Human disturbance found on 6,392 hectares of Tasmanian forest targeted for delisting from World Heritage protection, representing 8.6% of 74,039 hectare-area; finding in federal report may weaken government's case to rescind heritage listing

, June 6, 2014 () – THE Abbott government’s key justification for stripping away World Heritage protection for 74,000ha of Tasmania’s forests has been undermined by its own expert assessment.

While the government has justified the attempt to delist the forests by claiming they are “degraded” by logging, an analysis by the federal Environment Department concludes that only 8.6 per cent shows any sign of having been disturbed.

The revelation risks further harming the government’s attempts to persuade the World Heritage Committee, meeting in Doha tomorrow week, to approve the removal of the forests from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

An “analysis of the extent and distribution of disturbance” by the Environment Department in January found only 6392ha of the 74,039ha of Tasmania’s World Heritage Area targeted for delisting shows signs of human disturbance.

Disturbance typically includes logging, replanting and gravel road building. Of 117 “patches” of disturbed forest identified in a visual assessment of the forests using satellite and other imagery, only 20 had “significant” disturbance, and most showed “low” or “modest” disturbance. “The department’s assessment of visual disturbance from available satellite imagery shows … the majority (of disturbed areas) having low levels of disturbance,” the advice concludes.

One 748ha area, at Dove River, near Cradle Mountain, is put forward for delisting even though the department’s assessment found the degree of disturbance in these forests to be “none”.

The advice was withheld from the World Heritage Committee when the government asked it in January to rescind heritage listing for the entire 74,000ha, which was part of a larger 170,000ha area listed under the previous Labor government.

The advice has not been ­released publicly, while senior ministers, including Tony Abbott, have claimed all or most of the 74,000ha is unworthy of protection and largely degraded by past logging.

Mr Abbott told a timber industry function in Canberra on March 4: “One of the first acts of the ­incoming government was to begin the process to try to get out of World Heritage listing 74,000ha of country in Tasmania, because that 74,000ha is not pristine forest. It’s forest which has been logged, it’s forest which has been degraded. In some cases, it’s plantation timber that was actually planted to be logged.” However, the claim has been rejected by world heritage experts and last month the UNESCO World Heritage Centre recommended to the World Heritage Committee that it not accept the government’s request to rescind the 74,000ha.

The issue will be decided at the Doha meeting and the government has been lobbying committee members to ignore the centre’s initial advice.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt last night defended the government’s position. “The government has been clear that in removing areas that have been disturbed by logging, undisturbed patches surrounding them would also be removed in order to achieve a coherent and practical boundary,” a spokesman for Mr Hunt said.

He denied the government had misled the World Heritage committee and the public about the scale and severity of disturbance of the forests. “The data … was part of the government’s deliberative process,” he said.Tasmanian Liberal senator Richard Colbeck has flagged presenting new data to the committee, sourced from Tasmania’s state-owned logging company, showing greater disturbance to the 74,000ha than can be detected in visual surveys.

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