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Australia sends mixed messages on iconic World Heritage areas

This week, experts will debate the future of two of Australia’s World Heritage areas, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar. The world will be watching, as it…

About 5% of the Tasmanian Wilderness could delisted as a World Heritage area, if an Australian government request wins international approval. Ta Ann Truths/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

This week, experts will debate the future of two of Australia’s World Heritage areas, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.

The world will be watching, as it will be again later in the year when Australia hosts only the sixth-ever international congress on national parks.

From June 15 to 25, the United Nations' World Heritage Committee will meet to revise the global list of World Heritage properties. On the list is the Australian government’s request to delist 74,000 hectares recently added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area, on grounds that the area includes some “degraded” forests.

World Heritage sites currently listed “in danger”. UNESCO

Last month, a draft decision was released recommending that the World Heritage Committee leave the current boundaries unchanged, based on two reports by conservation bodies.

Also on the table this week is whether the Great Barrier Reef will be listed as “World Heritage in Danger” due to development on the Reef. However, a final decision is now not expected until next year.

Open for business – but what kind?

Australia signed the World Heritage Convention in August 1974, vowing to ensure “the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of its natural and cultural heritage” and undertook to do this “to the utmost of its resources”. If Australia now decides to renege on this commitment it would be a serious breach of its duties under the Convention.

We do not know how exactly how serious the Abbott Government is about these historic responsibilities, but the signs so far are not good.

In March this year at a timber industry dinner in Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about the Tasmania’s World Heritage area and said that:

We have quite enough National Parks, we have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.

The government is persisting with its attempt to delist some of the current Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area against the recommendations of a Senate Committee, and the draft advice to the World Heritage Committee.

The approval of major port expansions on the Queensland coast is also sending the message that Australia is not serious about World Heritage.

The Great Barrier Reef was added to the World Heritage list in 1982, with the support of the federal and Queensland governments. Its future seemed secure — with an expansion of marine parks, and a ban on oil exploration.

If the reef is placed on the World Heritage in Danger list, it would not just be a serious blow to Australia’s international conservation status. It also has the potential to harm reef tourism, as Barbara Norman explains here, which is estimated to be worth A$6.4 billion a year and 64,000 jobs for Australia.

The federal government has also approved alpine grazing trials in Alpine National Park, long proposed for World Heritage nomination. The trials are in fact one of the reasons that this year’s World National Parks Congress will be hosted in Sydney, rather than the initially proposed host city of Melbourne.

Mixed messages

Meanwhile the federal government has committed itself to placing Royal National Park on Australia’s Tentative World Heritage List, an inventory of the areas a country considers to be worthy of world heritage nomination.

Royal National Park has been reserved as a formal national park since April 1879, which makes it the oldest in the world to be set aside for the purpose of a “national park”. Originally created as “lungs of the city” for a rapidly growing Sydney with similarly increasing health problems, Royal National Park acted as the seed for the spread of national parks and protected areas in Australia.

Australia currently has two other sites on its Tentative List — an extension to the Fraser Island World Heritage area, and to the Gondwanan Rainforests on the Queensland-New South Wales border.

Cape York Peninsula has been proposed as another site for World Heritage nomination, but has been held up for years by the failure of successive federal governments to win the support of the Queensland Government and some of the region’s Aboriginal groups.

In contrast, countries such as the USA and the UK have 13 sites each on the Tentative Lists.

Australia has 12 other sites that have been proposed for World Heritage nomination but which are not on its Tentative List, including The Kimberley and the Alps and Eucalypt Forests of South East Australia.

There is another obstacle in further developing Australia’s Tentative List. Since the abolition of the Standing Council on Environment and Water in December 2013, there is no Australian inter-governmental body with a responsibility for ministerial liaison and cooperation on World Heritage.

Australia on the global stage

In November, Australia will host the 2014 World National Parks Congress, organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Australia’s past achievements, and the performance of the present Australian government, will be on display in Sydney for 3,000 delegates from 160 countries. In particular, attention will be on our World Heritage performance.

In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to the delegates to the First World Conference on National Parks, declaring:

A letter from then US President John F. Kennedy to the First World Conference on National Parks The Internet Archive, CC BY

It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our national resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.

