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Wet tropics: although classified as World Heritage, the lack of a comprehensive management plan is raising questions about their future security

PETER HUNT: Almost three years ago, the Federal Government went to an election promising to save Queensland's wet tropics by listing them as World Heritage. They were threatened it was argued, by forestry, mining, tourism, urban development and agriculture. All were forms of land use regulated by the State Government. The obvious appeal of the World Heritage solution was that it gave the Commonwealth the power to protect an important biological reserve which was home to animals, like the remarkable white lemuroide possums of Mt Lewis. The possums soon became a kind of symbol of the struggle for World Heritage listing. Naturalist, Rupert Russell, recalls that the possum also had an impeccable sense of timing.

RUPERT RUSSELL: So many other times this possum has appeared at the nick of time. For instance, when I took the World Heritage, the IUCN people, they were the sort of referees for the World Heritage listing, and John Winter and I gave them a bit of a trip around Mt Lewis, in it must have been May of '88, and a few forestry people came up on that occasion, and they had never seen the white lemuroide even though they had been copping a lot propaganda about it from me. I had been working on them, you know, to get a scientific reserve, to stop them logging, this kind of thing, and they walked the track with John and I, and we were spotlighting and every lemuroide we saw was a brown one. Lemuroide after lemuroide was a brown one, and you were getting almost despondent that you were going to see a white one, and the last animal, it must have been one in about 16, on that particular night, was a beautiful white one, quite close to the road, and my congratulations to the forestry people, they really enjoyed seeing that animal. We all lay on the road and just sort of stared and gossiped about the wonder of this thing.

PETER HUNT: World Heritage Listing was an obvious short term solution for the Commonwealth Government, in that it gave them the power to protect the habitat of animals like that white lemuroide. But three years on, the real work of ensuring the long term protection has yet to begin. It'll be another month before a joint management authority is formed, and there's no sign yet of a comprehensive plan of management. As our reporter Robin Bornhurst discovered, concern over this lack of action is beginning to mount.

RUPERT RUSSELL: Thank heavens for World Heritage. I don't want to take anything away from all the greenies who work towards World Heritage and from Senator Richardson and the Labor Government who brought World Heritage. Yes, thank heavens, it's a lovely first step, but we have to keep it strong.

ROBIN BORNHURST: What naturalist Rupert Russell is worried about is what's happening to the wet tropics, now they're listed as World Heritage. There are reports of erosion, caused by road grading, unsupervised tourism and wildlife theft.

RUPERT RUSSELL: A lot of humans go up there to look around and unfortunately a few humans go up there to pinch things, pinch insects, pinch orchids, pinch blue crayfish out of the creeks, shake animals out of the trees and photograph them. There is human interference, it's just not so drastic as bulldozer interference, but we do need good World Heritage supervision, rules and supervision. And we need education of the people, so that it becomes a disgrace to go up there and steal something, whether it's an insect or a fern or a blue crayfish, you know, and people stop doing that just like they should stop beating babies, for instance.

ROBIN BORNHURST: That was Rupert Russell raising a number of questions about World Heritage, like who are the custodians of regions which have been listed, what are their values, are their management programs working? Good questions for the man in the hot seat, Stewart Cameron, the Head of the north Queensland Rainforest Unit. He's in charge of the World Heritage listing.

STEWART CAMERON: We only have seven or eight Commonwealth employees in North Queensland.

ROBIN BORNHURST: And how big is the World Heritage area?

STEWART CAMERON: The World Heritage area is 9,800 square kilometres, and that of course leaves little opportunity for individuals from our office to get out and to monitor activities on the ground. We're still relying on the fact that the majority of the area is under the control of forestry and related national park Acts and regulations and that the State employees who are implementing those Acts and regulations are doing a good job. Our role has been over the last couple of years, an overall monitoring role, ensuring that any report of illegal logging or activities, not in accordance with the regulations are dealt with, and to ensure that any proposals for developments in the area are considered in terms of protection of World Heritage values. For the time being, we're reluctant to give approvals for too many activities in the area. We basically have a policy of leaving things as they were prior to World Heritage listing, so if roads were of a particular standard, they can be maintained at that; if walking tracks were there, then they can continue to be there. Pending a long term management plan, where those sort of issues can be discussed by far more, people with far more resources than exist in my unit at the present.

