Tarkine Wilderness another victim of the Mining Boom

For eight years conservationists have fought to have the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania included on the National Heritage List. Yet despite its eligibility it is under threat from large mining projects and a federal government reluctant to give responsibility for its listing to an independent arbiter.

Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson from the ANU’s Australian Centre for Environmental Law explain.

Since 2004, a small and committed band of conservationists have fought to have the Tarkine — a 430,000 ha wilderness in north western Tasmania — included on the National Heritage List. Its eligibility for inclusion on the list is beyond question. The area has one of the highest densities of Indigenous archaeological sites in the country, contains several sites of international geoconservation significance, has the largest tract of cool temperature rainforest in Australia and is home to several iconic threatened species, including the giant freshwater crayfish and Tasmanian devil. If its suitability for inclusion was ever in question, it was eliminated with the accidental release of an Australian Heritage Council report in 2011, which confirmed that it believed the Tarkine met the criteria for listing.

Despite its credentials, and the passing of eight years, the Tarkine has still not been included on the National Heritage List. This means that the heritage values of the area are not protected under federal environmental law. In the past, the great threat to the area was forestry. Now, with the sustained high commodity prices, the major threat is mining; and the Tasmanian Government. Three large mines are planned for the Tarkine, along with a ‘tourist road’ that will run past the front gate of one of the mines.

When the road proposal first emerged in 2009, the then Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, responded by including the Tarkine on the National Heritage List using emergency powers. After Garrett’s departure from the portfolio, his replacement, Tony Burke, allowed the listing to lapse. Immediately afterwards, the first of the large new mining developments, an iron ore mine proposed by Shree Minerals, was referred to Burke for consideration. The fact that the Tarkine was not included on the National Heritage List meant that he could not consider its heritage values when deciding whether the mine required formal environmental assessment and approval. We now have the farcical situation where the project is undergoing an environmental assessment that cannot, by law, cover heritage impacts.
Late last year, a coalition of environment groups wrote to Burke requesting that he use his emergency listing powers to put the Tarkine back on the National Heritage List. Their move was prompted by knowledge of an impending referral to the Minister for a huge tin and tungsten mine at Mount Lindsay in the southern Tarkine and the likely resubmission of the tourist road proposal. With the ghost of the Latham forestry debacle of 2004 still haunting the Labor Party, Burke’s response was unsympathetic. He refused to relist the Tarkine and subsequently made referral decisions on both the Mt Lindsay mine proposal and the tourist road. Like the Shree Minerals proposal, both of these projects are now undergoing an environmental assessment in which the federal government must pretend the area has no heritage values.

Given that these major projects are now undergoing assessment, and that any future heritage listing will have no impact on the approval process or their approval status, one might question the protective value of putting the area on the National Heritage List. Certainly, given its well-known heritage status, it would seem fruitless at this stage to undertake further heritage assessments.

Despite this, the Australian Heritage Council, having already found that the Tarkine meets the criteria for listing, is currently busying itself with an additional assessment of the area’s values. To add insult to injury, the assessment is not what it might first seem. By law, in making recommendations about listings, the Australian Heritage Council is only allowed to have regard to whether the place meets the National Heritage criteria. It is not supposed to consider economic, political or social issues; these are left to the Minister when making decisions concerning the approval of development applications.
Notwithstanding these requirements, the Council appears to be locked in negotiations with the mining lobby and the Tasmanian Government about the boundaries of a future listing. In short, the mining lobby want to draw the boundaries around mining areas. The engagement of the Council in these negotiations puts it perilously close to illegality. The carving out of areas from the Tarkine listing would also be at odds with the approach taken to other listed areas, like the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, where the whole place is protected.

The tragedy for the Australian taxpayer is that, despite millions being spent on this eight year heritage assessment process, it appears that the Tarkine will only be listed once all potential mining projects have been approved. With the mining boom in full swing, this could still be many years away.

The root cause of the problems associated with the listing of the Tarkine is the fact that the Environment Minister determines what is and isn’t included on the National Heritage List. This system was put in place by the Howard Government in 2004. In opposition, the Labor Party raged against its introduction, arguing that the Australian Heritage Council should remain the arbiter of what gets listed. To this day, it remains part of the ALP National Platform that heritage listings should be determined by an independent, expert body. As is so often the case, there is a chasm between ALP party policy and the actions of ALP ministers.

We acknowledge and thank the authors Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson from the ANU’s Australian Centre for Environmental Law and we thank the Australia Institute http://www.tai.org.au/ for permission to republish

For other recent articles on the Tarkine on the DEA web site go to http://dea.org.au/news/article /its_time_to_getup_and_save_the_tarkine and to http://dea.org.au/news/article/the_tarkine_forest_under_threat_again

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