Knowledge centre

Research and publications

The NSW park system

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) within the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) is the lead agency for establishing and managing the NSW park system and providing protection to the State's native plants and animals.

Lake Pamamaroo, Menindee Lakes, Kinchega National Park (Photo: J Spencer/OEH)

Parks are declared under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 to protect and conserve a variety of values, including outstanding natural systems, unique karst landforms and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultural connections to the land.

The OEH Corporate Plan outlines OEH’s purpose to enrich life in NSW by helping the community to conserve and enjoy our environment and heritage. Parks are the cornerstone of conservation efforts in NSW.

The NSW park system comprises more than 870 parks protecting over 7,142,675 hectares of the state. The 2008 National Parks Establishment Plan identifies priorities for building the NSW park system over the next decade and aims to target inclusion of currently under-represented ecosystems.

Within the NSW park system, parks are assigned to different categories depending on their specific management objectives. Park categories include national parks, nature reserves, state conservation areas, Aboriginal areas, community conservation areas, regional parks, historic sites and karst conservation reserves.

Specific parks or areas of parks can also be declared as wilderness areas or wild rivers, or be subject to international agreements such as being listed as a World Heritage Area, on the Green List of Protected Areas or containing important RAMSAR wetlands.

The values we protect in the NSW park system

The NSW park system protects a wide array of natural, cultural and social values. These values play an important role in determining how a park is used and how it should be managed. Parks sit within broader landscapes that have diverse and complex sets of values.

Aboriginal people are major stakeholders in park management, because Aboriginal people have culturally specific associations with the landscape, based on each community's distinct culture, traditions and laws. OEH acknowledges the inseparable links between Aboriginal culture, land and everyday life, and acknowledges Aboriginal people's cultural and custodial relationship with the landscape.

Natural values

The natural values of the NSW park system incorporate biological, geological and geomorphological values, many of which are recognised on state, national and international listings of significance. In some cases, whole parks have been recognised as World Heritage Sites.

Corroboree Frog, Kosciuszko National Park. (Photo: J Spencer/OEH)

Protecting biodiversity is one of the NSW park system's fundamental roles. Biodiversity is crucial to healthy, functioning ecosystems, which in turn provide services such as absorbing greenhouse gases and providing clean water through filtration.

The NSW landscape also contains a wide range of geological and geomorphological features (geological diversity). Many of the state's significant geological features are located within parks, such as the weathered lunettes of Mungo National Park, the remains of weathered volcanoes found in the Warrumbungle and Wollumbin (Mt Warning) national parks and the glacial remains that occur within the alpine area of Kosciuszko National Park.

More than two per cent of land in NSW has been formally declared Wilderness. These areas are still close to their natural state and are protected so the natural processes of evolution can continue over large areas to ensure biodiversity is conserved for our future. Wilderness areas include a variety of landscapes such as mist-prone rainforests, waterfalls, snow-prone alpine areas, river valleys, gorges, eucalypt forests and desert plains.

Cultural values

The NSW park system plays an important role in the conservation and presentation of cultural heritage values.

Cultural heritage is the landscapes, places, objects, customs and traditions (and their contexts) that communities have inherited from the past and wish to conserve for current and future generations.

Fossil footprints in Devonian sandstone, Mutawintji Historic Site (Photo: J Spencer/OEH)

Cultural heritage therefore comprises physical or 'tangible' sites, places and objects, as well as 'intangible' values and cultural practices associated with those landscapes, sites, places and objects. Cultural heritage includes traditional, historical and contemporary associations of people with places. Natural elements of the environment may also have cultural meanings and values.

Conserving our heritage helps us to understand our past and to contribute to the lives of future generations. It gives us a sense of continuity and belonging to the place where we live. Many communities have diverse values and associations with parks and other protected areas.

Lands managed by OEH display a broad range of heritage values, both natural and cultural. For thousands of years these lands have been the traditional Country of different Aboriginal nations. Aboriginal spiritual and cultural values exist in these lands and their associated waters, biodiversity and natural resources.

Aboriginal people have custodial responsibilities to care for their Country. Although the cultural practices of many Aboriginal people were changed with arrival of settlers, Aboriginal people have sought to renew or continue those cultural practices, to maintain their links with the land and care for Country.

Both Aboriginal and settler histories can be seen in myriad signs across the landscape, such as stone tools, occupation sites, and the remains of fence lines, huts and homesteads. The tangible cultural heritage OEH manages includes the 1860s gold rush town of Hill End, complexes of buildings at the Quarantine Station at Sydney's North Head, historic roads and bridges, moveable heritage collections, and Aboriginal rock art. Intangible heritage in parks includes local Aboriginal peoples' associations with the land and cultural practices, as well as the broader community's attachment to places.

Public appreciation, understanding and enjoyment

Parks bring vital environmental benefits to communities living within and around them as well as to society at large. While parks are established primarily for conservation, they are also established for social and scientific reasons.

Discovery tour, Pilliga National Park (Photo: J Spencer/OEH)

Parks play an important role in our health and wellbeing. People value parks as sanctuaries, as places of solitude and tranquillity, as settings of natural beauty, as places to discover and learn, and as destinations for recreational and holiday activities. Research has shown that visiting a park can lower blood pressure and improve mental wellbeing. Spending time in a park environment leads to better health and fitness for individuals and the community in which they live.

Parks provide the space and opportunity for the community to interact and socialise, leading to a shared community experience. These experiences can in turn lead to increased community satisfaction and pride and promote community integration.

Parks provide the opportunity for people to establish or continue their connections with, and understanding of, the environment. Informally, parks provide examples to the community of natural landscapes and ecological systems, enhancing awareness and appreciation of nature and conservation. Formally, parks are also used for education programs and excursions, often offering a variety of guided activities, such as the OEH Discovery program.

Building the NSW park system

The park system is the cornerstone of the broader NSW conservation effort and provides a solid foundation for biodiversity conservation. OEH is committed to developing a world-class comprehensive, adequate and representative public park system. A comprehensive system will include the full range of ecosystem types within NSW. An adequate system ensures that the level of reservation is large enough to maintain species diversity, as well as evolution and community interaction. A representative system ensures it is conserving the diversity within each ecosystem type, including genetic diversity.

The NSW park system has grown by 5 per cent since 2010. In July 2014, the NSW park system comprised 867 parks protecting over 7,097,735 hectares, or 8.85 per cent of the state (Table 1).

Table 1: Growth in the NSW park system since 2010

Park Type

Number of parks

Area (ha)

June 2010

July 2014

June 2010

July 2014

National park





Nature reserve





Historic site





Aboriginal area





Karst conservation reserve





Regional park





State conservation area





Community conservation area Zone 1 - National park





Community conservation area Zone 2 - Aboriginal area





Community conservation area Zone 3 - State conservation area










Map 1: The NSW park system as at July 2014

The NSW park system as at July 2014


The 2008 NSW National Parks Establishment Plan identifies priorities for building the NSW park system over the next decade. Establishing new reserves, consolidating existing reserves and fine-tuning reserve boundaries continues to be a high priority for OEH. Many of the state's ecosystems, especially those west of the Great Dividing Range and coastal lowlands are poorly represented in the NSW park system. This plan identifies priorities for building the NSW park system in each bioregion, recognising this is a long-term mission that will take up to 50 years to achieve. The plan also provides a basis for reporting on our efforts to build the park system.

The reservation goals adopted in the National Parks Establishment Plan are based on the principle that existing and future opportunities for building a comprehensive, adequate and representative park system will vary greatly across NSW. It recognises that in regions where little native vegetation is left, the prospects of establishing a park system are limited and long term reservation goals are adjusted accordingly. For more information, see section 5.3 Reserves and Conservation of the 2012 State of the Environment Report.

Future directions

  • Continue to build a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system to help protect key species and provide opportunities for future generations to enjoy parks, through the establishment of new parks, the consolidation of existing parks and fine-tuning existing park boundaries.

  • Target priority areas identified in the National Parks Establishment Plan. These include poorly reserved ecosystems and habitats, wetlands, floodplains, lakes and rivers, critical landscape corridors, lands within important water catchments, culturally important places, places of geological significance and important areas for effectively and efficiently managing existing parks.

  • Strategically target new acquisitions to increase reserve resilience to climate change and identify the highest priorities for reservation and integrate these with complimentary private land conservation measures.

Further information



Page last updated: 06 June 2017