Likely trends in key factors


The vision of the Australian Heritage Strategy is that:

Our natural, historic and Indigenous heritage places are valued by Australians, protected for future generations and cared for by the community. (Australian Government 2015a:3)

This vision is to be achieved through a structured program of high-level objectives, framed by national leadership, strong partnerships and engaged communities. The approach and vision of the Australian Heritage Strategy are clear, as is the intent to rely on partnerships with government, professional and community groups at all levels.

Australia’s heritage includes a diverse array of places, with a wide spectrum of natural and cultural heritage values. Different places and values vary in their resilience and response to current and future pressures, giving rise to a range of potential outlooks. Some factors, such as the legacy of former land clearance, species extinction or destruction of historic sites, are now beyond the scope of management responses. Other factors can be managed. The future condition and integrity of Australia’s heritage will therefore depend on how governments, heritage place owners and communities adaptively manage heritage places with limited resources, in response to continuing pressures and emerging threats, using both traditional and scientific knowledge.

The Australian Government has been proactive in heritage management in the past 5 years. In addition to the preparation of the Australian Heritage Strategy, the Australian Government has played an active role in World Heritage, partly through actions to address international concern about the Great Barrier Reef, but also by continuing to support the improved implementation of the World Heritage operational guidelines and a commitment to review the Australian World Heritage Tentative List. There have been significant allocations of project and program funding for World Heritage and National Heritage properties. Against this must be balanced the declining core staff resources, an overall reduction in grant funding and the relatively narrow focus of some programs, such as Protecting National Historic Sites. Although there have been some large and complex places included on the National Heritage List, the resources available for new assessments continue to decline overall across national, state and territory jurisdictions. There are opportunities for future focus on World Heritage and National Heritage sites through programs such as the National Environmental Science Programme. Several Australian Government agencies are yet to establish compliant and appropriate management arrangements for Commonwealth Heritage places. Greater resources and better data will be needed in the future if there is to be any improvement in the calibre and reliability of national assessments provided through the SoE reporting process.

The Australian Heritage Strategy presents an improved trajectory for Australian heritage, structured around programs and promises ‘to explore’ opportunities. The future will depend on sustained national leadership and the success of the Australian Government in involving other partners. The likely trend for Australia’s heritage will depend on whether policy-makers and legislators, stakeholders and the broader community become engaged and invest in implementing the strategy.

Climate change

Responding to the impacts of climate change is a major issue for heritage for the current generation. Climate change is causing rising temperatures; alteration to rainfall; and greater frequency and intensity of storms, wind, run-off, floods, droughts, bushfires and heatwaves. The consequences of climate change affect biological processes, increasing the risk from invasive species and loss of habitat. Altered rainfall, higher sea and land surface temperatures, more severe storm events, altered fire regimes, ocean acidification and rising sea levels can all affect the values of natural and cultural heritage places. Some significant heritage places have already been directly affected. The ability of natural areas to retain heritage values in the face of these changes will depend on adaptive management responses that avoid, minimise or repair environmental damage; assist in habitat migration; and manage or prevent the arrival of new species that may have negative effects.

Climate change also affects cultural sites such as Indigenous middens, sea cave deposits, archaeological sites and rock art, which depend on underlying landforms. Natural and cultural effects can be interconnected—for example, changes in species distribution wrought by climate change effects can affect cultural traditions, such as food gathering. Other cultural values, such as the condition and integrity of historic heritage, may also be affected by weather events or environmental changes. Without management intervention, altered fire regimes are particularly likely to lead to additional impacts on both biodiversity and cultural values.

Many major natural sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef, are threatened by climate change impacts. Substantial programs to address these impacts are in place and are appropriate, but there is a danger that focus on climate change impacts at iconic places may leave other significant, but less prominent, heritage places relatively under-resourced and exposed to long-term climate change threats.

Population growth

Pressures on natural and cultural heritage arise from both population changes and from the uneven distribution of people around the country.

