The Tarkine: more than just a forest?

The recent statement by Greens leader Senator Christine Milne at the National Press Club that 'Labor has walked away from its agreement with the Greens…so be it', led to the airing of several government decisions that her party was unhappy with. One of the key issues was Labor’s decision on the Tarkine in Tasmania, which she said was evidence that the government gave priority to mining interests.

The 439,000 hectares (ha) of the Tarkine includes Australia’s largest tract of cool temperate rainforest and is home to many rare species. But on the 8th of February Environment Minister Tony Burke announced that only a small part of the region would receive National Heritage listing. Is the Tarkine now without protection from development? 

The Assessment of the Tarkine
The Australian Heritage Council (AHC) uses nine criteria to assess nominations for National Heritage listing. These criteria range from natural beauty to historical importance and cover locations from shipwrecks to national parks.

The importance of the Tarkine has been recognised for some time. A number of reserves have been declared in the area, including the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area (100,135 ha), the Savage River National Park (17,980 ha) and the Savage River Regional Reserve (17,680 ha). While logging is prohibited in these reserves, only Savage River National Park prohibits mining

 The Tarkine was nominated for National Heritage listing in 2004. When the forest was threatened by a road development in 2009 the area was given twelve months of emergency National Heritage listing. In 2010 the Mr Burke asked the AHC to report on the permanent heritage listing of the area.

The AHC’s report
assessed the Tarkine as likely to be of 'outstanding heritage value' on three criteria. These are: 
  •  the area’s importance in natural and cultural history
    • as an important plant fossil site 
    • as evidence of traditional Aboriginal sites along the coast
  • possession of rare and/or endangered aspects of natural and cultural history
    • such as unique cave areas
    • including the largest cool temperate rainforest in Australia
  • aesthetic characteristics
    • as natural wilderness
    • in diversity of landscape
The Minister’s decision
Following the AHC’s assessment a brief was provided to the Minister suggesting two options:
  • To heritage-list the entire Tarkine as nominated
  • To list a strip of land, 2km wide, along the coast of the nominated area 
Mr Burke chose the latter. He announced 21,000 hectares would be listed as the West Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape. This area contains historic Aboriginal middens and hut depressions, but covers just 5 per cent of the original nomination and fits within the existing Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area. Mr Burke cited development within the Tarkine and the high unemployment rate in Tasmania as reasons to reject listing the full 439,000 hectares. He could not find a compromise between the heritage values of the area and the socioeconomic consequences of listing the Tarkine as a National Heritage place.

Visiting the Legacy mine sites in the Tarkine, Mr Burke said, had conflicted with his 'nothing but the rainforest' impression. The AHC noted these developments but assessed over 90 per cent of the Tarkine as ‘low disturbance’.

Mining in the Tarkine
Two mines currently operate within the region and more are proposed. Mr Burke stressed that he did not want National Heritage listing of the Tarkine to produce a 'negative hit' on economic activity in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Government expressed strong concerns about employment options if National Heritage listing was permitted. Tasmania currently has the highest level of unemployment in Australia.

If the region was National Heritage listed then all new development proposals within the Tarkine would need to be assessed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) using the 'outstanding heritage values' identified by the AHC. For example, there is currently at least one proposal to develop a magnesite mine within the Tarkine’s distinctive cave systems, known as magnesite karsts. If the area was listed, assessment would be required if it could have a 'significant impact' on the karst.

However, even without the listing, the Tarkine is protected under federal law. Development proposals require assessment under the EPBC Act. The EPBC Act protects matters of national environmental significance, and thus will take account of the habitat of the Tarkine’s 60 threatened species such as the Tasmanian Devil.

In explaining his decision, Mr Burke expressed concern that the National Heritage listing of the Tarkine would delay mining development approval and increase costs. Similar concerns were raised about the West Kimberly when Mr Burke announced the region as a National Heritage Area in 2011. However, at that time the Minister refuted the idea, stating that 'a heritage listing is not something that says no development', and therefore mining could and would still happen in the area. Mining and exploration leases in the West Kimberley have increased dramatically over the past decade.

What next?
The Tasmanian Legislative Council is currently debating the Forests Amendment Bill 2012, which, if enacted, could place more of the Tarkine in reserves.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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