Throughout history, much of the most productive human thought, many of our cultural concepts, have been shaped in the out-of-doors.

As rising population pressures tend to emphasise conversion of resources into commodities, we must be careful to safeguard adequate and representative examples of the natural environment, where people may reflect, study, and enjoy the benefits of the earth.

Kennedy recognised the value of land owned in common for long-term, non-resource use. This sits uncomfortably with the mindset of the present Australian government, which sees national parks as “locked up”.

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44 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    What JFK said over half a century ago was said at a time when there was a far lesser population in all countries and far far less demand on world resources, something that a forever increasing global population will mean is growing continually stronger and so management of resources will need to be smarter.
    " recently added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area, on grounds that the area includes some “degraded” forests. "
    It would seem smart on a few grounds to manage forestry in areas…

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    1. Geoff Mosley

      Heritage consultant and lecturer at SIT Study Abroad

      In reply to Greg North

      What is smart is to conserve areas of Outstanding Universal Value and the areas added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2010, 2012 and 2013 were the result of years of study concerning what was an appropriate boundary.

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Greg North

      Harvesting occurred in around 10-15% of the area being discussed. To conserve forest, a whole of landscape approach was used. The Timber Industry and Environment groups broadly came to agreement and the end of 'the forest wars' was declared.
      If Abbott and the new government decide to try to de-list this area, there will likely be much harm to the timber industry, internationally, because green groups will target that industry internationally.
      There is no need to de-list this area. Environmentally this government is basing their decision not on science or research, but on politics, this is a political decision.

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    3. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      In fact, 28% of the disputed 74,000 ha has been previously harvested in accordance with Forestry Tasmania's historical records which were provided to the ABC Fact Check Unit in April - you can xheck this in their report. However, the rest of the media has studiously avoided this as they cheerlead for a particular outcome.

      As well as this past harvesting there is a networks of roads and tracks (former and current) that link these areas which also add to the reality that the area is far from pristine…

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    4. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to JB Rawson

      Lets be clear that not all of the industry and not all of the environmental movement were invited to be part of the "forest peace deal" process, and so that is partly why many on both sides reject the deal. On the Greens side, this includes Christine Milne and Bob Brown.

      Ta Ann agreed to accept less access to forest resource in return for $ tens of millions in compensation, whereas others in the industry were forced to close without much compensation and would have preferred to keep going.

      This includes the Special Timbers sector which is the highest value part of the industry (ie boat builders, furniture makers, craft items etc) who say that unless they are allowed to access these disputed WHA areas, they will run out of suitable resource and will soon be forced to close.

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    5. JB Rawson

      Writer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      so it's just the special timbers sector who want the world heritage area opened to logging?

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    6. JB Rawson

      Writer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      And the state and federal Liberal party, obviously: but who is it they're representing?

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    7. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to JB Rawson

      Traditionally, the Special Timbers are obtained as a by-product of conventional sawlogging operations, so elements of the sawmilling industry would presumably be interested at least in accessing the regrowth from 1930s - 50s logging when it became available.

      I think you'll find that some elements of the overall industry who effectively supported the 'peace deal' under duress, may have now withdrawn their support since the politics changed.

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    8. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to JB Rawson

      Not sure what your point is here, but I think if you spent time in Tasmania, the notion of 'saving' ever more of their forests is far from as universally embraced as it may be in the inner suburbs of the mainland capital cities where there is no conception of how much Tasmanian forest has already been 'saved'.

      Prior to last year's 12% extension of the World Heritage Area, Tassie had 1.4 million ha (or 20%) of its land mass listed as World Heritage. This current dispute is only about revoking 40% of this recent extension, which until last year had been multiple use forest for ~ 100 odd years.

      Overall, only about 25% of Tas public forest was being managed for long term wood supply prior to the forest peace deal. So, 75% was already reserved, or effectively reserved by dint of its unsuitability. This reality is a far cry from the promoted perception through the media that Tassie's forests needed to be saved and that this 'deal' would do it.

