The deal to save Tasmanian forests has seen the logging and mining industry remain determined that these forests are not converted into national parks and “locked up” — and the Prime Minister Julia Gillard seems to agree.  The Greens are opposed to mining and other resource development in these forests but have failed to sell their other economic values as national parks.

Despite Bob Brown stating that the sale and likely eventual closure of the Triabunna woodchip plant was due to “market forces”, with eco-tourism being proposed for the site, the Tarkine forests in Tasmania’s north west is still spoken of as “just wilderness” in need of protection. The kind of investment needed to make it a world standard national park and its potential economic value is yet to be publicly discussed.

Around Australia national parks are generating millions of dollars for regional economies through visitor spending — but still governments often see their only value through being logged or mined.  Tasmanian national parks are also valuable for tourism, and generated more than 700,000 visitor days worth of tourism last financial year.  At an average of $150 spending per visitor per day, Tasmanian national parks are likely inject $105 million into the state economy annually. An estimate of tourist expenditure suggests interstate visitors spending near $200 per day but overseas visitors it is about $67, according to Tourism Tasmania.

Gillard and Brown are fond of quoting market forces.  In the tourism market, the Tarkine already is known nationally and internationally as a wilderness and has developed a significant eco-tourism industry.  Any mining will not just compromise the “Tarkine brand’ and the existing businesses but will also damage the reputation of Australia, and particularly Tasmania as a tourist destination.  Any unsuccessful battle to save the Tarkine will amplify the negative publicity generated by any inappropriate development.

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In this case, mining may not be the best outcome for the Tasmanian economy. The Tarkine wilderness as a national park —  which includes walking tracks, camping grounds, aerial ways and the like for visitors — would attract at least as many people as Cradle Mountain National Park to the south — about 160,000 visitors annually.  If their spending was to an average of $150 per day, this would generate $24 million annually into the economy of north-west Tasmania.

These forest should be worth even more with a price on carbon and have yet another economic value — the increasing amounts of carbon they store.   Though every week there are stories of yet more forests being cleared for paper production, palm oil, etc by prioritising the cutting of emissions from coal-fired power stations and implementing a carbon tax … natural forests seem to count for little.  This is a national and international problem, with the preservation of forests significant to the millions of people who rely on the rivers and estuaries that flow from their catchments.

The federal government could invest directly in establishing the Tarkine and other national parks in Tasmania as part of this peace deal. Taxpayers nationally would welcome investment in about 400,000 hectares of old forest to store carbon, too. The Tarkine forest can be seen and touched and its protection for carbon sequestration could also be seen as Australia “leading by example”.  It would also provide a cynical public a far more tangible result, rather than promises to reduce emissions through gas-fired power stations and the like.