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ABC Fact Check Unit loses its way in the Tasmanian wilderness

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 3 April 2014

Last week the ABC Fact Check Unit released its report and findings on whether the Abbott Government was being truthful by claiming that 74,000 ha of forest added last year to Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) had inappropriate values and should be delisted.

Their Fact Check report of this issue appeared with a head and shoulders photo of Tony Abbott and the words 'Doesn't check out' emblazoned across it, thereby suggesting that this topic pandered to twin sensibilities of the ABC's inner urban Green-Left audience to both save the environment, and embarass the hated new Prime Minister.

The inordinate focus on Prime Minister Abbott was precipitated by his recent speech to a large forestry sector gathering in Canberra several weeks earlier in which he articulated the Government's intention to delist this area from the TWWHA because it contained 'degraded' and 'not pristine' forests.


In particular, the Coalition Government's regular use of the term 'degraded' in relation to these areas has piqued the ire of ENGOs and those on the Green-Left side of politics with an insatiable thirst for reserving ever more trees but on whom the nuances of forest values are somewhat lost.

However, rather than being an abject description of the ecological value of all of these forests, their 'degraded' description refers specifically to their 'wilderness values' given that they have been added to a Wilderness World Heritage Area property despite, what Tasmanian foresters say, is a lengthy and fragmented history of human use for timber production since European settlement.

No-one, including the ENGOs, dispute that parts of the 74,000 ha have been used for timber production and are now regenerating. This includes a significant number of recently harvested coupes that are now covered in very young regrowth not much more than a few metres tall. However, it has been somewhat bemusing to observe the hypocrisy of ENGOs now desperately justifying these just-harvested, regenerating areas being within a World Heritage Area despite decades of deriding them as unnatural 'plantation monocultures' with no biodiversity values.

Like the ENGOs, the ABC Fact Checking Unit has misunderstood the context of the term 'degraded' and, perhaps because of an overwhelming determination to embarrass the Prime Minister, have assumed (either deliberately or inadvertently) that it relates only to past disturbance from timber harvesting. By presuming such a narrow definition, they've reasoned that they only need prove that much of the area hasn't been disturbed to expose Mr Abbott and his Coalition Goverment as liars pursuing an agenda of environmental vandalism.

However, if they'd understood that this was about wilderness values and consulted the various definitions of 'wilderness', they would have found it to be a landscape-scale concept which encompasses features such as being 'untramelled by man' (the USA Wilderness Act, 1964), being 'not developed with roads.... or other industrial infrastructure' (The WILD Foundation), and 'remote from the influences of European settlement' (Commonwealth of Australia, 1998). These factors are regarded as being equally as important to the concept of wilderness as is being 'intact, and undisturbed', and 'truly wild' (The WILD Foundation).

Accordingly, it is entirely possible for healthy, good quality forest to have 'degraded' wilderness values if it is easily accessible or not remote, and contains evidence of recent or current human use. This is the case with the 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest that is currently in dispute.


According to Forestry Tasmania, the area contains nearly 21,000 ha (or 28% of the total area) of regrowth or mixed age forest that has been previously harvested for timber stretching back in some places to pre-1900 times. As this past disturbance is widely scattered, it is has been serviced by a network of forestry roads and tracks that are either still maintained or are now overgrown, but still evident. In addition, a major highway and a powerline and associated cleared easement pass through other parts of the area, and there were also several small plantations included within it. Accordingly, it doesn't meet the definition of 'wilderness' and is quite understandably regarded as an inappropriate addition to a Wilderness World Heritage Area property.

Not only has the ABC's Fact Checking Unit ignored the landscape notion of what constitutes 'wilderness', but their narrow focus on past disturbance by timber harvesting has also been highly flawed.

Undeniably, Forestry Tasmania, as the state's forest management agency, is the primary source of knowledge about the past history of its public forests. Keeping records of past operations and other disturbances, such as bushfire, is a primary function of a forest management agency.

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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 Going Green: Forests, fire, and a flawed conservation culture, was published by Connor Court in July 2018.

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