The federal government has decided to push ahead with a plan to remove world heritage listing from a swath of Tasmanian forest, potentially reopening bitter divisions over the state’s timber industry.
Richard Colbeck, parliamentary secretary for agriculture, said the government would write to Unesco’s world heritage committee to ask it to peel away about 170,000 hectares of forest from the protected region.
Colbeck told the Australian the protected listing was a “sham” because it locked up areas of plantation timber, as well as pristine old-growth forest. The Coalition has argued the listing threatens jobs and investment in a region that suffers from relatively high unemployment.
The extension to Tasmania’s world heritage region, which includes areas such as the Styx and Florentine, was approved by then environment minister Tony Burke earlier this year.
The decision to ask the world heritage committee to unwind its listing is opposed by conservationists and the timber industry itself, which has stated it supports the extension as part of the peace deal that promises to end decades of dispute over the use of Tasmania’s forests.
Glenn Walker, national campaigner at the Wilderness Society, told Guardian Australia he was “surprised and fearful” over the government’s move to delist the extension.
“There is a hell of a lot at risk here – not only the beautiful forests but also the ground-breaking agreement between environmentalists, industry and unions,” he said. “The federal Liberals are risking peace in the forests, seemingly for ideological reasons.”
Walker said there were fewer than 100 hectares, out of a total of 170,000 hectares, that were plantation forest, and they were included in the listing to provide vital habitat corridors for wildlife.
“The vast majority is spectacular, tall, old-growth Tasmanian forest,” he said. “We don’t know of any timber industry players interested in extracting wood from a heritage area because they know the future is sustainable, conflict-free timber. Tearing up this peace deal is a fundamentally irresponsible move by the government.”
Only two places – Oman and Dresden, in Germany – have previously had their world heritage listing stripped, neither at the behest of their respective governments.
“The world heritage committee will never have been confronted by this situation before,” said Walker. “The Abbott government will be in for a tough fight because there is a reason why we protect the most beautiful places on Earth. This is akin to removing part of the Great Barrier Reef’s protection for oil exploration.”
The Tasmanian government is also critical of the move, with the state environment minister, Brian Wightman, claiming the Coalition has a “lack of concern” for the Tasmanian forest industry.
“The Tasmanian forest agreement is paving the way for the establishment of a sustainable, long-term and successful forest industry,” he said. “But the federal and state Liberal parties are hell-bent on taking the industry backwards and removing any chance for Tasmania to market its products.
“Attempting to delist a world heritage area would undoubtedly bring Australia into disrepute,” he said.
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