Tasmanian Libs Will Put Forests To The Torch

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Tasmania, once ancestral Labor heartland, saw an historic swing to the Liberal party this election. The fate of the mighty forests under an Abbott government is frightful to think on.

Tasmania’s extraordinary and sensitive forests are a potential victim of the Liberal anti-environment platform. Tony Abbott made an election promise to seek the reversal of the World Heritage listing and promised there would be no further forests protected in Tasmania. Whether Abbott will succeed with such a destructive and internationally embarrassing move is to be seen. Only twice before in history has a world heritage listing been reversed.

Tony Abbott, state Liberal opposition leader Will Hodgman, and Tasmanian Liberal party senators Eric Abetz and Richard Colbeck are set on reviving Tasmania’s forestry industry.

But it won’t be as simple as reversing the heritage listing, particularly since independent experts have shown the forests have internationally significant values. What’s more, on 2 September, five days before the federal election, Tasmania’s Legislative Council voted 9-5 to pass a reserve order to protect 392,000 ha of Tasmania’s forests. Of this total figure, a tract of 100,800 ha – covering the newly designated World Heritage forests – will be granted immediate protection.

After three years of promises, delays and political posturing, this is the first tangible conservation gain from the Tasmanian Forests Agreement (TFA). Unfortunately for the remaining forests, and the myriad of species that depend on them for survival, the TFA still contains considerable barriers to protection.

The majority of these new reserves – 289,200 ha – cannot be enacted until after 1 October 2014, after the State election. If the swing to the Liberals in Tasmania is any indication, we may have a change of government come March 2014.

Reservation is contingent on Forestry Tasmania achieving Forest Stewardship Council certification. FSC certification is not certain given the enormous problems that remain outside of the proposed reserves from Tasmanian logging – including clear-felling, cable-logging, threatened species protection and ongoing logging of old growth and high conservation value forests. Intensified logging is likely given the ongoing demand from the logging industry funded to a tune of more than $200 million since the TFA.

Even if FSC is achieved, reserves will still be dependent on state government. If the Liberal Party wins that government will not be a supporter of the TFA. Both the State and Federal Liberal parties have said they will not enact any more reserves, and will even try to undo any reserves passed by the Labor government during the TFA.

Pressure was placed on the Legislative Councillors to pass the legislation in time for Tasmania’s Premier Lara Gidding’s trade mission to Asia. On 12 September Premier Giddings took her Asia trade mission to Japan, accompanied by the controversial Malaysian logging and palm oil company Ta Ann, which has veneer plants in Tasmania, and meet with their major international customers.

These and other customers within the domestic and international markets for Tasmanian timber should be watching closely to what happens in the TFA from here.  If there is no bipartisan support for the TFA, then any contracts that customers sign now may well lead to them being committed to purchasing environmentally unsustainable wood in a year's time if the Liberal Party makes good on their threats.

What is at stake in these cynical political battles? In July 2013, a 170,000 ha extension to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) was declared by UNESCO at their meeting in Cambodia. With the listing, some of Tasmania’s most magnificent forests were granted the highest level of international recognition.  These are the forests that largely make up the 108,200 ha that will receive immediate protection from the recent reserve order.

There is one forest that has quietly waited for world heritage protection in the Huon region, an area of 2500 hectares of wild forest. It is a forest we have kept secret: unlike many others, it has not had photos displayed around the world to highlight its urgent need for protection. Until now it was also a forest that I was astounded had never been protected.

Keeping this special place hidden has been necessary, because this of all places is one that should not feel the impacts of human’s damaging footprint.  The sensitivity of these forests, with their underground Karst ecosystem, must be protected long into the future, as they have in the past through their anonymity.

In this remote and hidden forest there is an intertwining of landscape evolution and Aboriginal culture that extends many thousands of years into the past.

Large stands of tall-eucalypt old growth forests overlay major karst formations that have formed over millions of years. A large and prehistoric sinkhole lake is just one significant feature of this ancient landscape. The karst in this forest is one of the most vulnerable geological ecosystems in Tasmania.

A logging road was accidently constructed over part of the karst area in 2000, requiring rehabilitation. All road building and logging ceased and has not recommenced, but the forest was left quietly unprotected and still has not been fully rehabilitated. This is one of the many logging roads inside the newly listed Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that should be rehabilitated back into the wild forest landscape.

The most problematic issues with karst maintenance and protection is human disturbance. Already, a poorly-sited logging road has silted a creek draining into a cave with contains features of great beauty. Damage to caves is effectively permanent.

As local forest activists we started to apply pressure to Forestry Tasmania and the Federal Government at the time, to have the globally significant values of these forests realised.  It soon became obvious to Forestry Tasmania that it was not going to be possible to log these ancient forests with an underground of vast karsts.

Evidence of continuous Aboriginal occupation of the area for at least 35,000 years – including rock art – have been identified in these complex and secluded karst systems. The Ice Age hunters and gatherers in this region were living further south than anyone else then on the planet.

There is agreement from our environmental activist community and Indigenous people that this forest must remain a hidden mystery. The location of the cave has been and should remain quiet, and a close watch should be kept on it for signs of damage or disturbance.  In 2004 Tasmania’s Aboriginal Land Council’s Glenn Shaw said, “Sometimes you don't need to understand things; it's enough that they are.”

It is an extraordinary situation that this globally unique area was left unprotected – along with the rest of the recently listed 170,000 ha World Heritage extension – is an unfortunate legacy of past policy failures and political compromises.

The long campaign to see the globally significant values of these ancient forests and the huge loss of forests in these regions for decades have produced diligent campaigners who will see this through to the very end.  The global community is watching and expect that Tasmania’s world heritage protection be secure. We will be another watchful eye over the new Abbott government who wields a chainsaw to the environment.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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