Tasmania's rainforest at risk from mining

Green campaigners want the Tarkine Wilderness to be given World Heritage status, but the government isn't listening

A A A

Considered one of Australia's natural wonders, the Tarkine Wilderness in Tasmania contains the southern hemisphere's largest temperate rainforest as well as ancient Aboriginal sites. Home to dozens of endangered species, it also has a unique landscape of karst gorges and cave systems. But that may not be enough to save it.

The Australian Heritage Council has no doubts about its significance – it has recommended that nearly half a million hectares of the Tarkine be listed to protect them from development. That would be a first step towards the World Heritage listing that many experts believe it merits.

The federal government, though, appears unconvinced. Rather than accept the council's advice, the environment minister, Tony Burke, has ordered it to carry out another evaluation. At the same time, he has given a British company, Beacon Hill Resources, permission to drill for magnetite, which is used in farming and pharmaceuticals. Beacon Hill is one of three companies keen to develop open-cut mines in the Tarkine.

Conservation groups are horrified and have accused Mr Burke of interfering in the heritage assessment process. He had refused to release the council's report, and it became public only after it was accidentally posted on a government website.

Christine Milne, the deputy leader of Australia's Greens, fears that by the time the Tarkine has been re-assessed, its natural assets will have been degraded by mining, making a heritage listing less likely. "You can't escape the conclusion that the government didn't like the advice it was given and is stalling in order to give the mining industry a window of opportunity."

Situated in north-western Tasmania, the Tarkine is the latest battleground in a state recognised as the birthplace of the global green movement. Like others of her generation, Senator Milne cut her teeth on a long and ultimately successful campaign in the early 1980s to prevent a huge hydro-electric dam being built along the Franklin River.

In the 30 years since the Franklin victory, the main protest arena has been Tasmania's ancient eucalypt forests, the scene of sometimes violent clashes between activists and loggers. A few months ago, in a stunning climbdown, the forestry industry announced that it will stop cutting down old-growth native trees. Now, though, green groups are worried that the threat has shifted to mining.

Of particular concern in the Tarkine is the risk that mining poses to the critically endangered Tasmanian devil, 70 per cent of which have been wiped out by a contagious facial tumour disease. The isolated rainforest is one of the last refuges for devils with a genetic immunity to the disease, and scientists believe the construction of mine access roads could hasten the animal's extinction.

The Tarkine shelters more than 60 rare, threatened and endangered species, including the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle and the giant freshwater lobster, which can grow to 3ft.

The area's magnesite karst systems include cave and pinnacle formations. Regarded as one of the world's great archaeological regions, the Tarkine also has more than 1,000 Aboriginal sites, the legacy of a long occupation by the Tarkiner indigenous people.

Scott Jordan, of the Tarkine National Coalition, an umbrella organisation for conservation groups, says 27 mining companies hold more than 50 exploration licences in the Tarkine, with their interest fuelled by high metal prices. And while Beacon Hill had to meet rigorous environmental standards, "it's open slather for the other companies", Mr Jordan says. "Our fear is that the Tarkine will get hammered."

The coalition has been pressing since 2004 for the Tarkine to be heritage-listed, but evaluation was delayed because of concerns about communities dependent on logging and mining. A state plan to carve a tourist access road through it prompted Mr Burke's predecessor, Peter Garrett, to grant it an emergency listing in 2009. That lapsed last December, and Mr Burke has refused to renew it.

The Tasmanian government wants mining to go ahead, to bring much-needed work to the north-west. Senator Milne says the same arguments were advanced in relation to the Franklin dam – but longer-term jobs were created by protecting the river and obtaining World Heritage listing for the surrounding wilderness area.

To her, the choice is plain. "Really you have to decide whether you're going to protect this precious wild tract of forest for its magnificent biodiversity and the threatened species for which it is a home, or you have to make the decision to put a scratch across the Mona Lisa."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine