The Queensland government’s election pledge to roll back the Wild Rivers Act to allow more development in Cape York seems destined to succeed. But opponents of the move have one trick up their sleeve.

Green groups fear the policy roll back would damage the environment and tourism and are pinning their hopes on the federal government intervening to block development in the region.

Queensland Minister for Environment Andrew Powell told Crikey that Wild Rivers declarations pertaining to Cape York will be repealed and replaced with the Cape York Bioregion Management Plan. Consultation on the draft plan won’t begin until 2013, after a scoping paper was released in June.

“Our fear is we’re dealing with a state government now who has a very strong pro-development, particularly pro-mining agenda, and it’s winding back Wild Rivers precisely because it wants more mining in pristine areas and wants to see the Cape become a large-scale mining zone,” Tim Seelig, Queensland campaign manager for The Wilderness Society, told Crikey.

The Wild Rivers laws apply across several river systems of Queensland to protect them in their wild state. Development is not allowed within 1km of rivers. The Cape York area has been the most controversial in a campaign opposing the legislation, led by Noel Pearson and other Cape York indigenous leaders (and backed in Canberra by Tony Abbott). The legislation’s detractors say the laws hold back the development opportunities of local indigenous communities in favour of environmental aims, pointing to the blocking of a new mine in the Wenlock area in 2010.

However, Seelig notes that Weipa, Queensland is a bustling mining town but Mapoon, an indigenous community on its doorstep, remains extremely disadvantaged. “The trickle-down theory of having more mining and that leading somehow magically to addressing serious economic disadvantage in indigenous communities is just rubbish,” he said.

Queensland Senator and Greens environment spokesperson Larissa Waters says that not all indigenous leaders on Cape York are anti-Wild Rivers legislation. “There is widespread support among traditional owners on Cape York for Wild Rivers protection and the indigenous jobs it provides, but Campbell Newman is listening to only a few opposing indigenous voices and using these as a blanket mandate for fast-tracking mining and environmental devastation across the Cape,” Waters told Crikey.

There are calls for Cape York to receive World Heritage Listing. “Protecting the environment in a place like Cape York and maximising its competitive advantage around ecotourism, land management and environmental ecosystem service protection, you’re talking about a vastly greater number of long-term sustainable jobs and good income streams,” said Seelig.

The Wilderness Society will continue its public campaign to protect Wild River legislation, but Seelig acknowledges that if required they will push for a new model under state law that maintains the same kind of environmental outcomes.

Meanwhile, the big guns could be rolled out on the issue. Environment Minister Tony Burke could protect the Wild Rivers area on an emergency list under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, says Waters.

“Unless the Australian government steps in, it will be open slather for big mining in Cape York’s pristine wilderness areas,” she said. “The Australian government can use our national environment laws to protect these areas, but instead wants to weaken these laws and give away their environmental responsibilities to the states.”

Part of the Wild Rivers legislation includes a program for local rangers to protect the area and uphold the legislation through practical means. The Wild Rivers Rangers program was recently renamed the Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program by the Newman government, and Powell told Crikey the program would continue even if the Wild Rivers legislation was rolled back.

“The Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers’ role is to help manage country in Cape York, their role will not change,” said Powell, who also noted that as promised prior to the election, another 40 rangers will be employed in the next four years.

Yet the aim of the rangers is to maintain the Wild Rivers legislation, notes Seelig: “One of the clear roles [of rangers] is to help protect and manage Wild Rivers around pest and weed management, protecting cultural and heritage values as well as ecological values and it was an integral part of the whole package of Wild Rivers.”

Crikey spoke to Rob Morris, manager of six rangers at the Pormpuraaw Aboriginal Shire Council, who says his rangers are still working off the same work plans they had under the Wild Rivers Rangers program. Morris’ rangers were out “clearing ghost nets and counting turtle nets”, he told Crikey, noting that the program was successful when it was managed well.

When Crikey contacted the Queensland Department of Environmental Resource and Management we were told the department no longer looked after the Wild Rivers legislation and that it was now being controlled by the Department for Natural Resources and Mining. Seconds later the media representative from the environment department said they were mistaken and Wild Rivers was still covered by the department, although it was in the process of being “redefined”.