SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—It took less than 10 minutes for a U.N. panel to unanimously reject Australia’s controversial bid to remove 74,039 hectares of wildlands in Tasmania from a designated World Heritage Site. To the delight of scientists and conservationists, not one delegate at this week’s meeting in Doha backed the proposal, submitted last January by Australia’s conservative government.
Delegates from Germany, Colombia, and Portugal spoke against Australia’s bid prior to the 24 June vote of the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Portugal’s delegate said the justifications for delisting were “feeble” and would set an “unacceptable precedent. … If this committee cares for conservation … we cannot accept this requested delisting.”
Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, said he was “disappointed” by the decision. Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, said: “Australia accepts and will consider the decision of the World Heritage Committee.”
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was expanded in 2013 under Australia’s previous Labor government. The Abbott government, however, asked to delist part of the site as part of a “minor boundary modification,” arguing that the area was “degraded,” “logged,” or part of a plantation. As a result, “these areas detract from the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and its overall integrity,” the government’s request argued.
The claims were widely condemned by the environmental community, as well as by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So the critics were pleased by the UNESCO committee’s verdict. ''Absolutely thrilled," said Senator Christine Milne, leader of Australia’s Greens party, in an interview with Fairfax Media.
But the Tasmanian forest isn’t, well, out the woods yet, cautions forest scientist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania, Hobart. “Thorny problems” lie ahead, he says, including securing sufficient funding for management of the site and figuring out how to prepare for climate change impacts, such as fire, pests, and disease.
World Heritage protection does not guarantee the forests are “locked up” from all forms of development, noted University of Melbourne researchers Tom Fairman and Rod Keenan in an article written for The Conversation, a news website. The forests will need “active management,” they write, noting that due to federal budget cuts, park management agencies must manage larger areas with fewer resources.
The World Heritage Committee’s rejection of the Tasmania request wasn’t the only Australia-related news out of Doha. Last week, delegates warned that the Great Barrier Reef could be placed on a list of threatened sites due to plans to dump up to 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoils inside the UNESCO World Heritage Site.