[caption id="attachment_385381" align="aligncenter" width="555" caption="An example of rock art in the Dampier Archipelago (pic: National Trust)"][/caption]

A bitter row has broken out over a bid to have priceless 30,000-year-old rock art granted World Heritage status, with the CEO of a local Aboriginal corporation coming out against the listing, contrary to the wishes of prominent indigenous leaders.

The million rock engravings located on Western Australia's Dampier Archipelago on the Pilbara Coast are believed to contain the earth's oldest representation of a human face and were prominently featured on ABCTV's groundbreaking First Footprints series on Sunday night. Proponents say inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List would safeguard the treasures forever and protect them against wanton environmental destruction at the hands of resources giants like gas behemoth Woodside. The CEO of local group the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), Ron Critchley, appears to be at odds with his 12-member indigenous board over the listing, which he personally opposes. On the other side sits campaigners Stand Up for the Burrup, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and a clutch of local Aboriginal elders including Wong-goo-tt-oo man Wilfred Hicks, spokesperson for Tim Douglas, Burrup Senior Law Man. Supporters of the World Heritage listing say an informal arrangement exists between Critchley and the WA Nationals leader and local MP Brendan Grylls to grant MAC further control over waterways off the Dampier coast. The Barnett government is bitterly opposed to a World Heritage status, fearing it would throttle resources extraction in the gas-drenched North West Shelf region -- responsible for 4% of Australia's GDP -- and could spark a rash of similar claims. The Murujuga National Park was proclaimed this year to cover some 42% of the region, but other areas are slated by the government for future industrial development. Earlier this month, Critchley travelled to Canberra with two elders to discuss the issue. He confirmed to Crikey the visit took place and that he met with officials from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC) about current funding arrangements. He told Crikey he was there for the opening of the Hipbone Sticking Out festival, of which Woodside's Pluto LNG plant is the principal sponsor. Woodside is the de-facto oil and gas company in the region and works closely with MAC. Critchley confirmed that "Woodside are actually funding our ranger program through that conservation agreement that they entered into with SEWPaC. They're funding the program for its initial start-up years and they're also funding our cultural management plan." That trip followed hot on the heels of another, pro-Heritage, trip. On June 19, the two senior Burrup custodians, Douglas and Hicks, travelled from Roebourne to Canberra and met with then-environment minister Tony Burke. A letter signed by eight Ngarda Ngarli elders -- including representatives of all groups represented on MAC -- called on Burke to "urgently act on our pleas to formally nominate the Dampier Archipelago and including the Burrup Peninsula to the World Heritage Authority".