Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared a few weeks ago that too much of Australia’s forests are “locked up” in protected areas. He announced his intention to ask the World Heritage Committee to de-list 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of forest that were added to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage site just last year.
This is an astonishing announcement for a leader of a country with a proud conservation tradition — and until now a model in celebrating and applying the World Heritage Convention. It is also unprecedented. There is no record of a country attempting to withdraw areas from the World Heritage List just one year after their inscription.
In an open letter to the prime minister, over 100 members of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas quickly pointed out that Australia is far from being in a position where it has conserved too much.
They noted that despite significant environmental progress in recent decades, Australia is a long way from achieving a protected area system that adequately covers its range of bioregions. Almost 40% of bioregions have less than 10% of their territory protected, and only 20% of threatened species are adequately represented in the country’s protected areas.
The task of building a truly comprehensive network of marine protected areas is also unfinished. Almost 20% of Australia’s marine bioregions have no representation at all in marine sanctuaries.
The prime minister’s plan sends the wrong message to Australia’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region: that development requires the destruction of nature.
The open letter rightly pointed out that ancient forests and unique biodiversity protected for Australians — and for the benefit of all humankind — are in no way “locked up.” The suggestion that earmarking forests for logging frees them up is odd indeed, as their “outstanding universal value” has been recognized by the World Heritage Committee and well documented by government conservation assessments.
Left standing, these forests would continue to benefit people near and far. Among other services, they fight climate change by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere — Tasmania’s forests are among the most carbon-dense forests on Earth — and provide habitat for threatened species found nowhere else.
Just as disturbing is that this action seems to threaten a peace agreement that was recently reached between green groups and the Tasmanian forest industry after decades of often intense conflict. The deal included significant funding to help diversify the forest sector and help both workers and companies respond to rapid changes in their industry. This agreement was reached in part because the market for timber products from Tasmania’s natural forests was rapidly collapsing as a result of increasing environmental awareness among overseas buyers, especially in Japan.
The prime minister’s announcement threatens a compromise that was good for ancient forests, good for biodiversity, good for business and good for people in Tasmania, Australia and around the world.
Destroying this compromise would be a highly regressive outcome. But there is still time to save it; I hope the prime minister will reconsider his course of action.
Russell A. Mittermeier is the president of CI. He is also an author, primatologist, herpetologist and chairman of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.