Tarkine National Heritage listing

On 7 February 2013 the federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPAC), Tony Burke, decided not to include the entire Tarkine (403,000 hectares were nominated) on the National Heritage list. Instead, Minister Burke listed a much smaller but still highly important portion of the Tarkine, the ‘Western Tasmanian Aboriginal Landscape’

Tarkine heritage listing refused by Tony Burke

The decision by Tony Burke not to list the vast majority of the Tarkine as a National Heritage site, counter to the advice of the Australian Heritage Council, is bad enough, but his justifications for this decision were disgraceful.

When we requested from the Department of SEWPAC a formal statement of reasons for this decision we were told that none had been produced and that we should refer to the transcript of Minister Burke’s media conference for his reasons.

In this statement and other media comments, the minister explains that he decided not to list the entire Tarkine because of the social and economic impacts of such a listing, on mining in particular, but he failed to refer to any expert advice or analysis of these impacts. He does refer to a letter from state government.

The minister did not explain why he failed to achieve a better compromise. Clearly he could have listed some of the areas with the highest environmental value while excluding those of greatest importance to the mining industry. Based on advice from his department, he argued that you cannot protect any part of the Tarkine’s environmental values without protecting it all – which sounds remarkably convenient.

The other reasons given in the minister’s media conference were in relation to the two visits he made to the Tarkine while deliberating about his decision. He describes his great surprise at finding that the tracks he was walking on followed old railway lines and he also noted remains of old aqueducts used during early mining operations. He was also surprised at the experience of visiting the Savage River mine which is right in the heart of the Tarkine.

The minister chose to make personal assessments of these issues rather than follow the advice from the Australian Heritage Council (AHC). The AHC advised that the Savage River mine and a good area around it had been excised from the area nominated. Also, while it impacts on the wilderness values of the surrounding area, the remaining nominated area was mainly high value wilderness. The minister failed to provide evidence for how the presence of aqueducts and old railway lines detract from the area’s environmental value, nor did he consider whether they may have value as European cultural heritage.

It is a shameful abuse of Mr Burke’s role as environment minister to ignore the advice of the AHC, not even seeking any counter advice from relevant experts (e.g. in regard to the socio-economic impacts, wilderness quality) and to instead make a decision based on his own personal and poorly substantiated opinion.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the minister’s statement was the implication that heritage listing and mining or other economic uses necessarily clash, and that listing would ban or greatly restrict future mines.

Listing the Tarkine as a National Heritage site would be a recognition of its values, and any development proposed would require assessment as to whether it would have significant impacts on these values. Clearly some mines or other developments would clash with these values but some may not or, more likely, the minister of the day would approve them regardless of the impacts. The minister does flag the likelihood that heritage listing would create a more complicated and longer assessment process for all proposals and more stringent conditions would be expected – and he could not support this. It is a disgrace that Australia’s national environment minister could not support heritage protection for the Tarkine simply because it would delay mining developments.

But the minister seemed intent on giving the environmental movement a total defeat, purely for political reasons. It seems that it’s time for the Labor Party to distance itself from the Greens, and his decision is promoted as a pro-jobs decision.

The Tarkine National Coalition has requested that the minister prepare and provide a formal statement of reasons for his decision. This should be good reading.

Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape Heritage site listed by Tony Burke

It is greatly disappointing that the undoubted values of the entire Tarkine region have not been recognised and listed on the Register of National Heritage. But it is also disappointing that the two decisions came together. The importance of the coastal portion of the Tarkine for Aboriginal heritage and the potential value of the listing for its management was largely missed in the media coverage.

We are still digesting the legal meaning of the listing. Contrary to comments made by Minister Burke, it is clear that long-established but annually licensed recreational practices such as off-road vehicle driving will not be exempted under provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act dealing with prior authorisations and lawful continuations of use. What is unclear is whether this listing will convince this minister to be more proactive than Peter Garrett in dealing with the collective impacts of all recreational vehicles. The previous minister’s view was that each individual vehicle trip would need to be demonstrated as having a significant impact on a EPBC Act listed value for it to be an action controlled under the act.

The following text is taken from a brochure produced by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. It provides a wonderful description of the site’s Aboriginal heritage values.

Dotted along Tasmania’s wind-swept western coastline are the remains of numerous hut depressions found in Aboriginal shell middens. These are the remnants of an unusual, specialised and more sedentary Aboriginal way of life that began almost 2000 years ago and continued up to the 1830s, based on the hunting of seals and land mammals and the gathering of shellfish.

Sites within the Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape include some of the best evidence of the lifestyle of Aboriginal people in the area, showing how groups moved seasonally up and down the west coast of Tasmania and their subsequent economic development around the products of hunting.

In particular, the apparent absence of fish bones and the presence of marine and terrestrial animal bones in some middens, when taken in conjunction with the hut sites, are an important expression of this specialised way of life.

Archaeological work from the 1960s through to the 1980s found evidence of early villages, established approximately 1900 years ago next to an elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) colony. Based upon the large number of seal bones found in the midden, it is believed that the elephant seals were a major component of Aboriginal people's diet in the area.

Analysis of the faunal remains from the West Point midden indicates that mainly young calves were killed; indicating that up to 1900 years ago Aboriginal people inhabited the area in summer when young seals were being weaned.

Evidence of similar patterns of movement are also found in southwest Victoria, however the diversity of hut depressions in the Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape are greater, making it of outstanding national heritage value to all of Australia.

Peter McGlone