Ullswater-as-an-example-of-Cultural-Landscape, photo from http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk

The push to have Royal National Park inscribed on the World Heritage List has been going on now for five years and has won widespread support amongst conservation groups and the local community, including the Wollongong City and Sutherland Shire Councils. The case for World Heritage recognition is easy to understand when one considers that Royal National Park, reserved in April 1879, was the first protected area in the world to be set aside for what was, then, a new land use purpose of “national park”. In the USA the term, as at Yellowstone in 1872, was used differently, to indicate that a park was under federal, not State, jurisdiction.

What happened at Royal, and at Yellowstone, was that in the 1870s the public park movement made an enormous leap from reserves in the urban environment such as Parramatta, Hyde and Moore Parks in Sydney and Central Park in New York into natural environments. This was the beginning of the global national parks system and it is important that this major step in protected area history is internationally recognised. Surprisingly the theme of ‘an area of importance in world protected area history’ was not recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee until on the 9th July, at its 41st meeting in Krakow Poland, it decided to inscribe the English Lake District on the World Heritage List. In doing so it gave international recognition to the role this area had played in the development of the conservation movement and the concept of protected areas.

The World Heritage listing of the Lake District only occurred because of the incredible persistence of English conservationists over three decades. The first nomination of the site was made in 1986 but the World Heritage Committee deferred action in 1987 and again in 1990 while it considered the broadening of the World Heritage values’ system to include cultural values including cultural landscapes.

It may seem ironic that other sites that are important in relation to the 19th Century evolution of conservation and protected area ideas and concepts have yet to be inscribed on the World Heritage List for these values when one considers that it was the centenary of Yellowstone National Park that inspired the introduction of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972 and that there are many sites on the List commemorating aspects of the Industrial Revolution

Returning to the Lake District decision we have to go back in terms of origins to the incredible insight of a Lake District local, the poet William Wordsworth, who, in an Introduction to the 1810 book Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire, expressed the now widely held view that everyone has an interest in scenically attractive countryside regardless of ownership, saying that the Lake District was “a sort of natural property in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to see and a heart to enjoy”.

Initially, it was thought that the conservation remedy for preserving the rural and natural landscapes of the Lake District and other scenic areas would be through the efforts of a non-government group The National Trust, formed in 1895, but between the two World Wars it became increasingly, clear that a bigger effort to secure the planning and management of these areas was needed and this was provided in 1949 by the passage of national parks and access to the countryside legislation.

Although different in character to the national parks of Australia and the USA the inclusion of the Lake District National Park on the World Heritage List for its importance in the history of conservation and protected areas must surely have unlocked the gate for the listing of other sites that have played an important role in the establishment of the extensive systems of national parks and wilderness areas in natural areas that are now world wide in distribution

In Australia the federal government has the final responsibility for nominating sites for World Heritage listing but is currently leaving the job of assessment largely to the State and Territory Governments. After taking advice from consultants, the New South Wales Government arrived at the conclusion that the theme needed for a successful nomination of the Royal National Park was “The Evolution of Conservation Philosophy and Protected Areas”. This view was arrived at before the World Heritage listing of the English Lake District, which should have changed everything. This theme now exists. Time to open the gate Australia.

• Geoff Mosley has been involved with World Heritage since 1973.

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