The Tony Abbott government has done something no other government in the world has done before, asking UNESCO to take one of the nation’s unique natural areas off the World Heritage list.
In Tasmania, 170,000 hectares of forest was given World Heritage status in June last year.
Environmentalists have long considered the areas, which mostly border existing World Heritage areas, worthy of protection. Among them are well-known forests such as the Styx, Weld and Upper Florentine Valleys.
It was granted protection as the sweetener in a deal between sections of the environment movement and loggers, known as the Tasmanian forest agreement.
In exchange for protection, environmentalists actively supported the timber industry. Last year, the Wilderness Society accompanied Malaysian timber company Ta Ann on a trade delegation to Japan and helped lobby customers on their behalf.
Now, the Liberal government wants to take away protection status for 74,000 hectares, putting the forest agreement at risk.
Environment minister Greg Hunt said the targeted areas are not of World Heritage standard. “What has been put to the committee for reconsideration is 117 degraded or logged areas. So these are areas which many people feel should never have been included because they significantly detract from what is one of the great World Heritage areas.”
But Wilderness Society spokesperson Vica Bayley said: “Only a very small proportion of the recent extension has been logged before, and as those small areas of disturbance are within otherwise intact areas, they are included for restoration, long-term reserve design, boundary integrity and management reasons.
“Hunt’s proposal would axe the listing over more than half of the new World Heritage reserves negotiated under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement to re-open them to logging.”
Not everyone was happy with the forest agreement. Some environmentalists, including people involved in the campaign to stop the Gunns pulp mill and grassroots forest activists like Miranda Gibson, opposed the deal on the grounds it would entrench the logging industry without any guarantees forests would be protected.
The deal was made at a time when the industry was in serious economic decline, and would soon be out of the market. Yet with the support of environmentalists, the industry was given large government subsidies and had access to new overseas markets that would buy only “sustainable” timber.
Likewise, some in the logging industry rejected the agreement because they opposed a compromise with the “greenies”. They want to believe the industry can continue as it has for generations, and see their biggest enemy as the “greenies”, not market forces.
Hunt is playing to these people. The federal Liberal government does not stand to gain anything if the forest wars are ended. Like their attacks on refugees, or rekindling the culture wars, the endless conflict between environmentalists and loggers is a great diversion from the real economic problems plaguing Tasmania.