Traditional Knowledge National Parks

Towards a More Active National Park and Environmental Protection System for Australia


Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, was known as the “enchanted enclosure”.[1] The idea of enclosure, caging up country to preserve and protect it, is a very European industrial society concept. In our post-industrial world it seems increasingly necessary to enclose flora and fauna to protect them. Even so, there is something inadequate about the idea of an enclosed park or protectorate. Enclosing or fencing off country is not sufficient in itself to preserve its natural qualities. People who live and feel a part of wild places know that in this world wildness requires active protection and participation, not just a fence and the equivalent of an owner or manager in the form of a State or the Commonwealth or for that matter a private agency.

The Royal National Park south of Sydney was the second national park in the world. Its 141 years since the concept of enclosing and saving native species was first conceived in Australia. The catastrophic Black Christmas bushfire of 2001 that reduced the Royal National Park to a moonscape was a wake-up call: if you do not ‘manage the wild’ then national parks just do not achieve their fundamental objective of protecting native flora and fauna from extinction. This is something Aboriginal Australians have been telling us for many, many years.

The genealogy of the administration of national parks is interesting. Yellowstone was ‘run’, in the first instance by army engineers whose principle task was to make the famous geysers and lakes more accessible. Then came the National Park Service in 1918. This began the formation of the legendary park rangers. The rangers' duty was ‘to protect the features and resources of the parks in their natural state, and see that they are accessible to the public’. The only economic developments allowed in the national parks were those for the convenience and service of visitors. No hunting was allowed. The national park was “a great natural museum” and the national park ranger was initially a skilled mountaineer and woodsman. As national parks began to attract more and more visitors, the rangers had to establish and maintain close contacts with the public.  Now in the USA over 200 million people visit national parks each year. As in Australia, national parks rangers are spending more time dealing with paper work and computers and visitors than they are protecting country.[2]

Of course Australia’s wilderness has been successfully managed in the past. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia[3] makes the case very convincingly that the 7.7 million square kilometres of the Australian land mass was actively 'farmed' by Aboriginal communities in a complex array of land strategies. Much hinged around using fire precisely and carefully. But the Aboriginal land management system required a people who were actively walking and living off the land and caring for their country. In many parts of Northern Australia Aboriginal families still walk and manage their lands as they have done for 40,000 years. I think Gammage’s book tips the surface of understanding the complex land management system that Indigenous people use to manage their country.  We still do not utilise their knowledge enough nor do we make a big enough effort to preserve their knowledge and use it as the basis for innovation for our farming and land management practices across the continent.[4]

Queensland’s first Indigenous national parks ranger Bennett Walker took up his post at Mossman Gorge in 1983. He had a distinguished career and though he does not like to talk about it, he miraculously saved a young boy in a flooded creek in the area and contributed an immense sum of traditional knowledge of the rain forest for the benefit of the national parks service. Most of the knowledge he contributed incredibly was self funded and he would even have his pay docked when he spent time involved in “Indigenous matters”. Bennett resigned reluctantly in 2001 because he was spending too much time in the office and not enough time looking after the land. The fact that the national parks are losing people like Bennett and others who want to actively work in the rainforests and wild places to conserve native plants and animals is a bad indicator. But Bennett needed to leave National Parks in order to create an independent Indigenous land and sea traditional knowledge repository that would be there for his family and the clans of the Kuku Yalanji people and also for the rest of us. Thanks to the support of the US Christenson Fund this knowledge base has now been created. Indigenous national parks rangers are now common but Bennett’s dream is part of a departure that we need to embrace wholeheartedly in order to really nurture our national parks and wilderness areas. Bennett has restored the traditional knowledge for his homelands of the Daintree so that it can be actively used and understood.[5] Most importantly Bennett’s sons Linc and Brandon actively practice and preach the Indigenous land management strategies to thousands of national and international tourists each year through their outstanding and successful Kuku-Yalanji Cultural Habitat tours part of the Bama Way Indigenous cultural tours operating from Port Douglas to Cooktown. Currently I would argue it is impossible for Bennett and his sons to do their work within the national parks system or from within government funded agencies.

(For more pay for and download the full paper listed below. 5000 words. Students and Indigenous community members can obtain this paper for free by emailing