Warrumbungles - image courtesy Angus M Robinson.

Geoparks                                           

The UNESCO Global Geopark Program
UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. 

While a geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the areas natural, cultural and intangible heritages. It is about reconnecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home and to celebrate how our planet and it’s 4,600 million year long history has shaped every aspect of our lives and our societies.

Geoparks are both a development concept as well as a branding tool. They achieve these goals through conservation, education and geotourism.  Geoparks can comprise both protected and non-protected areas and enable and celebrate sustainable development of primary industries.

Geoparks can evolve through a series of levels from ‘pre-aspiring’, ‘aspiring’, ‘national’, ‘regional’ (e.g. European or Asia-Pacific Regions) to ‘global’.  There are now hundreds of geoparks around the world. Support to individual geoparks is offered through the Global Geoparks Network Bureau which is currently representing 120 members from 33 countries.  The original target of the Global Geoparks Network is establishing 500 geoparks around the world. The number is growing at a rate of about 10 new global geoparks per year.

A decision to establish global geoparks as UNESCO sites was taken by Member States at the 38th UNESCO’s General Conference, the governing body of the organisation, which met in Paris from 3-18 November 2015.  This new branding formalises a relationship with Geoparks first established in 2001. Global Geoparks have become an increasingly important tool for UNESCO to engage Member States and their communities in the Earth Sciences and geological heritage. During the UNESCO’s General Conference, Member States also decided to endorse the statutes of a new international programme: the International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme (IGGP).  This allows the organisation to more closely reflect the societal challenges of Earth Science today and provides an international status to a former network of sites of geological significance.

Geoparks in China
In China, there are three levels of geoparks: provincial, national and global geoparks, as well as mining parks.  They are all managed by local county or municipal governments under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Land and Resources.  Currently, there are over 320 provincial geoparks in China, among which 200 have already gained national status.  With 33 of these global geoparks (including Hong Kong Geopark) having acquired global status, China manages by far the largest number of global geoparks in the world.

Pre-Aspiring Global Geopark Projects in Australia
At the biennial Global Geoparks Network conference (GGN 2016) held at Torquay in the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark in September, it was announced that two Australian ‘Pre-Aspiring’ UNESCO Global Geopark projects would be developed during 2017. These projects celebrate two outstanding examples of volcanic geological heritage in Australia.

One project embraces the Warrumbungles in the Orana Region of New South Wales http://www.warrumbungle.nsw.gov.au/news/articles/unesco-geopark-for-warrumbungle-region, and the other embracing the Etheridge
 area of Far North Queensland – known as ‘The Golden Heart of the Gulf’.  These major geotourism projects are being driven by local government with the support of Regional Development Australia with steering committees being established to coordinate the work that needs to be undertaken to formally lodge nominations by the end of 2017 through the auspices of the Australian Government, at which stage these projects will be able to formally graduate to ‘Aspiring’ UNESCO Global Geopark Status.  It is expected that the entire preparation, nomination and decision making process may take up to three years to complete.

The Geotourism Standing Committee is in the process of establishing various technical reference groups to provide expertise in areas of geoscience, geoheritage and mineral heritage; in the latter case, for the Etheridge project, with an eye on mining heritage, representatives of the North Queensland and Far North Queensland branches of The AusIMM and the Queensland Museum have so far expressed strong interest. For both projects, it is anticipated that representatives of the two state Geological Surveys and the National Park Services will also be closely engaged in the nomination process. Of interest is the fact that both these projects were outcomes arising from the Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia (SEGRA) 2015 geotourism workshop held in Bathurst. A geotourism spotlight session held at SEGRA 2016 in Albany, WA has also resulted in follow-up discussions with regional development agencies relating to the potential for geopark development in Western Australia.

What defines a National Landscape?
In Australia a somewhat equivalent land use to geoparks is the former Australian National Landscape (ANL) Programme. This government initiative has been led until recently by a partnership of Parks Australia and Tourism Australia, but embracing strong local development of strategies and activities. The programme has represented a national long term strategic approach to tourism and conservation which aims to highlight the value of our remarkable natural and cultural environments as tourism assets, improving the quality of visitor experiences in those regions, and in turn, increasing support for their conservation. There are now 16 designated National Landscapes in Australia. With its integrative focus on landscapes as a whole, the development of geotourism within each landscape aligns with the core focus and sustainable development of each landscape region.

Designated Australian National Landscapes are similar to geoparks in that they
• have very similar goals relating to local development, education and experiential tourism (i.e. ‘geotourism’); and
• share the concept of delineating boundaries defined by visitor experiences and are not based on any existing land management boundaries.

However, designated national landscapes do not focus on fostering geoconservation, but have a broader ‘natural heritage’ remit. Moreover, the potential exists for individual Australian National Landscapes to seek geopark branding should there be a view that the global branding would enhance the geoscience attractiveness of these areas for international visitors and/or enhance regional development opportunities for state/territory governments.