Sydney’s Modern Ancient Treasure

When Phil Smith ran as Greens candidate for Heathcote at the March 2011 election he wanted to promote the Park, where he had regularly walked for thirty years. To learn more of it, he sought advice from ex-Park Ranger and Ecologist Bob Crombie.

Bob took him to special regions of the Park, outstanding scenery, Aboriginal sacred sites, half-forgotten writings and records.

Astonished, Phil said, “I was made aware that this public Park has been a treasure since the far-sighted founders set aside 36,320 acres between 1879-1887 – this is a green oasis within Sydney which has survived while the swift growth of the city was devastating to most of the bushland that had flourished till the First Fleet established colonial Sydney in 1788.”

The Sydney Basin’s Green Oasis

“Royal,” says Bob Crombie, “is part of the geological feature termed The Sydney Basin. Its base is the sandstone laid down in the Triassic Era 200 million years ago when plants were ferns, reptiles were evolving into dinosaurs, and small mammals were making a timid appearance.”

“What exactly is the Sydney Basin?” asked Phil.

“It extends, roughly, from Batemans Bay in the south to Newcastle in the north and Lithgow and Mudgee in the west.

“Its sandstones gave rise to very infertile soils, some of the poorest in the world, poor particularly in phosphorus and nitrogen. As if that wasn’t tough enough, the Basin has been subject to the El Nino weather cycle, marked often by droughts followed by periods of flooding rains.

Despite the infertility and droughts, the Park has managed over millions of years to evolve an incredibly rich diversity of species – indeed, today it is one of the world’s great megadiverse areas, a wonder of the world, a remarkable example of sclerophylly…”

“You’d better explain that,” said Phil.

The basin’s Sclerophylly

“Well, the root -sclero means hard or woody. The vegetation has a resilient toughness, frequently of small hard leaves, sometimes prickly, seldom tall-growing, and often exhibiting moisture-conserving bulbs, tubers and rhizomes.

“The Park’s dominant sclerophyll character and diversity is a triumph over adversity. It has now over 1130 plant species, which display a fantastic array of sclerophyll adaptations. This fact alone makes the Park worthy of world heritage listing. Few people realise, for example, that the Park, with the wider Sydney Basin, has been the centre for the evolution of eucalypts.”

RNP’s Heritage Listing Will Spark Emulation

“There’s no doubt that when we achieve World Heritage Listing of RNP, all remnant areas of the Basin will clamour for the same recognition – for example, Kuring-Gai, Dharawal, Dharug, Woronora Plateau and Yengo…

“The Greater Blue Mountains is the largest Park region of the Sydney Basin and it won its Listing on intrinsic values of its area, but these values can be broadened to take on the values of the entire Basin.”

“Clearly”, said Phil, “what we’ve seen as Sutherland Shire’s wonderful Park is far more than that – it’s Sydney’s, Australia’s and the World’s!”

The Royal Campaign Widens

How easily simplicity vanishes! When we first looked at Royal a year ago as “First National Park” we thought that said it all. But now we’ve looked more deeply and we glimpse a more complex, richer picture.

While there’s no doubt ours is this continent’s first dedicated national park (1879), thoughtful supporters have asked for attention to the time before 1788 when the park was part of continuous bushland, part of a large region – a distinct ecological region broadly termed The Sydney Basin.

Attempts to define this “basin” usually begin with its underlying rocks which have contributed to determining its soils – first the “Permian Shales and coal seams” put down 250 million years ago; second the “Tertiary Shales and sandstone” put down 65 million years ago. Upon these bases have arisen the distinctive ecological area we conveniently call the Sydney Basin.

Our Royal, established so early, has fortunately survived, relatively unscathed, the destructive development of widespread and rambling urban Sydney. Royal’s good fortune is turning out to be important for other parts of the Sydney Basin. Royal has “linchpin” significance for other parts that have survived fairly well – notably Kuring-Gai National Park and, on our border, the Greater Blue Mountains National Park (which won World Heritage Listing in 1998).

If our bid for World Heritage Listing is successful, then this is bound to enhance the will of other areas, and certainly Kuring-Gai, to seek similar recognition. It will enable even mighty Greater Blue Mountains National Park to add values-criteria to those that were recognised in 1998.

We should also make more than we have of claims for “Cultural Recognition” of our National Park. That is, we should go beyond the range of ecological values we have thus far emphasised.

There are, for example, the strong claims of Aboriginal leaders, that we must remember the values of the Aborigines prior to their dispossession by Europeans from 1788 onward.

The Aborigines’ land was not “terra nullius”: it was the land of an ancient people who reverenced all of nature. Understandably, they looked on bewildered at the land-hungry Europeans. There should be no private ownership of land, they said; rather, the land owns us, owns the people.

