The Tarkine is an extraordinary wilderness area located in Tasmania’s north-west. It contains Australia’s largest and least fragmented cool temperate rainforest, countless rare and threatened species, and Aboriginal archaeological sites and cave systems that are of international significance. In the 1990s, parts of it were found to meet the threshold for inclusion on the world heritage list and, late last year, the Australian Heritage Council concluded that 433,000 hectares of it met the criteria for the national heritage list. By any measure, it is one of Australia’s treasures.

Despite this, in December last year, the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, allowed the area to drop off the national heritage list. He now plans to decide whether to approve several large mines in the Tarkine without even considering their impacts on the area’s heritage values.

To understand how this could happen, you have to travel back to July 2004, when the Tarkine was first nominated for inclusion on the national heritage list. Due to opposition within the Tasmanian government and fears the listing could be badly received in forestry- and mining-dependent communities in Tasmania’s north, the assessment of the nomination was delayed for over five years. Then, in late 2009, the Tasmanian government proposed putting a “road to nowhere” through the area, prompting Peter Garrett, the former Environment Minister, to put the Tarkine on the national heritage list using emergency powers.

The emergency listing meant the heritage assessment could no longer be postponed; by law, the Australian Heritage Council had to produce it within a year. After a brief extension, it handed the final assessment to Burke in October 2010, confirming that the Tarkine has outstanding heritage value to the nation.

Ideally, a finding that the area meets the listing criteria would lead immediately to its inclusion on the national heritage list. Decisions on how the area should be used and trade-offs between economic, social and environmental demands could then be made through the approvals process, where the heritage issues would be duly considered.

While this is the best practice framework, the federal heritage regime gives the environment minister far greater control over how the listing and approval processes work. The minister can refuse to list places that meet the criteria merely to avoid political embarrassment and, almost more alarmingly, if he does this, he is prevented by law from considering the place’s heritage values when deciding whether to approve projects.

In the case of the Tarkine, mining is now the contentious issue. Over the past few years, the area has become a hotbed of mining activity and there are now at least three large projects planned — a magnesite mine, an iron ore mine and tin mine. The Tasmanian government is keen for these projects to proceed and it appears the federal government is in no mood to stop them.

Burke thought that the best way to do this would be to allow the listing of the Tarkine to lapse. This would exclude heritage issues from the assessment and approval processes for the mines (effectively lowering the bar for approval), while simultaneously preventing the release of the council’s assessment report on the area’s heritage significance.

Burke’s plan was working perfectly until someone in the Environment Department accidentally published the council’s assessment on a website. When the report was drawn to the media’s attention last Wednesday, the minister immediately went into spin mode. By late in the day, he was telling journalists he had sought urgent advice from the department on whether the Tarkine should be relisted because of the threat posed by the iron ore mine, which he is now considering approving.

A day later, Burke advised the media that he had received advice from the department that the Tarkine should not be relisted and he was accepting that advice. The department’s advice stated that, on the basis of a desktop analysis, the open cut mine would have no impact at all on the area’s wilderness values, while the impacts on aesthetic values would be insignificant.

These were startling findings. They directly contradicted the Australian Heritage Council’s assessment that “consideration of wilderness in the Tarkine … must encompass all of these areas as parts of a whole, as a single wilderness region”. In other words, damage to one part of the Tarkine will affect the nationally significant wilderness value of the whole, not just the parcel of land on which a project is located and its immediate surrounds.

The department’s advice was also in direct conflict with its own guidelines, which state that projects that involve vegetation clearing and construction, or that could introduce pollutants, in a national heritage place will be taken to have a significant impact on the area’s wilderness and aesthetic values.

There are only two possible explanations for the advice: either the department is unaware of the council’s views and the content of its own guidelines or its advice is being run through a political filter to suit the minister. Regardless of which is correct, it reflects badly on the department and again has  highlighted why we need an independent statutory authority to control the national heritage list.

Our natural heritage is too important to leave in the hands of politicians and a politicised bureaucracy. The time has come for the Australian Labor Party to deliver on its national platform, which for almost a decade has called for the heritage listing process to be independent.

*Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson are from the ANU’s Australian Centre for Environmental Law.