The listing of the Wet Tropics in 1988 was a tumultuous period in north Queensland’s history. From the initial proposal during the 1987 Federal election, culminating in a Commonwealth/State agreement in 1990, the conflicts of the time frayed the edges of the local social fabric. The end of the Bjelke-Petersen era and a serendipitous tsunami of public opinion in favour of rainforest conservation added to the strange mixture of local emotions. But at the same time it ushered in a new form of management, based around a well-resourced Authority, generally supported by community, political and bureaucratic goodwill.
I think it’s fair to say the Queensland Government of the day didn’t see conservation as a mainstream issue. As a young Parks and Wildlife ranger and a local, born and bred, I’d seen land management which reflected a poor understanding of the area’s natural values and little regard for future generations. The issue was not whether logging or land clearing was good or bad, though many locals perceived it that way, but the right of the Queensland Government to pursue its own policies on lands under its control. This included under-resourcing land management agencies and tainting them with gross political interference.
As a result national parks received woefully small budgets and research was curtailed. Conservation groups resorted to protest in order to be heard and the role of private lands in conservation was all but ignored. The dedication of people like Aila Keto, Tony Irvine, John Winter, Rupert Russell, Len Webb, Geoff Tracey and Peter Stanton was, sadly, all that stood between more of the same and the rapid conversion of north Queensland to a wetter version of southeast Queensland.
World Heritage listing acted as a circuit breaker, but the misinformation and obfuscation about the listing reflected a shameless political exploitation of people’s fears and insecurities, resulting in social tensions and conflict. The jostling and pushing of Senator Graham Richardson in Ravenshoe during the listing process showed just how much emotion clouded reason. I well remember a full-page newspaper photograph of a local logger, his angry face inches from the senator, with the caption: ‘Things have got a bit out of hand’ – and they certainly had. Whilst the listing itself smacked of political expediency, there was clearly significant national support for the Hawke government’s nomination of the Area.
But reason eventually overcame conspiracy theories. Charismatic individuals such as Joan Wright, Margaret Thorsborne and Bill Laurance; experienced bureaucrats including Tor Hundloe and Peter Hitchcock; and politicians such as Barry Cohen, Elaine Tranter, Rod Welford and, later, Tom Gilmore and Robert Hill; were all instrumental in generating new empathetic attitudes and setting new agendas. Changes seemed to happen almost overnight. Budgets for national parks increased dramatically through additional Commonwealth funding and research became an important part of management. Conservation groups were finally seen as stakeholders, rather than as fringe groups with ill-considered opinions, and conservation on lands outside national parks was finally given recognition – though, sadly, it would still be some years before Indigenous groups became part of this process.
From its early days the Authority has had to tread a careful path, beholden to State and Federal Governments. It has brought a rigorously professional approach to the management of north Queensland’s remarkable biodiversity, characterised by the quality and abundance of stakeholder input. Sectors such as tourism and recreation, scientific research, conservation, Indigenous people, neighbours and local government all retain a voice and are often canvassed about policy and management.
However, the most obvious change in the management of the Area has been a perceptible lifting of standards. Standards of presentation in the Area; maintenance of its internal infrastructure (roads, powerlines, railway lines); knowledge of its plants, animals and vegetation communities; and awareness and management of threatening processes have all increased significantly through the focus and direction provided by the listing. It is often said that the management of north Queensland’s environment surpasses most other areas of Australia and World Heritage listing is a major reason for this. World Heritage sites are managed for the enjoyment and appreciation of all of humanity and the Wet Tropics is, perhaps, the best example of how listing has such visible and tangible benefits, not only for humanity, but the plants and animals with whom we co-exist.
Nigel was born and raised on the Atherton Tableland and educated at the University of Queensland and James Cook University. He worked as a field assistant to CSIRO rainforest ecologist, Geoff Tracey, before joining the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in 1984. Up until 2003 he managed the QPWS Lake Eacham Nursery where he was involved in a number of rainforest restoration projects in close cooperation with the community tree-planting group, Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (TREAT). In 2003 he left the public service and is now the Principal of Biotropica Australia, an environmental consultancy based on the Atherton Tableland. Nigel received a Cassowary Award in 1999.
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