Environment Minister Greg Hunt has confirmed for the first time that the Abbott government will formally seek to wind back World Heritage listing of Tasmania’s forests, less than a year after it was approved.
Mr Hunt said the government would meet an upcoming World Heritage Committee deadline to propose a boundary change to the 170,000-hectare extension agreed by the committee last June.
He refused to rule out seeking the removal of protection from the bitterly disputed old growth forest valleys just added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Instead Mr Hunt said the new adjustment would maintain protection for all pre-existing national parks, and seek to exclude degraded areas that should never have been part of the wilderness.
The tall eucalypt forests that formed the heart of the 2012 extension were fought over for a generation, sometimes with violence such as assaults on protesters and in the firebombing of loggers’ equipment.
When settled by the committee at its Phnom Penh meeting, it was described by then environment minister Tony Burke as Australia’s most contentious heritage boundary.
“These are extraordinarily precious areas of forest,” Mr Burke said.
But the Liberal Party campaigned successfully in Tasmania at the last federal election on a wind-back of the extension.
”We were critical of the process for adding that, and we were critical of the content of much of it,” Mr Hunt said in Hobart on Thursday.
Asked whether the government would meet the February 1 deadline for changes to be put before the next committee meeting, Mr Hunt said “correct”.
He declined to release details of the proposed changes before they were submitted, or to specify the fate of areas like the hotly-disputed Styx and Florentine Valleys of central Tasmania.
“I think it’s important to recognise there are degraded areas which should never have been included,” Mr Hunt said.
“It’s quite bizarre that you have heavily logged and destroyed areas which simply weren’t up to standard included.
“And then you have very high conservation areas which were included in the national parks.
”All of those pre-existing national parks will be maintained, and I think that’s a pretty good outcome.
“There was a minor boundary adjustment of 170,000 ha. using the terms of the World Heritage process over the last year or so.
”There is a significantly smaller minor boundary adjustment which will go now.”
Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said tiny areas of the extension had been logged.
She said like other previously logged World Heritage forests, such as the California Redwoods, they had been included to keep the integrity of the wilderness, and allow restoration of degraded areas.
“This appalling move by Greg Hunt will continue a well established pattern of Australia demeaning itself in a global context under the Abbott government,” Senator Milne said.
“Just this week we have the case brought by East Timor against us in the International Court of Justice, Australia is under attack for abuse of the refugee convention, and the Prime Minister saying in Davos that government should get out of the way of business.
“Now Mr Hunt is going to humiliate Australia before the World Heritage Committee.”
Senator Milne said there was a strong possibility that such a move could lead to an “in danger” listing by the committee for the Tasmanian wilderness.
“The Greens and conservation groups will lobby the committee to oppose this reckless and destructive action,” she said.
Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media