Since 2014, the Australian government has campaigned to log in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tasmanian Wilderness, one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. The government even went so far as to petition UNESCO to revoke its World Heritage Status for part of the wilderness — something that had never been done by a developed country before.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) refused the government’s request, issuing a report on Saturday maintained that the entire wilderness should remain completely protected from logging, arguing that opening even a small amount of the site would constitute a “slippery slope.”
Following the UNESCO report, both Tasmanian and Australian officials announced on Sunday that they would no longer pursue logging in the Tasmanian forests. The Tasmanian minister for forestry called the report “very disappointing,” but said that it would be “grossly irresponsible for any government to defy such a ruling.” The governments are not bound to abide by the ruling, though both appear willing to do so voluntarily.
“Today we confirm that we accept the recommendation of the monitoring mission that special species timber harvesting should not be allowed anywhere in the World Heritage Area,” Tasmania’s Environment Minister Matthew Groom said in a statement. “It was important that the mission experts had the opportunity to hear all sides of the debate, and having done so, their clear advice to the World Heritage Committee is that there should no timber harvesting in the World Heritage Area including for specialty timbers.”
The Tasmanian Wilderness covers about a fifth of the island, encompassing some 3.7 million acres. Beyond being the location of one of the world’s last stretches of temperate rainforest, the Tasmanian Wilderness is also home to several species thought to be extinct or threatened on mainland Australia. Some of the tallest flowing plants in the world are also found in the area.
Rebecca White, a spokeswoman for the Labor party, expressed disappointment with the decision to abandon logging in the region, telling ABC Australia that the government has shown itself to be “ineffective when it comes to standing up for specialty timbers in our state.”
But environmental groups lauded the decision, applauding the United Nations in particular for rejecting the government’s request to weaken the region’s protections.
“This report outlines a range of very clear steps government needs to take to demonstrate Australia is properly protecting the outstanding values of our wilderness world heritage area,” Wilderness Society Tasmanian campaign manager Vica Bayley told the Guardian. “We welcome the report and seek very clear commitments from both the state and federal governments about the exact steps they propose to take to meet these recommendations and maintain strong protections for world heritage values, including wilderness.”
The decision to maintain the Tasmanian Wilderness’ UNESCO listing comes just months after the region suffered a string of devastating fires that experts have linked to climate change. David Bowman, a forest ecologist with the University of Tasmania, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the fires, lit by lightning in mid-January and fueled by extremely dry conditions in Tasmania, were “completely consistent with predictions” of what might happen in the face of climate change. Altogether, the fires burned nearly 250,000 acres, 42,000 of which were located in the Tasmanian Wilderness area.
“I think I would be being unethical and unprofessional if I didn’t form the diagnosis and say what it is — climate change,” Bowman said. “Under the current rate of warming I think this ecosystem will be gone in 50 years.”
Unlike Australian bushfires, which burn through fire-adapted ecosystems, the January fires burned through ecosystems that are not at all adapted to fire. When those ecosystems burn, they don’t regenerate like fire-adapted ecosystems do. Instead, the trees burn alongside their seeds, as well as the peat soil in which they grow. That makes fires such as the one in January a unique threat to the Tasmanian Wilderness — and climate scientists worry that such fires might become increasingly common with climate change.
“The loss of world heritage areas is tragic and we have to not let it happen again,” Wilderness Society campaign manager Vica Bayley told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This is the new normal and we have to respond.”