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Is there room for science in the Tasmanian World Heritage dispute?

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 13 September 2013


Tasmania has over 1.4 million hectares of World Heritage-listed lands and forests. Last June, this area was expanded by a further 170,000 hectares when the United Nation's World Heritage Committee accepted a nomination by the then Federal Labor Government for a 'minor boundary modification'.

During the Federal Election campaign, the Coalition outlined its Tasmanian policy, including a pledge to undo this recent World Heritage extension because – in the words of Tasmanian Coalition Senator, Richard Colbeck – it was "rushed and political".

This is a valid criticism and the recent extension to Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) is yet another entry to a lengthy list of politically-expedient land and resource management decisions instituted by the Federal and State Labor Governments along Australia's southern and eastern seaboard since 2000. These include a swag of new national parks declared primarily to exclude demonised resource-use industries from areas with good environmental values despite a long history of resource use.

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While these populist decisions have been rapturously received in the Labor/Greens' inner urban heartland, they have devastated those regional and rural communities which have had to live with the consequences. Unfortunately though, the anti-resource use sentiment that underpins almost all mainstream media reportage of Australian environmental issues has masked this obvious sidelining of science-based decision-making in favour of political agendas, and it has thus far received little public scrutiny.

Opposition to the Tasmanian World Heritage extension stems from both the politically deceptive manner of how it was achieved, and the fact that tens of thousands of hectares of multiple use production forest has been inappropriately listed as being of World Heritage quality without any independent scientific evaluation of its supposed values. This includes areas with an extensive history of recent human disturbance, including clearfall timber harvesting and regeneration within the past 30-years, and older logging regrowth and plantations in areas that are regularly criss-crossed by roads (including highways, local roads, and forestry tracks) and a power transmission line.

There is no doubt that the former Federal Government's nomination of this World Heritage extension was rushed for political purposes. This was confirmed by Greens Leader, Christine Milne, who admitted after the nomination was accepted that "In parallel with the IGA (ie. the 'forest peace deal') process, Bob Brown and I worked with Minister Tony Burke to develop this extension and get this World Heritage nomination in....... so that it could be decided ahead of the Federal Election."

The determination of the Australian and Tasmanian Governments to meet a political agenda was further exemplified by their nomination of the proposed extension as a 'minor boundary modification' to the existing TWWHA. However, as the 170,000 hectare addition represents a 12% increase to the TWWHA'S area, this contravened advice provided to the World Heritage Committee last year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), that "A notional cut-off of 10% increase has generally been considered to be the absolute upper limit for a modification to be considered via the "minor modification" process,......."

Indeed, it has since come to light that the World Heritage Committee's cultural advisor recommended that the proposal be rejected as a 'minor boundary modification', but was overruled.

The political significance of this is that under World Heritage operational guidelines, a 'minor boundary modification' can be accepted for listing without any independent scientific evaluation of its claimed values and actual wilderness quality. Whereas a larger addition to a World Heritage Area requires a full evaluation of its nominated values which typically takes 18 months of investigation, consultation and documentation. Accordingly, only a nominated 'minor boundary modification' could have been listed before the Federal Election.

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Tasmanian community groups and other stakeholders concerned about the nomination who would have formally alerted UNESCO that it was bigger than a 'minor boundary modification' were stymied by being unable to access detailed information about what was being nominated. Then Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke's Environment Department did not post the nomination's details to its website until several weeks after UNESCO's submission deadline had passed in early February.

At the time, the then Federal Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Richard Colbeck, noted with some justification that Federal Environment Minister Burke "put this up as a minor extension, which we know it is not (because) he was trying to avoid any meaningful analysis of the nominated area...." and that this was "symptomatic of the way Mr Burke operates – a sham process littered with broken promises to industry and favours to green groups"

What has largely been ignored in the public discourse over this issue is that although much of the State Forests that comprise the TWWHA extension were previously being managed for future timber production, they had recently been earmarked to become new national parks and reserves under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement (TFA) Act 2013. Accordingly, the need for them to be also World Heritage–listed is somewhat questionable.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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