Surviving evidence of indigenous occupation is abundant in Royal, in rock-paintings, middens, burial sites, tool-sharpening sites, and more; and to this material evidence needs to be added surviving language and place names – and of course The Dreaming, which is more than the cosmology of sun, moon, stars and Great Serpent, it is their everything.

Dr Geoff Mosley, drafting our report, will make the larger case, a comprehensive one for Royal’s World Heritage Listing, and incidentally will provide arguments that can be taken up by other parkland areas for their recognition within the world picture of heritage.

Advances in Our Campaign

With the campaign enjoying unanimous expressions of support, we sent our reps to inspect the official books that won the day for World Heritage Listing of the Blue Mountains National Park (in 1998). This was instructive.

Major report. The key BMNP report was written by Dr Geoff Mosley, the recognised authority on Australia’s many national parks. Good news is that he has undertaken to write our report. We will produce it in book form for presentation to the Australian Government which will in turn present it to the United Nations (UNESCO).

We will use all the resources of the recent printing revolution to offer a polished and colourful book.

Also a compelling “lobby book”. This will be used by our supporters to “lobby” politicians, academics and others to support the cause. They will be asked for short letters, including need to add Garawarra State Conservation Area and Heathcote National Park to Royal National Park. This book too will contain lovely colour photos that illustrate significant features, along with brief text.

And eventually a celebratory book. Because we are very confident, we are looking forward to producing a celebratory coffee table style book, full of beautiful and inspiring photos that will be a lasting record of the WHL campaign.

New research keeps coming forward. Mention must be made of impressive research done by Helensburgh historian Allan House, who does not question the “firstness” in Australia of Royal National Park (1879), but who brings to light new evidence on Yellowstone which, he believes, deserves to be called “first” from 1872. We have sent his research to Geoff Mosley for an opinion

World spread of National Parks

Yes, our Royal was undoubtedly the first dedicated national park in Australia AND, we can claim, first in the world.

But, instead of being brashly nationalistic about this claim, let’s try more maturely to fit Australia’s achievement into the great world movement for national parks in the 19th century.

In other words, let’s make a historian’s distinction between event and process. “Events” are the surface of history, whereas “Process” is the depth. Process is what leads up to an event, plus the event itself, plus what flows from the event. For example, decades of national antagonisms led to the event World War I and then carried-over only twenty years later to World War II – showing how shallow is an exclusive focus on event.

Quiet remarkably, just a hundred years after NSW’s foundation, some leading citizens and MPs dedicated our park in 1879 as ”National Park”, in precisely those words. Bear in mind that up to Federation in 1901, NSW was a sovereign state within the British Empire, you might say “a nation”. (“Royal” was added in 1955, after young Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1954.)

Origins? Since ancient Greece, there’ve been instances of setting aside unspoiled national areas as reserves, refuges, parks or even “the king’s forest”. But the modern “national park” concept required “to be enjoyed by the people” – and dedicated as such by a government.

Not surprisingly, the modern movement arose in the 19th century, reacting to that century’s population explosion, urban explosion, industrial explosion.

Poets and artists were first to express the need: William Wordsworth in 1810 hoped England’s Lakes District would be a “sort of natural property in which every man had a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.

USA. President Andrew Jackson set aside land in Arkansas in 1832 to protect thermal springs and mountainsides. In 1864 a large Yosemite Public Park was set aside and in 1872 Yellowstone State Park (not termed “national” till later). Yosemite became “national” in 1890, as did also the large Sequoia reserve.

Canada. Rocky Mountains National Park (Banff), 1885.

New Zealand. Tongariro National Park, 1887.

Sweden. Nine parks set aside, 1909.

In the 20th century, thousands of national parks have been dedicated, especially after World War II.

Note. The national parks movement has never been a breeze: bitter opposition has often come from profit-motivated property developers, miners and loggers; and even when dedication has been won, opponents have often striven to sequester areas.

Megadiversity of the Royal – and of the Sydney Basin

What a big word megadiversity is! But no other will do to convey the riches Royal National Park has to offer.

Yes, Big/Great/Huge in its diversity. Most obviously its biological diversity, of plants, forests, insects, birds, and animals, but also of its landforms, rocks, soils, waters, views, rocky coastline and beaches and Aboriginal sites.

Much of it is not just special; it is unique to Australia.

On a planetry scale, even, it is remarkable. The UN has identified 17 megadiverse countries, and of these Australia is one of the most megadiverse, with only Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico and Columbia.