ROBIN BORNHURST: So with only seven or eight employees out there at the moment, you're really just hanging on?

STEWART CAMERON: We're having a holding operation, that's for sure.

ROBIN BORNHURST: And that problem of management in limbo, isn't confined to the wet tropics of North Queensland. After declaring World Heritage over almost 40 million hectares of Australia during the '80s, the Federal Government is still trying to work out what it all means, and how to manage it. Don Henry is one of the most seasoned campaigners for World Heritage, the Director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and a critic of the Federal Government's World Heritage management record. So, how does he rate the success of World Heritage on a scale of one to ten?

DON HENRY: As far as listing goes, I suppose I'd say six or seven out of ten, we've done pretty well, we've got some way to go. On management, different World Heritage areas would rate differently, but I think we're perhaps a five out of ten and looking to do better, and urgently needing to do better.

ROBIN BORNHURST: So these are shared problems, it's not just North Queensland World Heritage that's suffering problems of bad management?

DON HENRY: They're shared problems and challenges, some are doing better than others. In a situation like Kakadu, we are dealing predominately with Australian National Park, it's an easier management job because there's basically one authority involved. But North Queensland is a complex situation from a tenure point of view, and I think we've been a little slow in coming to grips with it.

Even places like for instance, Lord Howe Island, are complex, because the World Heritage listing includes settlement areas, and working out the sort of protection and management we need in these areas, is still something that we've properly got to tackle. I'd really like to see the Commonwealth reviewing how we're going with management of World Heritage areas throughout Australia, and developing a set of standards for management that is expected, then working out the detailed arrangements for each particular area, according to the local situation. But the bottom line is, the Commonwealth has the responsibility to ensure that those World Heritage values, for which areas were listed, are protected and maintained.

PETER HUNT: Don Henry, Australian Director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and that report produced by Robin Bornhurst.

The listing of the wet tropics as World Heritage was justified largely on the basis of the outstanding biological diversity of the region, but the very survival of that diversity depends on management. Bob Beaton is a specialist in the management of national parks from the Gatton Campus at the University of Queensland.

BOB BEATON: The problem with World Heritage is that it simply identifies the special bits, and, if in this country we're simply left with the special bits, with armed rangers standing on the fence keeping everybody out, we'll fail. Probably one of the most special bits of the whole world is Yellowstone National Park. It's a huge area, it's bigger than the wet tropics, or at least of the same order of magnitude and certainly, the core of it is a lot further from the boundary than is any part of the wet tropics. Now, that park is dying, and it's dying because of the impact of other land use practices around it. You've got people wanting to drill holes down into the aquifer which feeds the geysers of the park; you've got acid rain blowing over the boundaries of the park; you've got the north Yellowstone elk herd that has to migrate across the boundaries of the park, endangered, because of the huge impact it's having on grazing lands beyond the park; you've got problems with the bear population because the fire practices, until recently in the park, have been absolutely inappropriate. Now what this tells me is that if you don't have a managed landscape, the core areas, doesn't matter what size it is, will not maintain in the very long term, its biological integrity.

PETER HUNT: So you're implying there that the concept of management as its practised in Australia, often sees the boundary that's drawn around an area on a map as being the only area that is in need of protection?

BOB BEATON: Yeah, we're simple thinkers and we're ignorant thinkers, and that's why we are preoccupied with boundaries. If you look at nature, often the boundaries in nature, you can't accurately draw. They're frequently tenuous things and often depending on what taxon you're looking at, the boundary is drawn, in a different place.

PETER HUNT: Well as you said in that Yellowstone example, if you have herds of animals migrating, they in fact don't have boundaries that bear any relationship to a core area because they move through it and beyond it.

BOB BEATON: Absolutely, and of course we don't have anything like the Yellowstone elk herd in the wet tropics, but what we do have is an enormous boundary. If you look at the boundary area ratio, it is quite spectacular, and we have very significant developments and very very important conservation areas which are outside the boundary, which because of their size, have tended to be left alone, and these are the relic areas of for instance, lowland rainforest. I would hope that the management of the wet tropics is something which if we seized the opportunity, we could make a model for the management of other areas, because it hasn't finished yet. What's next on the agenda? Well, we knew what was next, and it is, the Great Sandy, so now we've got Tony Fitzgerald having an inquiry, which is the most extraordinarily wide ranging inquiry

PETER HUNT: This is Fraser Island?

BOB BEATON: Yeah, Fraser Island, and we're still arguing about the same thing. We're saying there's an area with core values, core area with high values; we're saying there are other areas with values that surround it, so let's try and fight to build as big a boundary as we want. And I'm saying, well, let's have a much bigger boundary and come to an arrangement where we're talking about the management of the entire landscape.

PETER HUNT: It's obviously a reasonable principle, to talk about managing whole landscapes. How do you do it, in practice? I mean, have the steps taken towards World Heritage listing advanced that question of managing that landscape at all?

BOB BEATON: No, it's removed us from it, to some extent. It's always been a source of interest to me that the Federal Government has seen fit to push World Heritage, which is a worthy thing to do, but at the same time, it's ignored another major UNESCO program, which comes out of the man in the biosphere program, which is the concept of biosphere reserves. I would have thought that the biosphere reserve model is a better model. In many ways, if you look at another World Heritage area, the Great Barrier Reef, it's a marvellous example of multiple use management and we use areas in the Barrier Reef for instance, for fishing and what have you, which is straight down the line extractive industry - but in the sense that they're not mining it, but they're sure as hell removing a bit lump of the resources. I'm not saying that's wrong. I think it's in fact essential that we have our ecosystem sustain us, but the way it's managed means that everything from strict nature conservation through to a whole range of other human uses are being achieved in that area, and it's an entire landscape, well it happens to be a wet one. Now that kind of model is the model we must be working towards in terrestrial systems if we're going to really come to grips with living in this continent. It's a use of the landscape, to conserve representativeness; it a use of the landscape to live in it; it's a use of the landscape to grow food in it. It's a question of coming up with planning models and with the boundaries which are appropropriate to allow us to achieve that. If we have two different planning groups who are looking at each other across a hard boundary, then they'll do what all humans do - they'll defend their bit and ignore what's going on over the fence.

PETER HUNT: The very process that the Commonwealth Government went through in listing that World Heritage, almost over the dead bodies of the Queensland Government and the other opposition, it's a very bad way to make those linkages between interest groups work.

BOB BEATON: Indeed. And people like myself were saying both to the conservation movement and to the Queensland Government right through this argument: for God's sake, look for an alternative model; you are creating precedents which are going to be damaging; you are creating polarisations which in the long term, will be to the detriment of conservation. And we're seeing that now. I mean, read the papers over the last few weeks, and you see a far more expert, more professional lobby groups, on the resource extractive side, starting to emerge. You're seeing column feet, being generated by - in the various newspapers around Australia - starting to put the other side. We are becoming polarised, and if we don't come up with a way in the wet tropical debate for rationalising that polarisation, and if that requires compromise on the part of the management agency, and compromise on the part of those who manage the lands that adjoin the area, then we will continue to contribute to this polarisation and eventually, I think we'll fail to learn to live in this country.

PETER HUNT: Bob Beaton who lectures in park management at the Gatton Campus of the University of Queensland.