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    9. JB Rawson

      Writer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Not a point, really. I am genuinely curious about what the motivation is for this - let's face it, pretty much globally unprecedented - move to delist a World Heritage area. It's a pretty huge thing to do, particularly at a time when we're fretting over what's going to happen to the GBR's WH listing, so I'm just keen to know why the state and fed lib govts are so keen to do it. One imagines the payoff would have to be equal to the risk of the GBR being listed in-danger (and the implications of that…

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    10. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      You haven't looked at the ABC Fact Check report - you're looking at a report 10 days before the Fact Check report was updated on 8th April following the receipt of historical harvesting data supplied by Forestry Tasmania.

      The revised Fact Check Report shows that 20,690 ha (or ~ 28%) of the 74,000 ha had been previously harvested. That is the truth - not some visual survey that shows only the recent harvesting prior to regrowth closing canopy.

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    11. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Simply Google the ABC Fact Check Unit and look for the report - pretty easy to find.

      'Pre- industrial harvesting' is an interesting term ..... a recent report by Hobart historian Peter MacFie has detailed the history of harvesting in the Styx and Florentine Valleys and the fact that they were part of the Australian Newsprint Mill wood supply concession from the 1930s ..... so trees were being used for sawlog and woodchips for domestic paper making from then on. Not too much different to what you…

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    12. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      “In fact, 28% of the disputed 74,000 ha has been previously harvested in accordance with Forestry Tasmania's historical records which were provided to the ABC Fact Check Unit in April”
      This is not as clear cut as it looks, certainly not ‘the truth’. Mark, I suspect you are referring Senator Colbeck’s quoted analysis on the Forestry Tasmania numbers in the Fact check. It is not an accurate analysis because it misunderstands the terms ‘mature with regrowth’ and ‘unaged regrowth’.
      Yes, the categories…

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    13. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to JB Rawson

      Mark is possibly referring to comments by Andrew Denham of the Tasmanian Special Timbers Alliance, who has been a strong critic of the world heritage area extensions and the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. It is not accurate to say that this is the view of the sector as a whole. See these two links for contrary examples from leading Tasmanian special timber craftspeople:
      http://www.themercury.com.au/news/tasmania/timber-resource-at-risk-if-tasmanian-forest-agreement-is-ripped-up/story-fnj4f7k1-1226912333391
      http://tasmaniantimes.com/images/uploads/Open_Letter_to_Members_of_the_Legislative_Council_COLLATED_NAMES.pdf

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    14. Dick Adams

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Russell Warman

      HI Russell,

      Just to clarify, are you asserting that it is difficult to differentiate between whether or not an area of “unaged” regrowth is a result of logging or wildfire?

      If so, doesn’t that undermine the whole concept of excluding logging from Native Forests in Tasmania?

      What happens when you loose 100,000 hectares of WHA to a wildfire (which will happen), does that mean its no longer world heritage?

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    15. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Russell Warman

      Russell

      Perhaps ironically you are confirming what foresters have said for decades about logging not being an ecological catastrophe as it is usually being misrepresented by forest activism.

      That being the case, why is there a need to put huge swathes of forests into parks and reserves to supposedly preserve their 'outstanding and universal values'? Clearly there is not such a need but this is nevertheless the agenda of persistent activism.

      You say that the historical data provided by Forestry…

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    16. JB Rawson

      Writer

      In reply to Russell Warman

      Thanks Russell, that's a useful insight. Is the Special Timbers Alliance a particularly powerful lobby group, do you know?

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    17. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      “You say that the historical data provided by Forestry Tasmania is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the extent of past harvesting”
      Sorry if that wasn’t clear, but I wasn’t questioning the accuracy of Forestry Tasmania’s data presented in the Fact Check. I was just questioning Senator Colbeck’s analysis of it reported subsequently – specifically that a number of the categories in Forestry Tasmania’s table could be accurately portrayed as representing past disturbance by logging.
      The Tasmanian…

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    18. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Dick Adams

      Hi Dick, yes it’s my understanding ‘unaged regrowth’ is called that because there is not a clear way of knowing when or if the forest was selectively logged at some point or it is just the result of fire.
      Here are the words from Forestry Tasmania’s website; ‘Unaged regrowth Forest regenerated after wildfire or other disturbances, and containing a majority of trees less than 110 years old, where there is no deliberate site preparation or seed sowing. Unaged regrowth forest may contain scattered individuals…

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    19. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to JB Rawson

      I’m not sure how ‘powerful’ a lobby the Tasmanian Special Timbers Alliance is. I don’t know any details about its membership, but certainly Andrew has been very vocal in the local media in support of new government policy on forests.

