been affected by mining following statutory consent (Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Western Australia, pers. comm., July 2016).

There is no readily available national perspective on the nature and extent of the Indigenous heritage resource—neither what is being listed nor what is potentially being destroyed, bearing in mind that most Indigenous heritage survey and assessment occurs in select areas, particularly in response to threats from development proposals. SoE 2011 highlighted how this situation contrasts with the circumstances of both natural and historic heritage, where national forums (the Heads of Parks, and the Heritage Chairs and Officials of Australia and New Zealand) are convened regularly to share information at a national scale to enable well-informed, holistic decision-making, based on proper understanding of the resource, and to agree to standards and formats for recording information. This disparity is addressed to some extent in the Australian Heritage Strategy, which commits to focusing protection efforts on Indigenous heritage and to ‘promote a consistent approach to the recognition, protection and management of Indigenous heritage sites across all levels of government and other organisations’ (Australian Government 2015a:43).

Historic heritage

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 3 considers the process of listing, area and distribution of identified historic heritage places

Australian historic place statutory registers are well established in all jurisdictions, but have been populated in an ad hoc manner, initially with a strong focus on buildings, and then in response to specific development threats. More recent practice in historic heritage listing has included a wider range of site types, such as historic archaeological sites, cultural landscapes and cultural routes. Listing programs have included more systematic survey and assessment projects, based on thematic studies, gap analysis, and systematic review of heritage lists at national, state and territory, and local levels. There has also been far greater direct involvement of local communities and incorporation of heritage lists within planning statutes.

In view of the limited resources allocated to historic heritage survey, assessment and listing in recent years, state and territory historic heritage agencies are focusing efforts and resources on improving the calibre of data, integrity representativeness and ease of use of their heritage registers rather than embarking on major programs for addition of new listings (DoEE 2017a; see Box HER16).

Mackay R (2016). Heritage: Identification: Types of Heritage. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0