Why electioneering is at the root of Tasmania’s forest furore

Is Tasmania’s world heritage listed wilderness the focus of a tussle for votes? JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons

The Australian government is trying to turn back time in Tasmania’s forests, seeking to roll back world heritage measures put in place just a few months ago in the wake of a peace deal between Tasmanian environmentalists and loggers.

The government is bidding to delist a section of Tasmania’s World Heritage Area, a move that has prompted claim and counterclaim about whether the past logging of these areas makes them more or less deserving of world heritage protection.

So who is right, and what’s really going on in Tasmania’s wilderness?

The story so far

Early last year, the Labor-led federal government asked for a minor extension of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. In June, the World Heritage Committee unanimously accepted the proposal for an additional 172,500 hectares to be added to the existing property of 1,412,183 hectares.

This extension was considered to be particularly valuable as it improved the integrity of the area by adding significant areas of tall eucalypt forest with its understorey of rainforest. Indeed, the committee had already asked Australia to consider the move.

The proposal was a key outcome of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, an accord between environmental, forestry union, community and industry groups, implemented by the federal and state governments. It was opposed by the state Liberal opposition and the then federal Coalition opposition. With both parties facing elections, each had promised to undo key parts of the agreement.

The Coalition went into September’s federal election with a specific pledge to retract the 2013 World Heritage Area extension. As we shall see, that pledge seems to have trumped the interests of both conservation and industry alike.

“Highly unusual” move

Fast forward to last week, when the federal government announced its request for the World Heritage Committee to consider removing 74,000 hectares when it meets in June – just a year after the extension was granted.

The government considers these areas to “detract from the overall Outstanding Universal Value of the property and diminish its overall integrity” and has urged “removal of areas containing 117 patches of disturbed and previously logged forest”, including “a number of pine and exotic eucalypt plantations”.

Environmental organisations have counterclaimed that the areas of logging constitute no more than 10% of the area, in places that are important for the integrity of the tall forests. A United Nations official has described the government’s request as “highly unusual”.

Claim and counterclaim

Given the claims and counterclaims being made about logging disturbance and integrity, what is the actual situation, and how does this sit with the federal government’s rationale for any change?

A federally funded report shows as at 2011 those areas in Tasmania where logging has occurred since 1960 (when clearfelling began) and where plantations have been established. It suggests that the figures being pitted against each other (117 patches of disturbed forest versus less than 10% of the total area) are both plausible, and consistent with one another. However, the analysis also indicates that most of the area that is proposed to be removed by the federal government has not been previously logged.

So how important are these areas of past logging disturbance to the overall values of the World Heritage Area?

The fact that this Tasmanian wilderness was accepted as World Heritage Area, and then extended, shows that the World Heritage Committee clearly accepts the presence of past disturbance in a nominated area. In other words, the existence of past disturbance does not mean that a site should not be listed, or that it no longer has conservation value.

As a case in point, in 2012 Australia sought, and was granted, another previous extension to the World Heritage Area, on the south coast, of an area with a recent history of tin mining and associated disturbance.

Indeed, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area as a whole has many other forms of disturbance, including highways, roads, major dams, hydro power and water supply infrastructure, power lines, and other areas of past mining and logging.

The chance of rehabilitation

Of all these disturbances, the recently logged areas have arguably some of the best chances of rehabilitation and restoration of their conservation values. Meanwhile, the 74,000 hectares to be removed consist largely of mature tall eucalypt forests in good condition.

It is hard to see how their removal will improve the integrity of the site or its representation of world heritage values.

Internationally, there are many other world heritage sites that contain past and even present logging disturbance. The World Heritage Convention states that a key function of world heritage listing is to help protect outstanding universal values from threats and that rehabilitation is not just acceptable but obligatory for state signatories.

The committee would already have been aware of the presence of logging disturbance, because the International Union for Conservation of Nature has already reported to the committee the existence of logging in the area, and the recommended processes for ending it. A Labor government submission to the committee included a cover photo showing a logging coupe in one of the areas to be included, as well as the history of representations and investigations by the committee into logging of the tall eucalypt forests on the area’s eastern boundaries.

No change in store?

Any attempt to reverse last year’s decision thus seems unlikely to succeed. Unless, that is, the present federal government can show that the area has been degraded even more since it was accepted for inclusion last June, or that the committee made an error in its first judgement – either through failing to read the materials put before it or through a failure of the material to communicate an extent of logging disturbance that would have led the committee to a different decision.

This brings us to the question of the real underlying motives. The Coalition government’s extraordinary move makes little sense on heritage conservation grounds. At the same time it seems contrary to the interests of the timber industry. The Forest Industries Association of Tasmania has said it does not support the excisions, which would undo the recent securing of a non-contentious timber supply under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement.

We are therefore left with a strong sense that the move is purely political, based on the strong anti-green sentiment of a large proportion of rural and regional Tasmanians. The promise to revoke the world heritage extensions may have been a key factor in helping the federal Coalition win several Tasmanian seats last September.

It may also help the Tasmanian Liberals win government in a state election this March.