Unquestionably, the Royal is one of our continent’s most megadiverse regions. And as Bob Crombie never ceases to stress, its World Heritage Listing would open the way to extension of the region so that it not only takes in the Garawarra State Conservation Area, Heathcote National Park and Holsworthy Military Reserve but also much of the Illawarra to the south and the grand arc of surviving green areas of the Sydney Basin to the north and west.

Interestingly, urban Sydney, with over 4 million residents, should be seen not as something apart from this wide megadiverse region but as part of it – a realisation that dramatises the importance of many surviving green(ish) pockets, including wetlands (“marshes”), cliff slopes, cemeteries, and not least some verges, wastelands and even backyards.

You could say that in the last 20 years a new worldwide philosophy is emerging. In 1992 the UN’s “Earth Summit” took place in Rio de Janeiro and came up with the Convention on Biological Diversity. It has since been signed by nearly 200 countries, which are legally bound to implement its sustainability provisions.

Let’s be outspoken for World Heritage Listing of the Royal. Did you know it has more birdlife than mighty Kakadu!

What’s National in “National Park”?

Australia the “lucky country”? You bet we are! Despite quibbles over pros and cons, one huge stroke of luck has put us ahead of every other country on earth: we are a single nation, government, populace on an entire continent.

Yes, “bound by sea” and not chopped up by boundaries into separate nation-states that have histories of border raids, disputed territories, bloody wars.

No “grab” for Australia! Whereas the European powers competed in colony-grabbing on Africa, the Americas and elsewhere, only one imperialist power, Britain, “grabbed” effectively on this continent. Its invasion, from 1788, though disastrous for the Aboriginal people, was not seriously contested by any power. The name “Australia”, rooted in Latin australis (south), took a while to catch on. Ordinary people preferred “I’m an Australian” to “I’m a New South Welshman”. The best of our British governors, Macquarie (1809-21), used it in his correspondence, then the British Admiralty complied in 1824.

The great goldrush of the 1850s trebled the colonial population to over a million with irreverent diggers who had no doubt they’d come to “Australia”.

Hence a “National Park”. Not long after the main goldrush, a group of farsighted Sydney conservationists prevailed on New South Wales’ young parliament (since 1856) to gazette a stretch of unspoiled bushland in 1879 as “The National Park”, 18,000 acres, increased to 36,320 acres by 1887.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 29 March 1879 headed “A National Park” said “a better name could not be given”. On 2 April it added, “extent and beauty will hardly find its parallel within the same distance of any metropolis in the world”.

National right enough. As Britain recognised separate colonies on our contintent (NSW 1788, Van Diemen’s Land 1803, etc.) each had the status of sovereign state, i.e. nation within the Empire, equivalent say to Rhodesia within the African colonies. And nationalist movements were then seething in Europe (“Italy” in 1860s, “Germany” in 1870s). Our Sydney founders were in no doubt that “National” was the right term. (The “Royal” was only added in 1955, after young Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1954.)

Progress Towards World Heritage Listing

Here’s a brief account of actions thus far in the Campaign for World Heritage Listing launched on 11 March 2010 by a meeting held in Sutherland Shire Council Chambers.

  • The Campaign aims to persuade the Commonwealth Government to take up the issue and then make an appeal to the United Nations’ relevant committee, UNESCO. RNP is already listed as a protected heritage by the NSW State Government. We will embrace this as a base and add to it.
  • We have widely publicised four great features of the Royal: (1) that it was indeed the world’s first “National Park”, set aside on 26 April 1879, preceding mighty Yellowstone (1883) in the United States; (2) that RNP is in many ways unique, not least for its location within a major city; (3) that it exhibits extraordinary diversity of plants, animals, rock and soil types, not to mention wonderful views; (4) that Royal’s pioneer status and natural riches make it the respected leader for all other parks on the Australian continent.
  • The Campaign has written to six Australian universities and other institutions inviting learned studies of the Park. Three have so far responded.
  • Campaign leaders have been interviewed by radio station 2SSR. Other stations will be approached. Major articles have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.
  • Bob Crombie is negotiating with the eminent team of wildlife photographers, Stanley and Kaisa Breeden, for production of a major coffee-table-size book on the Park, which will feature its remarkable biodiversity. A First-in-Australia new photo technique will produce a book deservedly called “stunning”.
  • Botanist Alan Fairley’s book, Discovering Royal National Park on Foot, has been gifted to all members of Sutherland Shire Environment Centre (and can be purchased online
  • To keep in touch with the Campaign, please send your email address to

Ours was Indeed FIRST!

You are wrong if you follow the myth that Yellowstone was the world’s first modern national park with our Royal coming later. Here’s the truth – that our National Park predated mighyt Yellowstone by several years.

