01 February, 2014

Forestry wars reigniting in Tasmania's wilderness

Andrew Darby
The Age, February 1, 2014  

We are at the dead end of a logging road deep in the Styx Valley of central Tasmania.

In front is a stand of tall eucalypts. Beside us, the road verge swarms with their seedlings, self-sown in the few years since logging halted half a kilometre back, and already threatening to carpet the gravel entirely.

It is a stunning blue-sky day in wild native forest. Delicate green and black Macleay's swallowtail butterflies float above. Biting march flies find us, too.

We walk off the road's end into the shadows of the forest. Like silent marsupials, we pad over moss-soft ground, spacious and entirely weed-free, to look up the massive trunks of some of the bigger trees.

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This forest is ancient, the road is young - and for the past seven months all of it has been world heritage.

It is what the former Labor federal environment minister Tony Burke called ''extraordinarily precious forest'' when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee approved the listing last June.

And it is also what the current parliamentary secretary for forests Richard Colbeck says is wilderness so degraded that it makes him sick with anger at the scale of the deception.

Australia's most contentious heritage boundary, as Burke called it, is being fought over again.

The 170,000-hectare extension to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (WHA) was approved by the World Heritage Committee at its June 2013 meeting after decades of environmental campaigns.

Now, the Abbott government is seeking a comprehensive wind back of the extension, removing 74,000 hectares, by the committee next June in Doha, Qatar.

The move fans doubts about the federal government's overall approach to Australia's world heritage. It feeds an emboldened Liberal Party ahead of the Tasmanian state election. And it is said to threaten to reignite forest wars that split the island for a generation.

Tasmanians call it the ''WHA'', as in ''Waa''. Its nucleus around the Franklin River in the south-west wilderness was first listed in 1982, and it grew by extensions to cover one-fifth of the island, or 1.4 million hectares, in 2012.

The eastern boundary in tall old-growth forest was always disputed. Environmentalists believed this line was drawn along a contour chosen as the limit to commercial logging viability - not because of any end to world heritage values. Over time a network of logging roads was driven into the old growth-rich valleys running up to the boundary before the collapse of the native-timber woodchip industry.

These roads and logging coupes were picketed by protesters, tree-sits slowed chainsaws, and confrontations sometimes blew into violence. Former Greens leader Bob Brown was shot at in 1986, and a dozen costly logging machines were firebombed and destroyed over the years, as were protesters' cars.

The World Heritage Committee repeatedly asked Australia to address the question of the eastern boundary, including in 2008 when it said the WHA should be extended to ''include appropriate areas of tall eucalypt forest''.

Eventually, the industry collapse led to marathon talks between business, union and green groups. Peace deals inked in April 2013 garnered $363 million in federal payouts to industry. They also included a signoff by all parties to the WHA extension.

Endorsed by the Tasmanian Parliament, this extension went to the committee meeting in Phnom Penh last year, and, after a glitch over the Aboriginal archaeological component of the nomination, quickly passed.

According to the committee, its outstanding universal values include its ''superlative natural phenomena, areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance''. Specific values included giant trees, and tall eucalypts in connected forest.

The Wilderness Society's Tasmanian campaign manager Vica Bayley, who went to Phnom Penh, said the committee was specifically told some areas had been logged, and were in the process of regeneration. ''To the best of our knowledge, it adds up to about 6 per cent,'' Bayley said. But they were included because they added to the integrity of the extension.

''Restoration of degraded areas in world heritage sites is normal,'' he said.

Elsewhere in the WHA, small mines, quarries, airstrips and a host of other human uses are being rehabilitated. Like the eucalypt seedlings on the Styx road, nature is taking its course.

The first sign of trouble for the 2013 extension came late in the federal election campaign when then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said: ''The Coalition has never supported Labor's recent rushed and political world heritage extension, which was put in place against the will of the Tasmanian people. And we will seek to have it removed.''

Liberal candidates who scooped up three of the five Tasmanian House of Representatives seats campaigned on the wind back.

Last week, Environment Minister Greg Hunt confirmed the process was under way, saying the government was critical of ''the content of much of [the 2013 extension]'' and would lodge a new claim for a boundary adjustment by the deadline of Saturday, February 1.

Bayley said: ''This is a smokescreen for Greg Hunt to reopen world heritage forests for logging.''

The wind back campaign is being led by Tasmanian senator Colbeck, who is parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce. A one-time carpenter, Colbeck said his own scrutiny of the extension showed ''tens of thousands of hectares'' had been previously logged.

''The way this has been portrayed to the community is that this has been effectively untrammelled by man,'' he said. ''There is no doubt the Australian community has been misled.''

He rejects the statement of support for the 2013 extension by the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and other industry groups. ''The forest is not the forest industry's to give away,'' he said.

Instead, Colbeck points to the government's specific election commitment, and the emphatic success of Liberal candidates in Tasmania.

In a polling booth such as the downturn-hit timber town of Triabunna, there was a 27 per cent swing to Liberal candidate Eric Hutchinson.

Approaching the March 15 state election, the front-running Liberals unofficially launched their campaign by releasing a policy to ''crack down on forest protest'', with $10,000 fines for first-time protesters who impede access to a workplace, and a mandatory three months' jail for a second offence.

It is this possibility that appals federal opposition environment spokesman Mark Butler.

''Everyone got something in the peace deal they thought was sufficient to end 30 years of conflict,'' he said. ''We have moved beyond the forestry wars in Tasmania. By persevering with such a backward policy, that no one wants, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt want to reignite those wars.''

There is also a wider national question. Would a successful wind back of the Tasmanian extension embolden a government to seek changes to inconvenient boundaries of other world heritage properties, such as on the Great Barrier Reef or Kakadu?

''I would reject that,'' Colbeck said.

But Butler said he was increasingly concerned at the potential links. Already, the Great Barrier Reef is threatened with a World Heritage in Danger listing, and the government had stalled a Cape York nomination.

''It opens us up as a nation to ridicule,'' Butler said

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