Our heritage includes those places with natural, Indigenous or historic values that we have inherited and want to pass on to future generations. Heritage provides an important context for our perception of ourselves as Australians, and is part of the 'social glue' that binds communities together and expresses identity. Australians see natural and cultural heritage as important, but also as vulnerable, but these sentiments are not reflected in the resources devoted to heritage assessment and conservation.
The systems we use to manage our heritage are cumbersome: land reserves, inventories and statutes. These structures do not adequately identify, protect, manage, resource or celebrate our nation's natural, historic and cultural landscape. Our heritage is, as a consequence, at risk from the impacts of climate change, the threats arising from development and the pressures arising from population growth.
Although the value of our natural heritage is widely recognised, neither private nor public natural heritage places are adequately protected. The National Reserve System continues to improve, but reservation of a truly representative set of landholdings is hampered by factors such as perceived economic values. Climate change poses major risks to natural heritage and, if its impacts are to be managed effectively, scientists and managers will need work proactively and together. Our natural heritage is also threatened by inappropriate land use, development pressures, loss of habitat and invasive species. Adverse effects can be minimised through thorough understanding of natural heritage resources, recognition of the benefits of public-private partnerships and a 'whole-of-landscape' approach to conservation and management.
There is increasing recognition of the importance of Australia's Indigenous heritage by all Australians. However, Indigenous heritage in Australia is inadequately documented and protected. Incremental destruction continues. The inclusion of Indigenous heritage places within protected reserved lands is therefore particularly important. ‘Closing the Gap’ is a welcome initiative as is the increasing involvement of Indigenous people in sustainable land and sea management. However, loss of language, knowledge and traditional practices continues to erode Indigenous cultural traditions and connections to country.
There are many well-managed Australian historic heritage places that remain in good condition. However, statutory lists and registers are inconsistent and incomplete. Historic heritage conservation is not well supported by planning and assessment systems and is directly threatened by development pressure, often because heritage is identified only after a project is proposed and is therefore perceived as 'the problem'. Population shifts and inadequate incentives for private owners also threaten historic heritage. A wider range of management approaches would enhance the place of historic heritage in the community and facilitate effective conservation.
Overall, the outlook for Australia's heritage will depend on government leadership and two key factors: firstly, willingness to undertake thorough assessments that lead to comprehensive natural and cultural heritage inventories, and truly representative areas of protected land; and, secondly, our ability to respond to emerging threats through improved resourcing and more flexible heritage management approaches and processes.