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Science the biggest loser from Tasmanian World Heritage decision

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 17 July 2014


Last month, the United Nation's World Heritage Committee took less than 10 minutes to reject the Abbott Government's bid to delist part of a 170,000 hectare, so-called 'minor' extension to Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area (the TWWHA) that had been engineered by the former Gillard Government.

In announcing the decision, the Committee described our Government's attempt to delist a 74,000 hectare portion of the 2013 extension as 'feeble' and said that delisting part of a World Heritage Area would have a set a bad precedent for other countries.

However, the decision to reject this delisting proposal has itself set an unfortunate precedent for Australia that it is now OK for politics, personal agendas, and nepotism to override science and due process in determinations of resource use and environmental policy.

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This can be inferred from the manner in which the initial 2013 TWWHA extension was achieved without requiring independent scientific study of supposed heritage values, and because the process itself was overtly manipulated for ideological and political purposes.

The imperative to extend the TWWHA arose from the Tasmanian Forest Agreement 2012 (aka the 'forest peace deal') which had resulted from two years of horse-trading between two narrow and self-interested groups – environmental activists (ENGOs) pursuing an ideological 'save-the-forests' agenda; and timber industry representatives bargaining under duress for their economic survival.

As neither group had been elected by the public to determine the future of a state-owned natural assett, many have derided this whole process as undemocratic. Accordingly, in stark contrast to past forest reservations based upon government-sponsored scientific evaluation and wide public consultation, the 'peace deal' simply allowed the three participating ENGO's to choose new forest reserves.

These proposed new reserves totalled over 500,000 hectares. They included areas of State forest adjoining the TWWHA that had been previously identified as having significant heritage values in a 2008 report prepared for the Wilderness Society by 'world heritage consultant', Peter Hichcock. The ENGOs had used his report at that time to underpin a failed attempt to have these same areas added to the TWWHA.

As part of the 'peace deal' process, the Gillard Government had appointed an Independent Verification Group (IVG) in 2011 and charged it with the task of veryifying the suitability of these ENGO-proposed new reserves. Unfortunately, the independence of the IVG was compromised from the start by the conflicted links of some of its members to environmental groups negotiating the 'peace deal' and the Greens party.

Most notably the IVG's Chairman, Professor Jonathon West, had formerly been a National Director of the Wilderness Society. In addition, its lead researcher, Professor Brendan Mackey, had been a previous Director of the ANU Wild Country Research and Policy Hub established as part of a financial partnership with the Wilderness Society. He had also been the lead author of a 2008 paper effectively advocating the end of Australian native timber production in favour of 'saving' forests for carbon. Given this background, concerns were raised about the independence of the IVG process.

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This lack of independence was further exemplified when Professor Mackey subsequently appointed Peter Hitchcock to assess the appropriateness of the areas proposed under the 'peace deal' for World Heritage listing. As he had originally proposed the same areas of State forest for addition to the TWWHA in 2008, his work for the IVG essentially entailed verifying his own earlier work.

Following the completion of the IVG process, the Tasmanian Forests Agreement was eventually signed in 2012. Soon after, the then Environment Minister, Tony Burke, oversaw preparation of the Gillard Government's nomination for extending the TWWHA. This was submitted to the World Heritage Committee in February 2013.

Significantly, the nomination misrepresented the proposed TWWHA extension as a 'minor boundary modification' even though it exceeded the nominal 10% threshold for such an addition to an existing World Heritage property.

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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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