In the more intensively developed coastal and urban areas, residential and commercial intensification presents heritage with development threats related to potential land use. In areas with more buoyant, development-focused economies, the identification of natural and cultural heritage resources, and their incorporation into planning schemes and development-consent conditions offers the optimal outcome for retention of heritage values. It is particularly desirable that the reasonable expectations of property owners or potential developers are managed by identifying heritage issues proactively, rather than reactively. Knowledge of the heritage resource through systematic and comprehensive survey and assessment is an essential precursor to values-based heritage conservation and management.

Population decline in rural areas, arising from changed land uses and developing technologies, 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. The outlook for rural heritage may therefore depend on more flexible approaches, which allow greater change, more viable heritage outcomes or even acceptance that, ultimately, some heritage places are best managed as ruins.

Recognition that there is value in the ‘inheritance’ of nature and culture may also influence heritage outcomes. The current community interest in ‘sustainability’ is obviously praiseworthy. Environmental ratings tools and measures of sustainability remain focused on renewable and/or recycled resources, and efficient energy performance, but recognition of the sustainable value of embodied energy and the intergenerational transmission of cultural values is growing.

Public-sector resourcing for heritage is directly affected by community perception of its value. Community perceptions are manifest in the way that heritage places are treated. In remote and rural areas, for example, 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 or resource extraction. Management of these community impacts will depend on effective communication and values, as well as on regulation and enforcement.

The outlook for Australia’s heritage may therefore rely on how well heritage is understood, appreciated and celebrated, both by the broad community and by those who make decisions about development consent, zoning and land use, statutory listing and grant funding. The Australian Heritage Strategy recognises that:

Interpretation, celebration and commemoration of our heritage places provides opportunities for communities to recognise, understand and be part of Australia’s stories. (Australian Government 2015a:7)

Economic growth

Economic growth presents threats to heritage through new development and resource extraction. Contemporary technology involved in these processes enables physical change on a scale that could not have been imagined by previous generations. In densely developed areas, there is increased pressure for greater urban density, including replacing significant heritage-listed buildings with new buildings. Extractive industries continue to pose threats to entire landscapes, which may be removed or highly modified to allow access to mineral resources. Change on this scale directly affects natural heritage values and often affects cultural heritage, particularly where Country and associated traditional practices are significant, rather than individual sites.

The declining resources boom in Australia has diminished the direct physical threats to sites and landscapes that hold extensive valuable mineral resources, but has also led to wider economic consequences and reduced resources, particularly in the public sector. Because heritage is seen by government as a ‘discretionary’ spend, the impact on public heritage programs may be proportionately greater. There are also fewer opportunities for funded site survey and assessment, reduced cultural programs undertaken as mitigation and fewer employment opportunities, particularly for remote Indigenous communities.

Natural and cultural tourism are increasingly recognised for their important contribution to the Australian economy. For example, the Australian Heritage Strategy notes that many Australian heritage places attract domestic and international tourists, and that the economic impact of iconic World Heritage places amounts to billions of dollars (Australian Government 2015a). As natural and cultural tourism continue to grow, it is important that the direct impact of increased visitation is managed, and that some of the resources generated by this tourism are reinvested in conservation and management.

Development potentially threatens all aspects of heritage. This is particularly so because of the reactive nature of the impact assessment system in Australian jurisdictions. Where heritage resources have not been previously included in reserved lands or statutory lists, they may be identified during the planning and assessment process for projects that have already been announced. This invariably results in heritage being conceptualised as a ‘problem’ and consciously damaged or destroyed, albeit in conjunction with some form of mitigating action. Issues may also arise in urban areas where underlying land values and development potential create conflict with heritage values. Early consideration of all types of heritage place within land zoning, planning and development processes has the potential to reduce such conflict, and thereby increase both heritage and economic value.

However, development may also provide opportunities for heritage conservation. Effective strategic planning, appropriate incentives and removal of obstacles to achieving good heritage outcomes are all important. Although heritage protection mechanisms remain reliant on proactive identification of heritage places, the long-term impact of development will depend on the importance placed by all levels of governments on the allocation of resources to dedicate appropriate representative areas of reserved lands, and to undertake comprehensive surveys and prepare comprehensive statutory heritage lists. Development pressures may also be reduced if industry and private owners of heritage places are provided with better conservation incentives.

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