Effectiveness of heritage management is constrained by the broader environmental and socio-economic context of heritage values, and the current and emerging threats to those values.

Understanding values

In the absence of basic information about the nature and extent of the heritage resource, good decision-making is difficult, and proactive strategic planning is impossible. Heritage needs to be systematically assessed both geographically and according to theme—across natural and cultural environments—to provide a sound basis for effective heritage management. The absence of such knowledge places additional pressure on natural and cultural heritage (see Box HER25).

Gaps in understanding Australia’s heritage resources extend across the full spectrum of places at all levels of jurisdiction and government. Some types of place, such as geological sites, are under-represented in statutory lists and reserved lands. At the international level, the IUCN and ICOMOS have prepared global studies of places and site types that are under-represented on the World Heritage List (ICOMOS 2004, Bertzky et al. 2013). The National Heritage List is not complete, despite efforts of the Australian Heritage Council and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy during the recent years of decreasing resources. The Australian Heritage Strategy recognises the need to determine the future directions of the National Heritage List, so that it truly reflects the Australian story (Australian Goverment 2015a, Outcome 2).

The representativeness and completeness of heritage registers are not only a national or international issue. The nature of our statutory protection and approval processes relies on comprehensive state and local lists. There has not been a comprehensive analysis of statutory listings in Australia, but it would be a timely and valuable exercise. SoE 2011 noted that, in its submission to the 2009 Hawke review of the EPBC Act, Australia ICOMOS identified the need for a strategic overview of heritage listing activity in Australia:

An expert review of all heritage registers in Australia should be undertaken, including the Register of the National Estate, with a view to developing a strategic view about the future of listing activities. The review should consider statutory and non-statutory lists. This review should be completed well before the statutory decline of the Register of the National Estate.  (DoEE 2017e)

No such review took place, despite the closure of the Register of the National Estate. The Australian Heritage Strategy is silent about the need for comprehensive heritage registers and adequately representative reserved lands.

Understanding threats

Climate change, population growth and economic growth all create threats for Australian heritage. Many of these threats are well understood and are being addressed through management responses. Some threats are beyond direct management. Legacy issues—such as the impacts from widespread land clearing, or the loss of an Indigenous landscape or tradition—may threaten the integrity of a natural or cultural landscape, but are impossible to reverse. Some invasive species are now so well established that management intervention is unlikely to restore the resulting degradation of heritage places. Respondents to the National Heritage monitoring survey indicate that invasive species are the most significant external pressure affecting the listed values of National Heritage places. Unplanned fire and exposure to the elements, including erosion and corrosion, also pose significant threats (WHAM 2017).

Climate change itself is beyond the control of heritage place managers, but they can respond to the pressures that it causes through mitigation and adaptation measures. Altered bushfire management (see Box HER26, and ‘Fire regimes’ in the Biodiversity report), active erosion control, and dune and midden stabilisation all demonstrate awareness and response to climate change threats. There is increasing awareness of the impact of population pressure, including the effects of rural decline and urban intensification.

Major developments—in particular, landscape-scale infrastructure or resource extraction—pose threats to Australian heritage. A worrying trend during recent years is a growing disinclination to enforce protective provisions. This seems to happen even when seemingly obvious breaches of legislation and substantial impacts to highly significant places occur. Another unfortunate trend is using regulatory means, including enabling legislation, to avoid existing heritage protection requirements, by addressing heritage matters through other legislation. The trend towards fast-track approval routes for ‘major projects’ or ‘state significant development’ is particularly concerning.

Mackay R (2016). Heritage: Understanding. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/heritage/topic/2016/understanding, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0