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    20. Scott Morris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Greg North

      Ultimately, i would question who this motion by the Abbott government benefits. If the established logging industry in Tasmania is in fear of loosing accreditation, hence devaluing the resources being used, then why is this government so insistent on delisting these forrest? From what i understand, it will be to the advantage of foreign companies seeking to exploit a readily available timber resource of low economic value.

      I would agree that economically this present a good short term gain. There…

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    21. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Scott Morris

      Scott

      You need to think about this a bit more because the opposite of what you're saying is more likely to be true as Australian jobs are lost effectively to other countries who will then import timbers that we could have been getting from our own resources.

      I suspect that you have no prior knowledge that the majority of Tas forest is already reserved, including 20% of its total land mass being WHA-listed, which is the highest proportion of any jurisdiction in the world. If you did understand…

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    22. Geoff Mosley

      Heritage consultant and lecturer at SIT Study Abroad

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      As noted, the criterion regarding wilderness is only one of seven criteria which led to the World Heritage listing of this western Tasmanian area. However, this aspect of the area's Outstanding Universal Value was sufficiently important to result in the name of 'Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area'. Apart from achieving boundaries that make sense from a protection viewpoint there is still much to be done with regard to improvements within the boundaries. Undoubtedly one of the most important of these is the rescue of Lake Pedder which is included in the World Heritage Area.

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    23. Scott Morris

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark, Nothing you have said indicates long term sustainability of the proposed changes by the Abbott government - economically, for employment or environmentally. It does not address the "needs of artisans" to procure materials to continue their trades - quite the opposite.

      Your suggestion that Australian jobs will be lost to foreign competitors if the forest remains protected also seems illogical. The government is claiming this is an attempt to grow an industry and create further employment. This…

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  2. Jan Davis

    Chief Executive at Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association

    We will leave others better qualified to debate the merits or otherwise of the integrity of the nomination and the areas nominated as World Heritage. However, we would strongly dispute any suggestion that normal process was followed in the assessment of the TFA WHA extension areas.

    There has been a critical failure in not only engaging with the community but in providing adequate and relevant information to those most impacted. Ultimately, this has contributed to a feeling of distrust and suspicion…

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    1. Liz Minchin

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Jan Davis

      G'day Jan, thanks for your comment, good to get your perspective on this.

      Just for anyone from outside Tassie, the TFGA mentioned in Jan's comment is the Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association.

      Jan, I might quickly update your profile so it shows Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association chief executive – that way when you comment, it's clearer who you're speaking for.

      Cheers, Liz

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  3. Tony Simons

    Director at Bedlam Bay Pty Ltd

    Just as Abbott shamefully closed down Greg Hunt's $500M solar proposals and has long run a duplicitous climate change amelioration program and also played a major spoiling role in the 1999 "politicians" republic. The public is now very angry with both Abbott and Hockey.

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    1. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Tony Simons

      I would contend that at least with respect to this issue, and perhaps many others, the anger is largely founded on inadequate knowledge of what it is about.

      For example, if you can cite me a single media article, or even one on a site such as this that acknowledges that Tasmania already had 20% of its total land mass World Heritage listed (arguably the highest proportion of any jurisdiction in the world) before last years extension, I would be very surprised. Yet this is fundamental to understanding why a Govt would now be effectively saying enough is enough.

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    2. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to JB Rawson

      I wouldn't have thought that a Tourism Tasmania newsletter counted as a media article, but the other one from WA surprises me, although it is not the News Ltd, Fairfax Press, or ABC that covers this issue in Melb and Sydney where most people live.

      Also, I note that it doesn't mention that the disputed area of 74,000 ha was only added to the TWWHA last year under a cloud of political expediency, thereby giving an impression that Abbott has simply looked at the long standing TWWHA and decided to excise some of it, which is of course not the case.

