Last Friday, the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, announced that he had no intention of using his emergency powers to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. His reasoning was that he didn’t believe there was any evidence that the national heritage values of the area are under imminent threat. As there appears to have been blockage in the flow of information to the minister’s office, here is an update on what is going on in the Tarkine.

The Mount Lindsay mine

As we’ve previously explained, on November 4, Venture Minerals referred to Burke a proposal for a tin, tungsten, magnetite and copper mine near Mount Lindsay under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). This project will ultimately cover more than 10 square kilometres in an area just north of the Pieman River and require the clearing of extensive rainforest areas. While Venture has grand plans for the project, the action that was referred to Burke covers a mere 194 hectares on a mining lease that extends over 1104 hectares.

Burke was due to make a decision on this project on December 2. After preliminary issues were raised — potentially related to the manner in which Venture has split the project for the purposes of the referral — the stop clock was put on the process while the Environment Department seeks more information. At this point, it is unclear when Burke will announce his decision but Christmas Eve is a reasonable guess.

The road to nowhere returns

In late 2009, the Tasmanian Department of Infrastructure referred the “Tarkine Road Project” to Peter Garrett, while he was still the Environment Minister. This project was touted as a tourist road and would have stretched over 131 kilometres across the northern Tarkine, near the Arthur River. It would have required the construction of large sections of new road, as well as the widening and sealing of old forestry roads. The road proposal triggered community outrage and brought back memories of the Heemskirk Road-Western Explorer Road dispute of the 1980s and 1990s (the original “Road to Nowhere”). Concerns about the road focused on two issues: heritage and wilderness impacts, and the threats the road would pose to Tasmanian devils and spotted-tailed quolls.

Faced with fierce opposition, Garrett used his emergency powers to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage list then declared that the proposal would be subject to an in-depth environmental impact statement that would look at heritage and threatened species impacts. The Tasmanian government later dropped the project, which led Burke — who had taken over as environment minister — to allow the Tarkine to drop off the National Heritage list through a statutory loophole (even though he had already received advice from the Australian Heritage Council that the Tarkine met the criteria for permanent inclusion on the list).

Two years down the track and the Tarkine Road Project has returned; a revised road project was referred under the EPBC Act on December 1. The project has a new name, the Tarkine Forest Drive, and is slightly shorter than the original at 93 kilometres; but in all other respects is the same. On the positive side, the shortening of the road means that a controversial stretch of new road in the north-eastern part of the Tarkine has been dropped. Notwithstanding this, substantial heritage and environmental concerns remain.

Of particular interest is the fact that the proposal involves the sealing and upgrading of the Temma Road, which runs along the Tarkine’s west coast, from the Arthur River to just south of Nelson Bay near Couta Rocks. This area is home to an extremely high density of Tasmanian devils and road kill is already a problem. Sealing the road and encouraging increased use will pose a heightened threat to this already imperilled species.

Adding to this threat is the proposed Nelson Bay River magnetite and haematite mine, which will be conveniently located adjacent to the upgraded Temma Road (mere coincidence, of course). This proposal is also currently undergoing assessment under the EPBC Act, with the final impact statement due in mid- to late-2012. If it gets approved, not only will the devils and quolls have to dodge tourist traffic but a fleet of fully loaded B-doubles trucking ore to Burnie (there will be mining traffic at one end of the Tarkine Forest Drive and logging traffic at the other — it is going to be an interesting tourist attraction).

Other ongoing and proposed mining projects

There are currently at least 10 active mining leases held over parts of the Tarkine. Two of these relate to the 50-year-old Savage River mine. Another three relate to the controversial mining projects that are currently subject to the EPBC Act: the Mount Lindsay mine, the Nelson Bay mine and Tasmania Magnesite’s magnesite proposal in the north-east of the Tarkine. The remainder are a collection of smaller interests, including a gravel mining lease granted to Forestry Tasmania in 2009 (and it is currently seeking another one). In addition to the mining leases, there are tens of exploration licences held over parts of the Tarkine and extensive works involving vegetation clearing, road construction and drilling being carried out under these licences.

You be the judge about whether the heritage values of the Tarkine might be threatened by all this activity.

ALP national conference and the ALP national platform

On a related issue, at the ALP national conference on the weekend, the delegates debated whether to retain a provision in the ALP national platform that states, “the identification and listing of properties of heritage significance should be carried out by an independent expert body”. This provision was included in the 2007 and 2009 platforms and, had the Rudd and Gillard governments adhered to it, the Tarkine would have been included on the National Heritage list years ago. We are waiting for confirmation on whether this provision was carried over into the 2011 platform.