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Reading the Tea Leaves: What can we learn from Australia and Canada?

By Brenda Barrett November 30, 2014

Do the recent midterm elections in the United States signal a change in the nation’s heritage policies? To read the tea leaves, we might look to the fate of parks and heritage conservation programs in Australia and Canada – where conservative governments have recently been in power. In the past, both countries had a track record of innovative heritage programs – developing world class historic sites, new approaches to the recognition of indigenous cultural values and strong interpretation of history and nature. So what has been the impact of the fiscal belt tightening of Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada?

Photograph courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. Photograph courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

In Australia, there has been a wholesale retreat by the national government from heritage programs. Heritage professionals bemoan the lack of leadership, dwindling resources (funding and staff) and less rigorous planning and guidance for the conservation of cultural and natural resources. Environmental organizations are concerned about the devolution of planning controls over heritage sites from the national government to the states. This has raised questions about the protection of World Heritage sites such as the Great Barrier Reef. One heritage leader has described the Abbott government’s abandonment of support for the Australian National Heritage List (formerly the Register of the National Estate) in 2007 as “a body blow for the nation’s heritage”.

In Canada the once preeminent cultural and natural resource agency, Parks Canada, struggles under a maintenance backlog estimated by a recent consultant report as $2.77 billion. A continual pattern of budget reductions – in 2014 alone there was a $27 million reduction in operational funding out of a total budget of $650 million – has left parks reeling and struggling to keep the doors open. A decade ago, the agency had a staff of well-respected architects, historians and planners. These services were privatized and then with reduced funding disbanded. Programs such as recognition for National Historic Landmarks have been put on hold indefinitely.

Photograph Brenda Barrett

Prince Edward Island National Park Canada. Photo Brenda Barrett.

Overall not a very happy prospect, but could this happen in the United States (US)? While politically we are close cousins to these two countries, there are some significant differences. For one thing we have a much stronger Federal system. In Australia and Canada their states or provinces always had a more dominant role in heritage conservation and all other government services. For example, in Australia many of the states have their own national park system. The results for heritage have been that wealthy and well-populated areas have been able to pick up the slack and continue heritage programing at the regional level. For poorer, less populated areas like Tasmania and the Yukon not so much.

Another important difference is the US’s long tradition of political advocacy. The National Parks Conservation Association was created one year after the US National Park Service to be a watch dog over park programs. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Action and now the Coalition of National Park Retirees play a similar role. While the picture is not uniformly rosy, as the NPS heads towards its centennial in 2016 and the National Historic Preservation Act turns fifty, the future of parks and heritage programs are in a better position than other parts of the world.

The take away from all this is, whether you like your tea with lemon or milk —- it pays to be vigilant.


Caring for Country: Aboriginal Australia

By Brenda Barrett December 2, 2013

When attending a conference on cultural landscapes in Australia, the Aboriginal people I met all worked in the field of conservation as land managers, rangers, and interpreters.  Now this was not too surprising considering the circumstances, but as it turns out this caring for place, or as it is called down under – country, is a deeply rooted tradition of Indigenous Australians.  Recent scholarship by historian Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) documents intensive management of the continent’s landscape primarily through fire.  He found their care of the land merged theology and ecology in a web of practices that made natural resources bountiful, predictable, and in balance.

Today Australia’s Aboriginal peoples make up only 2-3% of the population, but their presence is made visible in multiple ways. The landscape is defined by the names they gave its geographic features.  Interpretive signage and even hotel blurbs recognize the original inhabitants of the land.  Most powerfully, every official event or meeting in Australia opens with some variation on the words, “ I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respects to their elders past and present.”

At a major public meeting there will often be a welcome by an Aboriginal elder – someone recognized as having ancestral connection to the country where the meeting is taking place. These rituals or protocols known as Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country are one element of the nation’s reconciliation movement  that began in the 1990s. To visitors from the United States this regular and public acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples and their place on the land is striking.  By contrast in our country the long history of the American Indians on the North American continent is not routinely recognized. It is only featured if the meeting impacts tribal lands or is a big deal big international event – think the Olympics in Salt Lake City.

In Australia, as in the United States, the arrival and colonization by European populations followed a similar grim pattern of exploitation, disease, and displacement.  In Australia the initial devastating impacts of outside contact were followed by programs of resettlement in missions and in the 1950s the forcible removal of children from their families. The people that had lived on the continent for almost 60,000 years were only given the right to vote in 1962 and the right to be counted in the nation’s census in 1967. An increasing push for the rights of the Aboriginal community culminated in 2008 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology to the Aboriginal peoples and specifically to the stolen generations. He noted that saying your sorry is powerful simply because it restores respect.

What are the lessons we can learn from Australia and apply in the United States? In 2009 our Congress issued an apology to the American Indians – tucked deep inside the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act. The wording of the apology concludes that we should  “harmoniously steward and protect this land together.” Unfortunately this apology has recieved little attention. But here is an idea perhaps  the conservation community could take the next step.  What if we started to “acknowledge” the traditional caretakers of the land and better yet what if we developed effective programs to recruit American Indian young people for careers in the lands protection and stewardship.

Just a thought…