Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area and Recreational Vehicles

By Peter McGlone

The TCT has called on the Australian Government to intervene to stop recreational vehicle users threatening the immense natural and cultural values of the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area (APCA). Since the emergency listing of the Tarkine area as a National Heritage Place under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act in December 2009, which includes the APCA south of the Arthur River (the vast majority of the reserve), we assert that the thousands of recreational vehicle users accessing the area are damaging matters of national environment significance and are therefore in contravention of the EPBC Act. Without assessment and approval under the Act each and every recreational vehicle user is committing an offence.

We have urged the Tasmanian and Australian governments to act immediately to ensure recreational vehicle use of the APCA is referred for assessment under the EPBC Act.

The TCT has also recommended that, instead of each recreational vehicle permit applicant being required to make a separate referral to the Australian Government, the State Government should take responsibility for this by referring all APCA permit applications for assessment under the EPBC Act.

Given the thousands of recreational vehicle users who access the APCA, the large number of tracks involved and the numerous relevant matters of national environmental significance, we recommend that the Australian and Tasmanian governments undertake a Strategic Assessment pursuant to Section 146 of the EPBC Act. This is the same process that is being used to assess the impacts of the Tasmanian Government’s Midlands Water Scheme. It provides an efficient and timely mechanism for assessing numerous similar impacts that threaten matters of national environmental significance, including taking into account the accumulative impacts, and provides for a landscape-level approach to the assessment.

Recreational vehicles have been damaging the APCA for many years, and while the damage has been worsening, the Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) has been incapable of acting decisively to protect the area. Over the past two years the PWS has reviewed the management of recreational vehicle use through the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area Recreational Vehicle Advisory Committee, on which the TCT was represented. But, disappointingly, the final report from the committee’s two years of work, ‘Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area: Sustainable Recreational Vehicle Access Draft Report 2010’ (PWS Draft Report) proposes that recreational vehicle use continue in numerous areas within the Tarkine National Heritage Place, that are acknowledged to have significant natural and cultural values. The PWS Draft Report even fails to acknowledge the Tarkine National Heritage Place listing or to recognise the additional responsibilities that are required.

Under the EPBC Act any part of an area given emergency listing is taken to be a national heritage place for the purposes of the EPBC Act until the conclusion of the assessment by the Australian Heritage Council. Any action that is likely to have significant impact on the Tarkine National Heritage Place must be referred to the Australian Government for assessment.

Rather than being driven to apply the relevant legislation – the Aboriginal Relicts Act, National Parks and Reserves Management Act and the EPBC Act – the PWS views its role as achieving a balance between what recreational users want and what the law requires.

The TCT believes that the PWS is unable or unwilling to significantly restrict recreational vehicle use of the APCA and that the EPBC assessment will be a great opportunity to improve management of this issue. EPBC Act referral is unlikely to resolve this problem entirely but it will deliver a more comprehensive and objective assessment, which should provide added protection for the natural and cultural values of the APCA.

The TCT has written to the Tasmanian Minister for Environment, Parks and Heritage, David O’Byrne, recommending that the Tasmanian Government voluntarily refer recreational vehicle use of the APCA. We have written to the Australian Government Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, urging him to request the referral of recreational vehicle use of the APCA for assessment under the EPBC Act if the Tasmanian Government does not voluntarily refer it.

The impacts of recreational vehicles: the case for EPBC Act referral

The TCT asserts that the combined actions of more than 8000 recreational vehicle users (based on the figures included in the PWS Draft Report, page 6) who access the APCA annually are having, and will continue to have, an immense impact on the natural and cultural values of the Tarkine National Heritage Place, as listed by Minister Garrett in December 2009, by:

-          damaging Aboriginal sites (many tracks pass directly through sites)

-          damaging vegetation, land forms and wilderness values

-          destroying or disturbing EPBC Act listed threatened, marine and migratory bird species

-          spreading the root rot fungus Phytophthora, which impacts on susceptible threatened flora species and communities.

