The Western Australian system of protected areas (PAs) covers more than 15 million ha and is the second largest conservation estate of the Australian continent. An analysis of the history of the creation of PAs in Western Australia shows that the concept of nature conservation through reserves was slow to emerge. During the early decades of the century, reserves were mainly created for their recreation values. The lack of governmental interest in nature conservation led to a belated development of reserve coverage up to the 1950s, while vast areas of land were opened to farming and pastoralism. Following two scientifically-based reviews of the PA system, the number and coverage of PAs increased dramatically up to the late 1970s. The rationalization of the vesting and managerial responsibilities for PAs was only finalized in the 1980s. Since then, there has not been any large increase in PA area but a consolidation of the PA coverage. The development of the system of PAs has been impeded by the belated response of Western Australian governments to conservation concerns and a 'worthless' land approach to conservation as a land use. While large-scale land alienation for agriculture has now stopped, other types of land uses such as mining and other aspirations over land management and vesting, such as Aboriginal land claims and forestry are now constraining any large expansion of the PA system. Only an approach embracing the whole landscape can overcome the political and social limitations of the concept of PAs and the further degradation of developed land in Western Australia.