The battle for Tasmania’s wilderness

By John Pickrell 29 November 2013
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Could the government have the 2013 addition to the Tasmanian World Heritage Area revoked, asks John Pickrell.

 AUSTRALIA’S WORLD HERITAGE areas are having a tough time. In 2013 it was revealed that the Great Barrier Reef had lost half its coral cover since the 1980s. Now, due to a series of port developments for coal and gas exports, it is hanging under the threat of ending up on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”, the precursor to World Heritage status being removed.

It would be embarrassing for this to happen in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, one that holds under its guardianship perhaps the most famous natural World Heritage Area (WHA) on the planet. 

While we await the World Heritage Committee’s decision on the reef, it now appears that the Tasmanian Wilderness WHA could be at similar risk. In June 2013, the committee voted to add to the existing 14, protected area, which now covers 22 per cent of Tasmania.

Stunning strips of forest

The additions comprise many stunning strips of forest along the eastern and northern borders of the existing WHA, which grew to envelop areas including the eastern- and northern Great Western Tiers; Mount Field National Park; and the Huon, Styx, Upper Florentine, Picton and Counsel river valleys.

The extension was well received by conservation workers and environmentalists who believed these areas were now protected in perpetuity. It seemed a fitting way to mark 30 years since the High Court decision that saved the Franklin River from damming in July 1983.

However, in the run-up to September’s federal election, the Coalition said it did not agree with the extension, which had been formalised under the Labor government, and it would seek to have part of it delisted from the WHA if it was elected.

Value of Tasmanian forests

This has been reiterated since the election and was confirmed to AG by Richard Colbeck, Liberal senator for Tasmania and parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Agriculture. Will Hodgman, Tasmania’s Liberal opposition leader, has said that if his party wins the state election in March 2014, they’ll allow logging in parts of the extension that were previously state forest. Environmentalists say that this would be an unprecedented act of ecological vandalism.

About one-third of the newly added area is made up of pre-existing national parks and reserves that have pristine old growth woodlands and tall eucalypt forests that are of undisputed value. However, Mark Poynter of the Institute of Foresters of Australia has argued that, as the extension was not scientifically assessed for World Heritage values, it inappropriately included heavily disturbed former state forest areas.

He also says that the area added in June was ushered in as a “minor boundary modification”. The World Heritage Committee accepts these small modifications without the independent scientific analysis of value and wilderness quality that it requires for larger areas. The June addition was allowed despite the fact that minor boundary modifications typically constitute no more than a 10 per cent increase to the area of a WHA, and the new addition represented a 12 per cent increase.

Legal complications

The problem now for the Coalition is that it may not be legally permissible for recent additions to be removed. This has never been attempted in Australia and there is little experience of it internationally – usually governments fight to have territory added to the World Heritage List, not removed. Even more worryingly, if logging was to occur in disputed areas, it might place the entire WHA under threat of going on the danger list.

Some argue that removing the new areas with the minor boundary modification rule is unlikely to succeed, as they protect the integrity of the overall WHA, but this remains to be seen. One legal option would be to renounce Australia’s support for the entire World Heritage Convention, but we have to hope the government will come to its senses and realise that this is a step too far.

John Pickrell is the editor of Australian Geographic. Follow him on Twitter @john_pickrell.

Source: Australian Geographic Nov/Dec 2013