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Will forest lock ups affect the Tasmanian election?

By Max Rheese - posted Friday, 14 March 2014


As Tasmanians vote in the election on Saturday it seems one of the issues that is going to influence a change of vote for many electors is how forestry and environmental issues have been managed in recent years, if managed is the right word.

Further large extensions to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area were proposed by the Gillard government last year to add to the already highest proportion of World Heritage Area (WHA) in any jurisdiction globally. 

Is it just a coincidence that employment in the forest sector continues to decline in a state desperate for job creation while a further 172,000 hectares of forest is proposed to be permanently reserved?

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The Tasmanian Labor Government did not propose the WHA listing, as that is the purview of the federal government, but they fully supported the nomination.

Some curious facets have emerged from the hasty nomination process by then environment minister Tony Burke ahead of the 2013 federal election faced by the beleaguered Gillard government:

  • The so-called ‘minor boundary’ extension of 172,000 hectares to the existing WHA exceeds the World Heritage Convention’s own guidelines for minor extensions by tens of thousands of hectares
  • Incredibly many areas in the ‘minor boundary’ extension have been recently logged, are regrowth from previous logging or consist of native and non-native plantations and therefore do not meet World Heritage Convention criteria for “outstanding universal value.”
  • By classifying the nomination as a ‘minor boundary’ extension the Gillard government avoided the lengthy independent scientific assessment of the many disturbed areas which would not have been completed before the 2013 election.  In short, as a ‘minor boundary’ extension the nomination would be rubber-stamped.
  • These same areas were rejected for inclusion in the WHA in 2008 after an investigation by the World Heritage Committee (WHC) that followed complaints by environment groups citing timber harvesting in these areas as compromising WHA values.

These issues and others have been put forward by the Abbott government and the Tasmanian Liberal opposition as providing the rationale for proposing a 74,000 excision of these disturbed areas from the Gillard government nomination to the World Heritage Convention.

It should be made clear the proposal is to excise only 74,000 of the 172,000 hectares in the original nomination.  A case in fact could be made, given that 20 per cent of Tasmania is already WHA, that any further nomination at all is unwarranted.

The federal government’s rationale to excise 74,000 hectares accords with both the World Heritage Convention guidelines and the principles of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a key participant in the formation and operation of the World Heritage Convention.

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These IUCN principles state in part “Both consumptive and non-consumptive use of biological diversity are fundamental to the economies, cultures, and well-being of all nations and peoples” and “Use, if sustainable, can serve human needs on an ongoing basis while contributing to the conservation of biological diversity”.

Article 2 of the World Heritage Convention states in part “For the purposes of this Convention, the following shall be considered as "natural heritage": natural sitesor precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty”.

The Convention further defines this central criterion as:  “Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity. As such, the permanent protection of this heritage is of the highest importance to the international community as a whole. The Committee defines the criteria for the inscription of properties on the World Heritage List.”

These two IUCN principles and Article 2 are central to the debate on the extent of the nomination. 

Firstly, consumptive use of natural resources is a fundamental right for communities in serving human needs and secondly, such use must be balanced between community needs and the conservation, not preservation, of natural resources.  Thirdly, either the area nominated is of outstanding universal value or it is not.

The unspoken heresy in this debate is that much of the conservation movement has long ago lost sight of its original mandate to advocate the ‘wise-use’ principle of natural resource use, balancing the needs of man and the environment, to instead advocating the preservation principle more bluntly articulated as the 'lock it up' mentality, where human needs are not equal to the needs of the environment, but a distant second.

This convenient erosion of principle incrementally over several decades which favours the needs of the professional hierarchy of the environment movement ultimately discredits environmentalism to the extent it has less than five per cent support from the community.  

For most participants the dispute is not over whether there should be a nomination of additional World Heritage Area, but the extent and the integrity of all the areas nominated. 

Clearly, substantial areas included in the nomination that consist of areas recently harvested for timber, regrowth areas from previous harvesting and existing native and non-native plantations are not areas of outstanding universal value as claimed by some.

These same areas that were the subject of confected outrage by environmental groups who decried their utilisation saying, untruthfully, they were despoiled for all time are now promoted by the same groups as worthy of inclusion in a WHA site.

While the Australian Environment Foundation has no doubt the harvested areas will regenerate in time to be barely distinguishable from undisturbed forest areas, as has occurred for a century and half in Tasmanian forests, these areas do not qualify as of outstanding universal value, as can be seen in the photos included in the AEF report  on the nomination process.

The area nominated by the Gillard government in 2013 as a ‘minor boundary’ extension (172,000 hectares) was more than seven times larger than that agreed to by the Rudd government in 2010  (23,783 hectares) when they said “Australia restates that it does not propose to extend the boundary of the TWWHA further.”  Then environment minister Peter Garrett rejected calls for further extensions to the World Heritage Area.

Classifying the nomination as a ‘minor boundary’ extension did however bring the dubious benefit for the Gillard government nomination of not requiring an independent scientific assessment of the nominated area, thereby avoiding scrutiny of the highly contentious conservation values of many areas subjected to timber harvesting for decades.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the ‘minor boundary’ nomination and its automatic acceptance as a WHA, if unchallenged, is that the previous promise under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement for access to valuable specialty timbers located within the new nominated area is negated without consultation.  This effectively creates a timeline for the demise of the specialty timbers craftsmen through ever diminishing supply of the specialist species they require.

If it is accepted that this process is about maintaining environmental values and upholding globally accepted International Union for Conservation of Nature principles, rather than condoning politically expedient advocacy, the current federal government’s amended nomination based on observed evidence needs to be accepted by the World Heritage Convention.

Whether many Tasmanian voters are aware of implications of the egregious flaws in the nomination process, which if approved will affect the balance of resource use and conservation for all time in Tasmania is unknown.  Certainly much of the media reporting has not highlighted adequately how the flaws undermine the veracity of the nomination.

What does appear certain is that voters know enough about the Labor Greens alliance and its outcomes for Tasmanians to want to vote for change.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Max Rheese

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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