First ‘National’. While Yellowstone was one of a number of ’State’ or other regional parks by the 1870s, our park “was in fact the very first protected area anywhere in the world to be officially named as a national park” – on 26 April 1879. So says Australia’s top authority on national parks, Dr Geoff Mosley. On that date 18,000 acres was set aside (increased in 1880 to 35,000 acres, and in 1889 to 36,320 acres).

Welcomed at once by the Herald! Three days after the historic dedication, the Sydney Morning Herald, in an article headed “A National Park”, declared “a better name could not be given”! (29 March, 1879). And a few days later it added that the area “for extent and beauty will hardly find its parallel within the same distance of any metropolis in the world”.

As to Yellowstone: it was not initially proclaimed a national park but, by the Yellowstone Act of 1 March 1872, as a “public park or pleasuring ground for the enjoyment of the people”.

Yellowstone confirms our ‘first’. When Yellowstone celebrated its centenary in 1972, its Library and Museum Association’s commemorative book Yellowstone, A Century of the Wilderness Idea, said, “But the first time the words ‘national park’ were used in the body of a public act was in the establishment of Royal National Park near Sydney, Australia, in 1879. It was then simply called ‘The National Park’ (the first legislative reference to Yellowstone as a national park occurred in 1883 in a bill relating to appropriations)”.

News! Dr Geoff Mosley will speak at Sutherland Entertainment Centre, Thursday 16 September, 6.30pm.

Four Great Features of Our RNP

The campaign, launched in March, to achieve UN “World Heritage Listing” is gathering learned papers on the very special features of our Royal National Park. Here, broadly, are 4 areas of that specialness.

First! Beyond question, the RNP’s founding as “National Park” in 1879 made it the first such park on the mighty continent of Australia. “Royal” was added after young Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1954. Moreover, our RNP must be recognised as “First in the World” as it was from the first named a National Park on 26 April 1879, whereas the great Yellowstone Park in the United States, though established early in the 1870s, was not termed “National” till 1883.

Unique! The RNP is almost certainly the only national park in the world located within a major city. Those farsighted pioneers of 1879 located it on the margin, but Sydney has since enclosed it. What a treasure it is! Visited each year by 4 million, mainly Sydneysiders, it generously provides open space, recreation, photo abundance, clean air (“lungs of Sydney”) and endless bushwalks, not to mention Aboriginal heritage and superlative natural phenomena.

Diverse! The bid for World Heritage Listing will specify a biodiversity as rich as the rarest on the planet. At least 1130 plant species are identified, including many classed as “rare and endangered”, and diverse fauna including an extraordinary number of bird species. Add to all that, four major rock/soil types and remarkable variety of scenery. So let’s see this as Sydney’s  20,000 hectares of significant habitats that conserve the unspoiled nature which greeted Cook and Phillip in the late 18th century.

Benefits! World Heritage Listing will widen public and government recognition. Will promote need to preserve other wilderness areas. Will strengthen resistance to damaging “development” proposals. Will increase visits by school and university study groups. In short, will do great things for Sydney and Australia.

Let’s Tell the World!

This year, 2010, becomes itself historic – for launching the campaign that is determined to win World Heritage Listing by the United Nations of our historic Royal National Park.

Historic! It was in 1879, less than a hundred years after Sydney’s foundation, that a small group of farsighted citizens persuaded New South Wales MPs to set aside a “National Pak” – using those two words – on the southern outskirts of early Sydney. It would make the southern border of Sutherland Shire when the Shire was set up in 1906, and would be termed “Royal National Park” in 1955, following the visit in 1954 of the young Queen Elizabeth II.

First in Australia! So our wonderful protected public nature reserve became the undisputed, very first, national park on the bi continent of Australia. It was immediately popular with Sydneysiders. (Today it records 4 million visits each year.) Few of the early visitors ventured boldly into its forests, preferring to picnic safely on small patches of cleared ground, like at Audley. Great as was the contribution of those visionary founders, they could not have known that they were incidentally launching the Australian Conservation Movement, citizens who have ever since sprung to the defence of green areas threatened by profit-motivated “development”.

First in the World! For a long time there’s been controversy over “Which was first?” Didn’t mighty Yellowstone National Park in the United States get in ahead of us? No, says historian of Australian Parks, Dr Geoff Mosley: ours was in fact the very first to e officially named as a “national park” – on 26th April 1879 – 18,000 acres, which was increased to 36,320 acres by 1887. The generous Yellowstone people have since acknowledged our precedence in 1879, whereas Yellowstone became “national” in 1883. Close, indeed, but no longer any doubt about it.