Minister for Environment and Parks, Elise Archer, recently (15 October 2017) announced that a proposal for a hut-based guided walk to South East Cape within the Southwest National Park and Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), had proceeded to licensing stage.
The assessment process for this proposal from Mr Ian Johnstone, and other proposals under the umbrella of the government’s Expressions of Interest for Tourism Opportunities in National Parks, has been completely opaque. This further erodes any confidence in the government’s development proposal assessment processes.
The Minister’s media release claimed the proposal will utilise an “existing walking track to South East Cape”. This is disingenuous. Once the so-called “track” departs from the popular South Coast Track it barely exists. It has evolved from visits by a small number of bushwalkers over the years. It is hence completely unplanned and poorly-routed in terms of environmental sustainability. This is reflected in the fact that the Parks and Wildlife Service has classified the track at its lowest level in its prescriptive Track Classification Scheme. In order to facilitate Mr Johnstone’s proposal, an essentially new track will need to be constructed at considerable cost.
The Minister’s bland statement about licencing fails to mention that the proposed new section of track lies almost entirely within the Wilderness Zone defined in the statutory management plan for the TWWHA which was finalised only last year. The intent of the Wilderness Zone is to “retain a challenging unmodified natural setting”. This is not compatible with the highly developed track that would be expected for a commercial walking operation. The zoning also constrains the site of the associated private hut to the narrow Recreation Zone corridor along the popular South Coast Track. This is likely to be a major constraint on finding an optimal location, and even here such major new infrastructure will have a notable impact on the wild character of the region.
This proposal could well require a change to the management plan, and this requires public consultation and the involvement of the Commonwealth Government. At the very least, a project involving both new private infrastructure and changed use deserves, indeed requires, assessment utilising the highest level (Level 4) version of the Parks and Wildlife Service’s Reserve Activity Assessment (RAA) process, which includes preparation of a Development Proposal and Environmental Management Plan and formal public consultation.
Representations during the 2014-16 review of the management plan demonstrated the level of public concern over inappropriate tourism developments and wilderness. This proposal will attract the attention of a range of interested parties from the World Heritage Committee to local walkers and conservationists. The Minister would be well advised to seek public comment on this proposal and ensure that all aspects of the assessment are made available for public scrutiny.