Permits and regulations

  • Why have permits and regulations?
  • What are permits and regulations?
  • Types of permits and regulations
  • Accreditation and licenses
  • Finding out about permits and regulations

Land managers throughout Australia use a variety of permits and regulations to manage impacts and levels of use by outdoor enthusiasts. Many recreationists regard controls such as permits as an unwanted intrusion into their outdoor recreation experience. The reality is that such permits may help to ensure that the environment we enjoy so much remains in a condition that enables that enjoyment. Outdoor recreation permits might apply to areas of public land (parks, forests, etc.) or to private and semi-private land (plantations, water supply catchments, etc.), if recreation is an accepted use in these areas.

Why have permits and regulations?

National parks, forest areas, coastal reserves and other types of reserved land all have a variety of objectives in their management. The primary objectives may range from strict conservation objectives (e.g. wilderness or scientific reference areas) to timber-harvesting objectives in public or private forests. Secondary objectives may include recreation, grazing, education and a wide range of other purposes. Conservation of ecosystems and the provision of opportunities for recreation and education are usually listed amongst the primary objectives for managing areas used for outdoor recreation.

Land managers are responsible for ensuring that any secondary uses do not adversely impact on the primary objectives for managing the land. In conservation areas, the natural functioning of ecosystems takes precedence and recreation (and other activities compatible with management objectives) are managed and controlled to ensure they do not lead to unacceptable impacts on the primary objective of the land.

Without permits and regulations, land managers would be powerless to control activities and levels of use. And without such controls, there would be no restriction on where recreation activities (for example) could occur on every piece of public land. Uncontrolled recreation use would result in conflict between user groups and damaging impacts on the environment from incompatible activities.

What are permits and regulations?

Regulations are legislative controls which provide the land manager with powers to allow or prohibit certain activities. Regulations in most states and territories enable land managers to define whether camping should be permitted in parks, forests or reserves. These regulations often stipulate conditions designed to protect human health (e.g. toilets 100 m from water bodies and rivers) or the conservation of the environment (e.g. no camping within 30 m of a stream). Acts of parliament in all jurisdictions affecting the management of land (e.g. national parks act, forests act) all have regulations attached to them that outline the powers and responsibilities of land managers in permitting or restricting use.

When management plans are prepared for parks, forests or reserves, these regulations are further clarified for that particular area of land. It is not unusual therefore for different activities to be allowed in different zones within a park or forest, or on different types of land. Local conditions relevant to activities in that particular environment are also indicated in such plans.

Almost all land used for recreation in Australia is managed by states or territories (which have set up their own land management acts). Regulations affecting outdoor recreation activities are therefore different in each, and the separate land management authorities in each state or territory has its own interpretation of its regulations.

Permits are the means by which land managers enable specific uses to occur and set the conditions under which those uses will be allowed. Most people would be familiar with camping permits required to stay in high use campgrounds during peak holiday periods. These permits usually specify the length of stay and other conditions (noise, pets) allowed as part of this ‘permission’. As well as permits for recreation activities, licences, leases or permits may also be issued for activities such as grazing, short term events, and support services (kiosks, etc).

Types of permits and regulations

Land used for recreation in Australia is managed by a wide variety of agencies from federal, state or local governments, to committees of management and even corporations. It is not possible to fully list the variety and complexity of outdoor recreation permits and regulations that will affect recreation users across Australia. There are some general categories of controls that land managers use to protect the areas they are responsible for, and to separate incompatible activities.

Controls on activities
Land managers use zoning or permits to allow or prohibit different types of recreation activities. For example, many national park agencies prohibit horseriding in national parks, or restrict the activity to formed vehicle tracks. Similarly, camping is usually not permitted in day-visitor areas, as the camping activity is likely to discourage day users, with tents taking up much of the available area. Off-track walking may be allowed by managers of high-use parks under a permit with strict conditions.

Rockclimbing may not be permitted where certain native species are being afforded protection (e.g. peregrine falcons), and mountain bikes are usually not permitted on walking tracks because of the damage they could cause to these narrow tracks or potential conflict with other users. Hunting is controlled by legislation and regulations under specific acts.

Other outdoor recreation activities such as paragliding, fossicking or orienteering may be permitted at defined sites or on specific dates in parks, forests and reserves suitable for these activities.

Controls within activities
Even if an activity is permitted in an area, the land manager may impose certain conditions on use that define when, how and how much of the activity is acceptable at any one time. For example, four-wheel drives and other vehicles may be prohibited on certain tracks during the wetter months of the year. For bushwalking, ‘fuel stove only’ areas are being introduced where open fires are prohibited; and restrictions on the size of groups permitted to use a particular site or area are becoming more common.

These activity conditions on use are designed to protect the environmental values of natural areas and the enjoyment of outdoor recreation activities themselves. As the number of outdoor recreation users grows, we can expect additional controls and conditions on activities.

Accreditation and licences

Land managers also realise that they have a specific responsibility not just for the land they manage, but also for the safety and well being of the people they permit to use that land. As litigation following accidents increases and overall use levels rise, land managers are looking for ways to ensure that those using outdoor recreation environments are doing so in the most responsible way, and also in the safest way for those they lead.

Outdoor leaders can therefore expect to be increasingly required to justify what skills and experience they have before taking novices and others into potentially hazardous outdoor environments. How will the land manager have confidence that the groups he or she permits to use an area are adopting the best safety procedures and demonstrating the best environmental ethics?

The answer is best provided by the outdoor recreation community itself, in demanding that those who purport to lead others into natural areas demonstrate that they have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience for the expedition they are undertaking. To protect themselves from litigation, land managers will be looking for outdoor recreation and education organisations to demonstrate that they have taken steps to ensure their leaders are adequately trained to deal with the situations likely to be encountered in the outdoors.

Almost all land managers already require commercially-based outdoor recreation and education operators to obtain permits for activities in parks, forests and other reserves. Such permits include public liability insurance requirements, group sizes and operating periods, and are increasingly seeking demonstration of either accreditation or appropriate training. Educational and community groups are also subject to these requirements, as land managers strive to ensure all organisations taking people into natural environments have the skills to be there and deal with situations that could be expected to arise.

Finding out about permits and regulations

It is best to assume that regardless of where you intend to travel in natural environments in Australia there are some regulations or rules which govern your activity in that area. No parks, forests or reserves are without regulations to control various activities, and although your proposed activity may not necessarily be specifically covered by regulations, the chances are that some element of your activity (e.g. camping, vehicle access, toilets) will be covered by regulations or local conditions of use.

In the main, permits and regulations are based on common sense and have a sound basis for their existence in protecting the land, ecosystems and enjoyment of natural areas.

Always check with the relevant land manager for regulations covering your intended activities and the locations you intend to use. These might be found in management plans for the area, or can quickly be confirmed by direct contact with the land management office closest to the area you wish to visit. A regular outdoor leader will take the time to find out who manages what land in their state or territory and the best way to contact the local land manager or ranger. Usually a phone call is all that is needed to determine if a permit is required, and how it may be obtained.

Good leaders inform and educate their groups about the reasons for and benefits of permits and regulations affecting outdoor recreation.