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    3. JB Rawson

      Writer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      hey, you didn't ask for a Syd/Melb article covering the political expediency! I can only do what the brief requests. Here's one from Fairfax which I admit doesn't use percentages, but does list the total WH area, allowing those with basic mathematical skills to generate a percentage http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbotts-bid-to-delist-tasmanias-world-heritage-forests-tipped-to-fail-20140203-31xfo.html
      If you want articles about the political process during which the extension idea was generated, Fred Gale wrote a bunch for The Conversation.

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  4. Robert Gray

    logged in via Facebook

    In 1989 the IUCN stated: "the adjustments to the eastern boundary of the site made in the September 1989 revision to better follow natural features ... Specific suggestions for adjustments of the eastern boundary reviewed during the IUCN field inspection have now been incorporated. Other suggestions made during the IUCN inspection has also been incorporated in the September 1989 revision.”
    Yet within months green groups were demanding more additions to the area that was first inscribed in 1982 at…

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    1. Geoff Mosley

      Heritage consultant and lecturer at SIT Study Abroad

      In reply to Robert Gray

      With regard to The Tarkine this is certainly an area which deserves incorporation in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The additions that were made to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2010, 2012 and 2013 were the result of decades of study beginning soon after the 1989 extension.They included the Tarkine. It seems that Labor was unable to contemplate the logical inclusion of the Tarkine (one of the World's largest temperate rainforest areas) in the World Heritage Area because of a clash with mining interests. So, if we really believe in living up to our pledge we made when we signed the World Heritage Convention with regard to protecting areas of Outstanding Universal Value, The Tarkine should be nominated and the sooner the better.

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    2. Chris Watson

      jack of all trades

      In reply to Geoff Mosley

      Geoff,

      This brings an interesting point to the debate.

      As Mark Poynter and others have stated, Tasmania already has a substantial proportion of its land assed reserved and in World Heritage. As a heritage consultant, can you advise if you just look at the attributes that warrant protection under the convention or do you also consider the impacts on the community?

      In Tasmania's case we see continual pushes for more areas to be placed in World Heritage but this "World Heritage at all costs…

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    3. Geoff Mosley

      Heritage consultant and lecturer at SIT Study Abroad

      In reply to Chris Watson

      It was the federal Government which signed up to the World Heritage Convention and by doing so it agreed that there are places in Australia that have significance for all people on this earth and that these deserve to be protected as such. We are a federation and we do have a federal government which is ultimately responsible for identifying then protecting our part of the World Heritage. The benefits to the people who live in the State or Territory affected will result from hosting those who come…

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    4. Chris Watson

      jack of all trades

      In reply to Geoff Mosley

      Geoff,

      I agree with Jan Davis's comments above about the lack of consultation.

      Re the consultation that you refer to in this case I'd like to add a couple of points.

      Firstly, the Federal Government had an obligation under the 1997 Tasmanian RFA Clause 40 to consult with affected parties.

      Clause 40 states;

      "The Commonwealth agrees that it will give full consideration to the potential social and economic consequences of any World Heritage Nomination of places in Tasmania and that any such…

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    5. Geoff Mosley

      Heritage consultant and lecturer at SIT Study Abroad

      In reply to Chris Watson

      Chris, your complaint focuses on what you allege to be the failure of the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, the debates in the Tasmanian Parliament and in the community. The Agreement was developed over a period of some three years. In 2010 Environment Tasmania and the Forest Industries Association formed a Forest Reference Group aimed at reaching agreement on a number of basic principles to take to the community and the Government for further consultation and deliberation. On 14th October, 2010 a 'Statement…

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    6. Russell Warman

      PhD candidate - School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Chris Watson

      Chris, you are right that it is important for all stakeholders to be engaged so that the WHA listing has support. It is useful though to appreciate that consultation is not ‘completed’ at listing. It is also unlikely that any consultation process, no matter how extensive and thorough, will deliver a situation where every stakeholder and interested person is happy with the outcome, especially one as complex as this example.
      There are, no doubt, people who are not happy with the 2013 extension (as…

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