Senate puts weight behind push to retain Tasmania forests’ World Heritage status

Vica Bayley, Tasmanian campaign manager for the Wilderness Society in disputed World Heritage listed forest in the Styx Valley in southern Tasmania. Photo: Peter MathewPressure is mounting on the federal government over its bid to strip Tasmanian forests of World Heritage status, on the eve of a draft decision by a UNESCO committee.

Environment Department officials raised doubts over government claims that the forests were substantially degraded, telling the Senate inquiry only four per cent of the 74,000 hecatres in question had been heavily disturbed, there was negligible plantation, and at least 48 per cent was old growth forest.

Environmentalists are hopeful the World Heritage Committee will not accept the government’s bid.

A poll for the Australian Conservation Foundation also found 97 per cent support for the government doing all it can to protect natural places on the World Heritage List, regardless of economic or political pressure to exploit them.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is due to make public its draft decision on the government’s request to cut the 74,000 hectares from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area early on Saturday, Australian time.

The Senate inquiry heard there were four potential options ahead of the 21 nation committee meeting in Doha next month.

The committee could choose to accept the wind-back; reject it outright; refer it back for additional information; or defer it for a more substantial submission in 2016, the Environment Department’s deputy secretary, Kimberley Dripps, told the inquiry.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Richard Colbeck, has mounted an extensive “World Heritage Mockery” campaign, in which he made repeated claims that the 74,000 ha. was degraded forest – much of it previously logged or plantation.

The Senate inquiry’s Labor chair, Lin Thorp, said it was highly embarrassing to Australia, for the government to be using the same data that justified the expansion of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area last year, to now call for the removal of 74,000 hectares.

Arguments for the removal were “short-sighted, if not blatantly untrue,” Senator Thorp told the Senate on Thursday.

“In light of all the evidence, [the inquiry] had little choice but to recommend that the government immediately withdraw its application,” she said.

Greens leader Christine Milne said the Environment Department gave evidence to the inquiry that it had a directive from cabinet to deliver a political outcome from an election promise to wind back the World Heritage listing.

“It was all about domestic politics, and nothing to do with outstanding universal values,” Senator Milne said “This cannot be allowed to proceed.

“Because it suggests at the World Heritage Committee level that any country, at the change of a government, can seek to destroy a World Heritage Area, in order to log it, to mine it, to put a resort on it, do whatever they want to do. And that is unacceptable.”

A minority report by the Coalition said the government would honour its forestry election commitments in Tasmania to ensure the industry was sustainable, and not hampered by “self-interest groups”.

Senator Colbeck said the whole WHA extension was a political process put forward by the former Environment Minister, Tony Burke.

“The World Heritage Committee should take note of the reasonable submission put in by the Australian government,” Senator Colbeck said.

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