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Tarkine a question of values: mines versus ancient rainforest

In Australia, we ride on the open cut mine’s back. In the island state of Tasmania, there is a medium size-class open cut mine (928 hectares) with 210 hectares of settling ponds, from which iron nodules…

Research is clear on the value of the Tarkine’s rainforest, but does it matter to human society? Rob Blakers

In Australia, we ride on the open cut mine’s back.

In the island state of Tasmania, there is a medium size-class open cut mine (928 hectares) with 210 hectares of settling ponds, from which iron nodules are piped 85km through the middle of the largest rainforest in Australia (262,940 hectares).

This rainforest is part of the Tarkine, a name made up by conservationists for an extensive tract of wild country in the northwest of the state.

Much of the Tarkine region is highly prospective for minerals. Some of it is more than prospective, with the development of new mines currently being proposed to complement those that already exist and replace those that have closed down.

Short-term jobs and profit oppose nature conservation, promising a debate of equal virulence and divisiveness to that about logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests.

We know why developers, politicians and people in economically depressed regions love mines, but why are conservationists so passionate about the Tarkine forests that they propose to sacrifice themselves to prevent new mines?

What characteristics of the Tarkine forest make it special for them?

Conservationists correctly perceive the area of forest in Tasmania not logged or disturbed by mining and/or stock grazing is small (approximately 1 million ha) compared with the original 5,514,217 hectares of forest in the state. More than 200,000 ha of such forest occurs in the Tarkine.

The trees in most of these forests were established well before Europeans occupied Australia. Research published in Forest Ecology and Management suggests one individual tall Tasmanian eucalypt is 509 years old.

Some Huon pines on the rivers of the Tarkine are likely to be more than 2,000 years old.

The forests have a harmony, complexity, detail and lushness irresistible to the nature photographer, and emotionally overwhelming for many others. Although they lack the inspirational context of high mountains and lakes found in the nearby Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, there is nowhere else in Australia where a large view-field can be totally composed of rainforest.

A recent paper in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology suggests there are few, if any, circumstances in which logging primary wet-eucalypt forest will not add to the global carbon burden. Mining destroys the forest, rather than removing a large part of its carbon, so this argument is stronger for mining per unit area. However, the area covered by any single mining operation is small in relation to the forest as a whole.

Single mining operations need to be put in the context of potential and past mining operations, with mining leases and licenses covering approximately 80% of its wild forests.

The most important of the Tarkine forests are those on basalt. Around 70% of the forest on basalt in Tasmania has been cleared for agriculture or plantations. The forests on basalt in the Tarkine are largely tall forests with cathedral-like understories dominated by southern beech.

The Tarkine is the stronghold of these callidendrous (tall) rainforests, which closely resemble other forests dominated by Nothofagus species, which are found in New Zealand and South America. All these Nothofagus species appear to have had ancestors that lived on the Gondwana supercontinent.

Some of the best examples of the expression of different types of vegetation through feedback to fire regimes can be found in the Tarkine. The flammable buttongrass moorlands and eucalypt forests to the west of the rainforest send sparks to light up ridges within the rainforest, maintaining them as eucalypt forest.

A recent paper in the Journal of Biogeography provides strong evidence that patterns of ignition by human beings have had huge effects on the distributions of rainforest and other vegetation types.

Conservationists hope the maintenance of wild forests in protected areas, free of roads and mines, will reduce such incidences of ignition, allowing the largest rainforest in Australia to survive intact.

The values of the Tarkine forests we have described above defy ready conversion into dollars or jobs. Like our economy, they are the product of values that are not shared by all of our species.

However, it is possible for us to determine how important the Tarkine is in representing each of them, a task with which we are presently engaged.

We can then ask questions like: is the money from a mine more important than risking the loss of some of the largest patch of callidendrous rainforest on basalt in Australia?

Such questions can then ultimately only be resolved by political processes at the state, national and international levels.

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of PhD student Jennifer Evans to this article.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Tasmania is broke and needs the money. Secondly that whole area is riddled with abandoned and still working mines like Savage River. Presumably they will be quickly overgrown by the bush when finished. Unlike logging nobody pretends it is sustainable but according to the forestry review by Prof West mining has only 5% of the footprint.

  2. Chris Owens


    Mining is not a sustainable solution to Tasmania's economic problems. Digging it up and shipping it out provides a limited number of jobs for a finite period and leaves an area that cannot be rehabilitated to its original state. Surely the experience of logging in Tas demonstrates this. Mining equipment and roads provide access for weeds, pathogens and feral animals. The edge effect reduces humidity and as indicated in the article enables access for the main cause of fire ignition, humans.

    The Tarkine like most of nature will be subjected to the death by a thousand cuts and make us all poorer in the long run.

  3. Rob Blakers


    John Newlands - Currently operating mines in the Tarkine are not opposed by environmentalists and are not part of the proposed National Heritage listing. These existing mines, such as that at Savage River, have had a devastating environmental impact, both at the mine sites and through severe and effectively unavoidable downstream pollution. At the end of the mine life they will not "presumably" be quickly overgrown and return to their native state - the rainforest that was historically cleared to enable the mining takes a minimum of 400 years to reach maturity.

    The issue now however is with current and related future proposals for open cut mines in areas of essentially untouched rainforest. If Venture Minerals has its way a great slab of the southern section of the Tarkine will become their "province of tin" where open cut mines, tailings dams, rock dumps, roads, diversion canals, processing infrastructure and 24/7 operations replace wild rivers and ancient rainforest.

  4. Tom James


    In agreement with Chris, the economic woes of Tasmania will not be solved through mining alone, a very viable and proven industry is tourism. Mining in Australia only employs 2% of the workforce whereas tourism employs double that of mining, however the tourism GDP contribution to the economy is lower (a result of high commodity prices of coal and minerals).

    The problem is mining benefits big business which can lobby state governments, tourism generally benefits many small businesses which have much less lobbying power. Who do you think wins the planning and approvals game??

    1. Unlock Tasmania COF

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tom James

      The economic woes of Tasmania are serious and getting close to the point of no return. Do we want to be a local government area of Victoria? We need tourism, mining , forestry, agriculture and all other means of generation wealth and jobs so that we do have the funds over the next 50 to 100 years to be able to keep the state running and pay for fire protection and other management of our parks and world heritage area.
      We invite anyone who relies on tax dollars for their income or funding to come…

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  5. Steve Newett

    logged in via Facebook

    This area of Tasmania has provided a large percentage of mineral resources for over 150 years including Bischoff, Magnet, Luina and Savage River. All world class mines and over this period representing between 20-30% of Tasmania's mining sector. The question would be whether there is adequate compensation for the next 150 years, if these resources were locked up. Tasmania's economic woes mightn't be solved completely by mining alone, but they will a hell of a lot worse without it.

  6. Bill Thomson

    logged in via Twitter

    Prof Kirkpatrick takes an unnecessarily polarising approach here. The very fact that such a large area is considered so special after 150 years of generating mineral wealth is telling us something: that mining, tourism and wilderness values can all coexist.

    The tall forests on basalt are a case in point. As Kirkpatrick states, the most important Tarkine forests are on basalt. Basalt has indeed been cleared extensively for agriculture and plantations - but not for mining, because basalt is of…

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