Given that recreational vehicle permits are issued annually, it cannot be argued that any recreational vehicle users have prior authorisation (pursuant to section 43A of the EPBC Act) and are therefore not required to obtain approval under the EPBC Act.

Numerous sites of enormous value to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are being damaged daily by permitted recreational vehicle users and some of this damage is irreparable.

The PWS Draft Report acknowledges that ‘The Arthur-Pieman area has been described by the Australian Heritage Commission as “one of the world’s greatest archaeological regions” for its rich Aboriginal heritage’ (page 1). Disappointingly, the report proposes that vehicles continue to be permitted to drive through areas which it acknowledges are recognised as sites of high value for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, including: track 222, Sarah Anne Inland Track; track 227, Central Couta to Temma Track; track 230, Rebecca Lagoon; track 232, Lady Kathleen Bay Track; and track 309, Temma to Greens Creek Track.

A large number and diversity of Aboriginal values are being damaged by vehicle use of these tracks but, in summary, vehicles are driving over midden sites, artefact scatters and a small number of petroglyphs. A recent Aboriginal heritage survey of the tracks from Temma to Greenes Creek alone found 122 Aboriginal sites on tracks (including 106 previously unrecorded sites), and in the Sandy Cape area a total of 50 sites were found on tracks. The PWS Draft Report recommends continued recreational vehicle use of these tracks.

We are also greatly concerned that vehicles accessing beaches and other coastal areas in the APCA are disturbing or destroying beach-nesting birds that are listed on the schedules of the EPBC Act (little tern – threatened and marine species; fairy tern – marine species and nominated as threatened species; hooded plover – marine species) and disturbing the endangered orange-bellied parrot, which feeds in the area during its annual migration.

The PWS Draft Report recommends continued vehicle access to sites that have high conservation value for beach-nesting birds, including threatened species. In its submission on the PWS report, Birds Tasmania recommended that 27 of these sites be closed.

There is also a very high likelihood of vehicles spreading Phytophthora and affecting susceptible threatened flora species and communities.

While the impacts we have documented relate to permitted vehicle use, there are additional severe impacts from vehicles accessing prohibited areas – a problem that is exacerbated by the PWS’s management strategy. It is virtually impossible for the PWS to effectively prevent vehicles accessing prohibited areas through on-ground management or maintaining a staff presence, or to carry out enforcement actions against offenders, due to the extensive network of tracks which permit legal access into remote areas.

The TCT asserts that management actions taken by the PWS within the APCA to construct, maintain, upgrade and/or close vehicle tracks have the potential to cause significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance and are therefore also controlled actions requiring approval under the EPBC Act.

The management actions proposed in the PWS Draft Report and any other similar actions should be referred by the PWS for assessment under the EPBC Act and should be included as a part of the proposed strategic assessment.

Managing for recreational use and conservation: where PWS gets it wrong

The Draft Report correctly identifies the management objectives for the APCA, as defined under the National Parks and Reserves Management Act, and these include conservation of biodiversity, protection of areas with cultural significance and ‘to encourage appropriate tourism, recreational use and enjoyment consistent with the conservation of the conservation area’s natural and cultural values’ (page 7).

The Draft Report then incorrectly states that: ‘PWS has a statutory responsibility to manage the reserve for competing values and uses. Authorised recreational vehicle driving is a recognized and permitted use of the reserve’ (page 7).

There is no statutory requirement to accommodate ‘competing’ values or uses. The PWS must ensure that various values and uses are managed consistent with conservation of natural and cultural values. The second sentence falsely assumes that recreational driving is acceptable because it has been permitted in the past. The management objectives for the APCA include appropriate recreational use and do not specifically refer to recreational vehicle use.

The TCT believes that these false assumptions and biases regarding the objectives of the APCA pervaded the report and have fundamentally compromised the recommendations