Environment Law in the Northern Territory

Overview of heritage and culture conservation

Introduction

This Fact Sheet provides an overview of the way heritage conservation laws work in the Northern Territory.  The focus of the Fact Sheet is on heritage conservation of land.

One of the ways the natural environment can be protected from development is by protecting heritage places under heritage laws.  Heritage laws are designed to stop activities that could damage or desecrate places recognised for their natural or cultural value and require people who are going to use or carry out works at such places to get government approval before doing those activities.

Natural places with heritage values including coastlines, cliffs, springs and other landforms, places of recognised natural values, plant and animal communities and ecosystems are all capable of being protected under heritage laws.

The natural environment can also be protected under laws that establish parks or reserves, for example National Parks or Commonwealth Reserves.  For more information, read our Fact Sheet Series on Protected areas.

What is heritage and culture?

The protection of heritage and culture can apply to:

  • Protection of places and objects of historic, scientific, aesthetic and social significance
  • Places of international natural, cultural and historic value
  • Aboriginal sacred sites

How is heritage protected?

There are four ways that places with natural or cultural heritage value can be legally protected in the Northern Territory.  These ways are through the protection of:

  1. Places that have been declared as “heritage places” under the Northern Territory Heritage Act 2011. This law can be used to give conservation protection to a variety of places following a process for assessing and declaring heritage places. The Act protects places that are on the Heritage Register by requiring anyone who wants to carry out works to apply for and obtain a works approval. Sites that are Aboriginal or Macassan archaeological places are automatically protected under this Act because they have been declared to be heritage places. For more information, read our Fact Sheet on Heritage conservation under the Heritage Act 2011.
  2. Aboriginal sacred sites under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act and the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.  The Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act protects all Aboriginal sacred sites on land or water within the Northern Territory.  There is a Register of Sacred Sites, which is maintained by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. People who want to use or develop land on which there is an Aboriginal sacred site must obtain a certificate from the Authority.  For more information, read our Fact Sheets on Indigenous heritage and Conservation of Aboriginal sacred sites.  There is some overlap between the laws that protect Indigenous heritage.  Aboriginal sacred sites protected under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act could also be protected as declared heritage places under the Heritage Act 2011.
  3. Places that are recognised for the natural or cultural values at a world level are protected under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. These are properties that are listed in the World Heritage List or which are declared to be a world heritage property by the Commonwealth Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.  For example, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kakadu National Park are both listed on the World Heritage List. Australian Government approval is needed before anyone can do anything that will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the cultural or natural heritage of a world heritage property.
  4. Places that are nationally recognised heritage places, which are listed on the National Heritage List are protected under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  Australian Government approval is needed before anyone can do anything that will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the national heritage values of a national heritage place.

Who are the regulators?

The Northern Territory Heritage Council is responsible for approving or refusing works on heritage places under the Heritage Act 2011.  The Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment is responsible for approving or refusing major works on heritage places under the Heritage Act 2011.

The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority is responsible for approving or refusing uses or works at Aboriginal sacred sites.  It is also the regulator responsible for enforcing breaches of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act.

The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities is responsible for approving or refusing actions that could have a significant impact on world and national heritage sites under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  The Commonwealth Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities is responsible for prosecuting breaches of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The Minister Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities has powers to make special orders, called declarations, to protect significant Aboriginal areas from desecration under the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.

The National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory) is a non-government organisation established to promote (amongst other things) the:

  • preservation of the natural aspect of lands, features and animal and plant life
  • preservation and maintenance of lands and buildings of beauty or of historic, scientific, artistic, architectural interest