World Heritage Committee mission a victory for wilderness protection

The intervention of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) has resulted in the state government dropping plans to allow mining and logging in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) and commit to a range of other positive changes to the draft management plan. However, there is still doubt about whether the government’s approach to tourism projects in the TWWHA will change significantly in response to the WHC.

Background to the reactive monitoring mission

During the WHC’s 39th session held in Bonn last year, the Committee requested the Australian Government to invite a joint Reactive Monitoring Mission, including

the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), to visit the TWWHA. This was ‘in order to review and provide advice for the revision of the management plan, prior to a decision to finalise the plan, on the survey of cultural attributes and on the re-drafting of the retrospective Statement of Universal Value, and also to assess the state of conservation of the property as a whole.’

During the Committee’s visit in November, the TCT, along with other major conservation organisations, made a presentation to the WHC’s Reactive Monitoring Mission (RMM). The TCT’s presentation focused on the potential threats from tourism developments and the state government’s deeply flawed expression-of-interest (EOI) process, in particular the lack of any meaningful assessment criteria for tourism projects.

Nick Sawyer, from the Tasmanian National Parks Association (TNPA), addressed the state government’s proposal to replace the very strong and well-defined statutory development assessment process, in the existing 1999 TWWHA management plan, with a mere reference to the Parks and Wildlife Service’s Reserve Activity Assessment (RAA) process. The RAA process is not defined in legislation, which would make it very difficult to attempt court action to review or overturn approvals, and provides no guarantee of public input.

In the previous 13 months, the TCT and the TNPA had been unsuccessful in obtaining information about the EOI process (in particular, the criteria being used to assess projects in any reserved land) from Minister Matthew Groom.

Mining and logging will stop, but what about tourism? 

Following the release of the RMM report, both state and federal governments responded by stating ‘we accept all the recommendations’. The state government had previously committed to ruling out mining and mineral exploration, but all conservation groups were surprised and pleased when Minister Groom added, ‘we accept the recommendations of the monitoring mission that special species timber harvesting should not be allowed anywhere in the World Heritage Area’.

While the TCT is confident the government will hold true to the commitment to not allow mining and logging, it is yet to be seen whether their approach to tourism projects in the TWWHA will significantly change.

The TCT’s view is that the government may have never seriously intended to push forward with mining or logging. More likely its main agenda is to open remote parts of the TWWHA to accommodation lodges which would be serviced by helicopters and float planes. If so, then backing down on mining and logging may be a strategic move to appear as if they are responding to community concern.

The RMM recommendations are that a Tourism Master Plan be prepared for the TWWHA and that strict assessment criteria for tourism projects be developed and included in the final management plan. Unlike the no-mining and no-logging stance, however, these recommendations are open to interpretation and it is unclear how the government intends to implement them.

The TCT and TNPA have written to Minister Groom asking how the Tourism Master Plan will be developed, in particular what the consultation process will be. We have pointed out that the plan should have been developed prior to the current expressions-of-interest process and have recommended that further assessment and approval of projects be put on hold until the plan is developed.

Complicating the government’s response, in April 2016 the Director of PWS released a report responding to the submissions on the draft 2014 TWWHA management plan, which includes assessment criteria that are intended to be included in the final management plan. TCT and TNPA have pointed out that these criteria are inadequate to properly address the RMM recommendation. In particular, they do not directly address the impacts of proposals on wilderness values and there is no commitment to an open and transparent assessment process. Also, these criteria were developed without consulting the Tasmanian public. In light of this we have requested that the government suspend the Tasmanian Planning Commission’s review of the of Director’s report to allow for the development of ‘strict criteria’ per the RMM recommendations.

The TCT and TNPA stated in our letter to Minister Groom that, if the government continues down its current path, then the final management plan will clearly be inconsistent with the Reactive Monitoring Mission recommendation and this will result in ongoing complaints by conservation groups to the World Heritage Committee.

The Tasmanian Planning Commission has a statutory responsibility to review the PWS Director’s report, to determine whether the concerns raised in the public submissions have been accurately recorded and a response provided. The TPC has discretion to hold public hearings. A letter endorsed by numerous conservation organisations has been sent to the TPC recommending public hearings and pointing out the added importance of them to enable submitters to comment on whether the Director has adequately responded to the RMM recommendations.