In the next two weeks, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke will decide whether a major mine in the Tarkine requires approval under federal environment law. If he makes his decision before the area is included on the National Heritage List, the Tarkine will almost certainly become wilderness in name only.

The Tarkine is the last great unprotected wilderness in southern Australia. It is an area of profound importance and has been under consideration for inclusion on the National Heritage List since 2004, which makes it the longest continuous assessment process in the history of the National Heritage regime. This delay is the product of deliberate manipulation; the federal government has held up the listing to enable it to approve mining developments with minimum fuss.

The latest mining proposal that the federal government is posed to usher through is a massive open-cut tin, tungsten, magnetite and copper mine. This proposal has been the focus of concern for several years because of its size and the fact that it will destroy an important rainforest area. Two weeks ago, Venture Minerals applied to Tony Burke for the mine to be approved. Since the Tarkine is not currently on the National Heritage List, the company was only obliged to make the referral on the basis of the potential impacts on threatened species (most notably the Tasmanian devil) not because of the mine’s impacts on the heritage values of the area (wilderness, aesthetics, geological, indigenous heritage, flora diversity and natural history).

If he wanted to, Burke could consider the heritage implications of the project by immediately including the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. But if he is to do it, it has to be before December 2. At that time, he is required to make a decision on whether the mine needs formal assessment and approval under federal environmental law. If the Tarkine is not on the National Heritage List before he makes this decision, he will be prevented by law from considering the heritage impacts of the project when formally assessing and approving the project — a fact that the Environment Department has previously drawn to the minister’s attention.

Will he do it? The minister’s history on the Tarkine is not cause for much hope.

In December 2010, he allowed another company, Tasmania Magnesite, to conduct test drilling in a magnesite karst system that was specifically covered by an emergency heritage listing his predecessor had put in place for the Tarkine.

A couple of weeks later he allowed that same emergency heritage listing to lapse, despite having been advised by the Australian Heritage Council that the place met three national heritage criteria for listing. He claimed that he allowed the listing to lapse because the threat to the area’s heritage values — a proposed tourist road through the Tarkine — no longer existed. This made no sense. He was required by law to make a listing decision (not use a loophole to allow it to slip off the list) and numerous threats remained, including the mining proposals.

Just after the emergency listing had lapsed, in February 2011, the minister received a referral from another mining company, Shree Minerals, to develop a mine in the north-west corner of the Tarkine. Again, he decided not to list the Tarkine, and so that project is now being assessed without consideration of the mine’s impact on the area’s heritage values. To add insult to injury, the minister’s decision was made on the same day as he released his final decision on the Bell Bay Pulp Mill, thereby shielding it from media attention and public scrutiny.

The minister’s poor performance on the Tarkine has been ably assisted by his compromised Environment Department.

In 2010, the department advised the minister that rather than listing the Tarkine in accordance with the Australian Heritage Council’s findings, he should instead ask the council to conduct further consultation. Then, a few months later in March this year, the department advised the minister that the proposed Shree Minerals mine affected the aesthetic national heritage value of the Tarkine only and that it was not likely to have a significant adverse impact on the place as a whole.  This “desktop” assessment was made with no information from the proponents on potential heritage impacts and conflicted with its own impact guidelines.

Now, the Australian Heritage Council, which is headed by former Labor politician Carmen Lawrence, is either deliberately or inadvertently providing political cover for the minister. Its second assessment of the Tarkine’s national heritage values was due to be completed by the end of September, but it has since been delayed indefinitely, because ironically, the council now says it needs more time to consider its assessment. The reason for this change of heart is the council’s desire to further consider the arguments put by the mining companies in relation to the location of the boundary and the question of the accuracy of the aesthetic and wilderness values for the area. This is great news for the mining companies who have executed a simple but nevertheless effective strategy: delay the listing and get the projects approved before the heritage listing takes effect.

Given what has occurred, it seems the Tarkine is destined to be chopped up by a series of economically marginal mining projects. The only way this might be avoided is if Burke is persuaded to follow due process and immediately include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. But this would require public pressure and, as of yet, none of the nation’s major environment groups have stepped up. In August this year, the Australian Conservation Foundation accompanied the minister to the Kimberley to congratulate him on his decisions to include it on the National Heritage List. Now’s the time for the foundation and other environment and heritage groups to start saying something publicly on the Tarkine.

*Deb Wilkinson and Andrew Macintosh are from the Australian Centre for Environmental Law at the Australian National University