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Issue #1645      July, 2, 2014

A great win

UN rejects move to log Tasmanian forests

Last week the World Heritage Committee decisively rejected the Abbott government’s application to remove 74,000 hectares of forests in south-west Tasmania from the World Heritage List.

A vast area of Tasmania’s forests had previously been included on the List, after decades of campaigns against clear-fell logging of old growth forests and damming of the state’s wild rivers.

However, conflict over logging of other areas continued, and the state and federal governments, logging companies, unions and environmental groups finally reached an agreement under which an extra 172,000 hectares of forest would be preserved.

That additional area, which forms part of the tallest flowering forests on Earth and which includes sites of significance for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, was accepted for inclusion in the List by the UN World Heritage Committee in June last year.

Under international conventions to which Australia is a signatory the federal government is obliged to provide protection for the UN-listed area. If necessary it can override state governments to do so.

However, after the elections last July the Abbott government formally applied to the Committee to remove 74,000 hectares from the additional 172,000 hectares, arguing that much of the area had actually been degraded by previous logging and the planting of pine and eucalyptus plantations.

Australia is one of only three countries to have applied for delisting of its own World Heritage areas in the last 40 years; the other two are Oman and Tanzania. Former Greens leader Bob Brown called it “the lowest point in the history of Australian environmental diplomacy.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature advised the Committee to reject the application because only about 10 percent of the 74,000 hectares had been logged since 1960, and the timber plantations in those logged area covered only about 740 hectares.

Some 6 percent of the 74,000 hectares had been logged more than 50 years ago; 44 percent was old growth forest, 8 percent native rainforest and 17 percent native grassland and non-forest growth. Some 15 percent was native forest, unlogged but not old growth, partly because it was recovering from bushfires.

In short, only 16 percent of the 74,000 hectares had ever been logged, and the earlier-logged areas are well on the road to recovery. The UN International Council on Monuments and Sites also advised the Committee that additional research on cultural values in the listed areas (particularly regarding sacred or significant Aboriginal sites and archaeologically significant areas) was necessary.

In light of these recommendations the Committee unanimously rejected the application. The Portuguese members of the Committee bluntly described the Abbott government’s case as “feeble”.

Ruth Langford, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre secretary, welcomed the decision. She declared: “This country not only holds magnificent forests, which provides medicines and good spirits for us, it is also the resting place for ancestors.”

Future of timber industry

Liberal Senator Richard Holbeck, who is parliamentary secretary to the federal Minister for Agriculture and was an avid proponent of the de-listing proposal, claimed the decision would seriously damage Tasmania’s “special species users … the wooden boat builders, the craft workers and the furniture makers”.

But most of the timber obtained previously by logging went to industries like paper manufacturing which use timber on a large scale, not to boat building or other small-scale industries.

If upheld by the state and federal government the committee’s decision would definitely end massive clear-felling in the listed areas. However, the timber industry will not be wiped out by the committee’s decision, which does not totally preclude tree felling within the listed area, and logging will still continue in Tasmania’s non-listed areas.

As management of national parks has shown, conservation of native forests still requires careful maintenance, and that sometimes involves removal of naturally-felled timber. Moreover, with the cooperation of environmental organisations the Tasmanian government could still authorise very careful removal of a limited number of carefully-selected individual trees, providing that the heritage value of the forests is strictly maintained.

Better still, in order to supply the small-scale industries (which employ far more people per tree logged than industries that involve clear felling) the government could plant the special species trees in other non-listed areas that really have been irreparably degraded.

But there’s the rub. Neither the state nor the federal coalition governments are interested in such careful, sensitive approaches; they’re intent on serving the interests of the major corporations, and certainly not the small-scale timber users.

The listed areas should be declared national parks. However, the surly Hodgman Tasmanian government, which is still smarting from the UN rebuff, has classified the forest as “future reserve land”, which implies a far lower level of conservation than would be accorded to a national park.

The Abbott government said it will study the Committee’s decision closely before it decides on further action. The response of both state and federal governments indicates they will take any opportunity to block implementation of the Committee’s decision.

Another worrying trend is that national parks funding has in some states been progressively reduced, even though the extent of the national parks has increased.

Nevertheless, the World Heritage Committee’s decision has positive implications for other threatened areas, such as the Tarkine and Bruny Island, where proposed logging is supported by the Hodgman government but widely condemned by environmental groups.

Dr Phil Pullinger from Environment Tasmania also commented: “They tried to use some pretty strong tactics around the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage Committee basically put the government on notice … that they will be looking at endangered listing for the reef if the government does not clean up its act.”

Next year the Committee will make a decision on whether to declare the Reef endangered, and their decision will doubtless be influenced by the Abbott government’s ham-fisted attempt to de-list the 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest.

In the meantime, the decision by the World Heritage Committee to reject that application should be welcomed by everyone concerned about preservation of our unique and wonderful natural environment.

Next article – Editorial – What’s lurking behind the populist politics?

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