Tassie forest heritage listing could be revoked

By Joanna Egan 7 October 2013
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The Government plans to re-examine this year’s decision to add 170,000ha of forest to Tasmania’s World Heritage Area.

EXTENSIONS TO THE TASMANIAN Wilderness World Heritage Area could be under threat if the Coalition Government progresses its plans to have recently protected forests removed from the World Heritage List.

In June, the World Heritage Committee extended Tasmania’s iconic 1.4 million hectare wilderness area by 170,000ha. The Coalition Government plans to try to have parts of this extension delisted. More than two-thirds of the extension is made up of former State Forest. If the Tasmanian Liberal Opposition is elected in the March 2014 state elections, they intend to reopen these areas for logging.

There are fears that as well as damaging Australia’s international reputation, this could have a negative impact upon Tasmania’s tourism and forestry industries, and reignite protests by environmental groups.

“During the recent federal election campaign, the Federal Coalition said they didn’t like the World Heritage extension and announced that they will seek to have parts of the extension overturned by the World Heritage Committee,” Dr Phill Pullinger, spokesperson for conservation group Environment Tasmania, told Australian Geographic.

Heritage-listed forest under threat

Tom Baxter, a corporate governance lecturer at the University of Tasmania and former Tasmanian Greens election candidate, says that although the Coalition hasn’t explained how they plan to have the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s decision overturned, their intention to have parts of the newly protected areas delisted is steadfast.

“Senator Colbeck, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, has made public statements since the election saying that the Coalition will try to delist the newly World Heritage listed forests,” says Tom. “He hasn’t spelled out exactly how, but he has said the Government will ask the World Heritage Committee to rescind its recent listing of Tasmanian forests.”

Senator Colbeck confirmed to Australian Geographic the Coalition’s plans to have parts of the extension removed from the World Heritage List. “The Coalition’s plan provides the opportunity to have a sustainable forest industry into the future, including an environmental benefit, industry benefit and community benefit,” he says.

If the World Heritage listing is removed, the State Opposition intends to open the former State Forests up for logging. “The leader of the Liberal Party in Tasmania, Will Hodgman, has publicly threatened to direct Forestry Tasmania to log forests that the World Heritage Committee has included in the World Heritage Area,” Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim said in a statement in September. Nick says this “would expose Tasmania to international embarrassment and condemnation and destroy the clean, green brand that underpins tens of thousands of jobs.”

It is unprecedented for Australia to actively seek to remove World Heritage protection from a site of recognised natural and cultural importance. “Countries generally fight to stop the World Heritage Committee listing their nation’s sites as World Heritage In Danger, as Australia has done with the Great Barrier Reef ,” says Tom. “This is the reverse of that normal situation; the Government is actively seeking to delist forests in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area so they can be logged.”

Tom says that the removal of these forests from the World Heritage list will have a negative impact on Tasmania’s forest industry. “It will greatly damage the capacity of the Tasmanian forest industry to sell its product, particularly to customers increasingly demanding Forest Stewardship Council certification,” he says.

Delisting parts of the new extensions would also set a dangerous precedent for Australia’s other World Heritage sites. “If parts of the old growth forests of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area are taken off the World Heritage List, what would that mean for the Great Barrier Reef or the Blue Mountains or the Wet Tropics?” asks Environment Tasmania’s Phill Pullinger.

Reassessment for Heritage-listed forests

Phill says it is too early to say whether the Coalition will be successful. “I don’t know if they will be able to have it delisted,” he says. “Although they made some public policy statements in the lead up to the election, my hope is that the Australian Government will shift their position to a bit more of a pragmatic one, and recognise that it is a good thing that Australia has World Heritage sites.”

Mark Poynter, a spokesperson for the Institute of Foresters of Australia, disagrees that plans to delist parts of this particular extension would have implications for other Australian World Heritage sites. He believes the extensions were not adequately assessed in the first place, as a result of the previous Government’s nomination process.

Mark says the decision to add 170,000ha to the World Heritage Area was deliberately misrepresented as a ‘minor boundary modification’, so independent scientific evaluation of the area’s natural values by the World Heritage Committee could be avoided. “There is no doubt that the former Federal Government’s nomination of this World Heritage extension was rushed for political purposes,” he says.

“A number of the areas included in the extension are not really worthy of being World Heritage listed,” Mark adds. “Certainly parts of it are, including about a third of it that has been a national park since 1916, but extensive parts of the rest of it are comprised of a mixture of logged areas, some plantations and extensive road networks, including highways and a powerline. These areas don’t really fit with being part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.”

Mark believes there is a strong possibility that these areas will be reassessed under the Coalition Government. “I think the Government will ask the World Heritage Committee to come and examine these areas to check that they are of World Heritage quality,” he says. “If that occurs, areas that are obviously disturbed and have been used for wood production for a long time may well be taken out of the extension.

“It would be hard to defend an action of just delisting the whole extension without any assessment,” he says. “I think what they will do is try to separate out the areas that could remain as part of the extension from areas that shouldn’t be part of it.”