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With mining uneconomic in Tasmania’s Tarkine, tourism operators want to transform the region into a wilderness destination. But governments refuse to offer the environmental protections needed. By Ricky French.

Tarkine environmental tourism thwarted

The Norfolk Range from Mount Donaldson in the Tarkine.
Credit: RICKY FRENCH

For hikers who have spent four days on a guided walk through rainforest, the last stop on the bus trip back to Launceston Airport is the tiny town of Waratah, 70 kilometres south-west of Burnie. The town is known as “The Gateway to the Tarkine”, a region that officially doesn’t exist.

Tarkine Trails guide Trevor Beltz drives the group through the sleepy main street and parks the bus at Mount Bischoff, a hill at the end of town with a strikingly hollowed-out face. The hikers spill out of the bus and walk up a gravel track to a viewing area that reveals the site of arguably the most significant event in Tasmania’s history: the discovery in 1871 of a mountain of tin.

In the grips of an economic slump and facing annexation to Victoria, the discovery of what would become the world’s largest tin mine sparked a mineral boom that quickly made Tasmania rich. The past makes a great story, but at the end of the tour Beltz casts his arm over the now silent, open-cut pit and asks the group, “Do you really think this is the future?”

Waratah clings to its mining history through informative displays, a fantastically noisy reconditioned ore crusher and a dusty museum in need of some curating. The place might look as dormant as the mine but, according to some, it is perfectly placed to cash in once more, only this time not from what is under the ground but what is on top of it.

In one sense this story is Tasmania all over – the enduring tussle between industry and conservation. But the mining companies are starting to look like Monty Python’s Black Knight, maintaining he’s fighting fit while his arms and legs lie scattered on the ground. Shree Minerals is preparing to wind up
its 10-year iron ore project at Nelson Bay River after mining for only seven months. With Grange Resources suffering a $285 million write-down of its Savage River iron ore mine, and the torpidity of mining operations at Mount Livingstone and Riley Creek, tourism operators are now calling for permanent, formal protection from mining tenure, which they claim is holding back the next big opportunity: cashing in on Tasmania’s booming tourist industry.

The proposed showpiece project – a 100-kilometre Trans-Tarkine Track – is set to be presented by the Bob Brown Foundation to state and federal leaders as a hiking experience to rival the Overland Track. It is a project years in the making, and one they hope will kickstart the region and usher in a new future for the Tarkine, and finally put it officially on the map.

The Tarkine covers some 450,000 hectares from the Arthur River south to the Pieman River. It contains pristine rainforest that goes back to Gondwanaland, wild coastline with Aboriginal middens, granite mountains, heathland and rushing rivers, some of which undeniably run like rust.

The story goes that a bunch of conservationists in the early 1980s decided that rather than chaining themselves to trees they would start a tourism venture, figuring the more people who knew about the region, the easier it would be to protect. So they bought a Bongo van, knocked on the doors of backpacker hostels, and took people into the rainforest. They called the area the Tarkine, after a group of local Aborigines, the Tarkiner people. Thus in one hit was born both the Tarkine and Tarkine tourism. But that’s largely where it has stayed.

There is little infrastructure, few accommodation options and currently not even one maintained, multi-day hiking track for independent walkers. The new guidebook urges you to don your pack and get among it, but tacks on a few warnings: “Untracked wilderness, river crossings, snakes, poor visibility, exposed and very-difficult-to-navigate terrain.”

There has never been a government or industry-led campaign to bring tourists to the Tarkine. As well as a swath of impenetrable wilderness, the region contains something else: ground choked full of desirable minerals. As guide Trevor Beltz puts it: “It’s the lolly jar of the state.” 

In 2011 the Australian Heritage Council recommended 433,000 hectares of the Tarkine be heritage-listed, a call rejected by then Labor minister for the environment Tony Burke. Since then, further calls to establish a World Heritage Area or a substantial national park within the Tarkine have been met with governments’ refusal.

Currently, 95 per cent of the Tarkine is available for mining, a state of affairs that, according to Greg Irons, manager of Tarkine Trails, means the region can never realise its tourism potential. “You only have to look at Cradle Mountain or Freycinet National Park. We’re turning people away there. There are only two places in the world that tick as many World Heritage boxes as the Tarkine, and yet it’s not protected.”

Irons says tourist operators are rightly put off by a place where they could be told to make way for mining with a few weeks’ notice. He should know: it’s been a regular occurrence for Tarkine Trails. “Last time we got told to pack up it nearly ended the business. And it was only for exploration, they weren’t even mining there.”

He argues that awarding the Tarkine national park status would give operators security and draw visitors. “People don’t go to forests because they look pretty. They go because it’s a national park and they know it has been protected for its conservation values.”

Maree Jenkins operates the region’s only high-end accommodation, Tarkine Wilderness Lodge, and fought back when a mining exploration lease threatened her business at the peak of the mining boom in 2011. “They wanted to put a mine right in our view. They ended up taking the lease off our land, but it’s still on the Crown land, of course. The only way forward for tourism is to make the area a national park.”

A study commissioned in 2008 by the Cradle Coast Authority – a joint body created by the region’s nine councils – found that tourism in the Tarkine had the potential to bring in $58 million a year and create 1100 jobs. All sides of politics agree that tourism presents a great opportunity in the region, but no Tasmanian government has ever acted on calls to make the Tarkine off limits to mining or forestry.

Liberal state member for Braddon and minister for mining Adam Brooks claims a mandate to refuse protection. “Voters were emphatic in endorsing our policy of no more land lock-ups. The Greens and their front groups
have done everything they can to delay and frustrate mining projects and can hardly be believed with their pronouncements about the future of mining.”

Vica Bayley, of the Wilderness Society, responds: “You don’t get a mandate through offering up false promises. If Minister Brooks and the Liberal Party are constantly telling the community that mining has a future, then it’s not surprising that the community then come back telling them that they want that future. It ignores the reality that mining has had its day. The government needs to get off its delusional horse.”

But Brooks is unmoved. “There are many positive signs that show mining does have a bright future in Tasmania.” He would not say what those signs were.

One reason the government could be reluctant to alter land tenure in the Tarkine is the existence of areas known as “strategic prospectivity zones”, established by an act of parliament in 1993 to provide resource security for the minerals industry. The act gives mining companies the right to sue the government if tenure within these zones is changed to exclude or diminish mining. Thirty-seven per cent of Tasmania is covered by these zones, including all of the Tarkine.

If you were expecting the peak tourism industry body, the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, to support calls to banish mining from the Tarkine, you’d be wrong. Chief executive Luke Martin plays down the impact of mining tenure on tourism in the area and says operators should do their due diligence.

“There are some current operators,” Martin says, “who have knowingly determined to establish tourism ventures at locations where there are existing exploration licences within their sightlines, or indeed upon the land in which they are seeking to operate.” He would not say whether his body supports calls for a World Heritage Area or national park.

Premier Will Hodgman, also minister for tourism, says that mining and tourism have “co-existed for generations, proving that success of one does not come at the expense of the other”.

Co-existing currently means that mines lie dormant, pockmarking the landscape, while a handful of tourist operators tough it out, with one eye on commodity prices and the other on the vast, untracked Tarkine wilderness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Tarkine advantage". Subscribe here.

Ricky French
is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.