Controversial plan to reopen 4WD tracks in Tarkine challenged

The state government has a fight on its hands if it wants to reopen four-wheel-drive tracks in the Tarkine, environmentalists and Aboriginal groups have warned.

The proposed plan has been referred to the federal government for assessment against the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which was one of the determinations following Federal Court action last year.

It is now open for public consultation for two weeks on the federal Environment Department’s website.

The state government wanted to reopen the tracks in 2014 after they were closed by the previous government to prevent Aboriginal sites being damaged.

Environment Minister Matthew Groom said the focus in the proposed plan was on “getting the balance right”.

“We recognise the fact that there are a lot of people that have a strong history of recreational activity on the West Coast, including in these areas, which we want to be able to facilitate, but we also acknowledge that there is extraordinary Aboriginal heritage and we need to do it in a way which is responsible and protects that heritage.

“We’ve identified through a lot of work within the department ways that we can help ensure that outcome - diverting tracks, reinforcing tracks, imposing seasonal constraints, limiting numbers, increasing our resources on the ground to ensure people understand some of the heritage that is there and are acting appropriately.”

But the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Heather Schulthorpe said the move was “underhanded”.

“It’s impossible to have off-road vehicles going down there without destroying heritage,” she said. “If they say they can do it, it’s just misleading people - it is not impossible.

“Everywhere else down that coast has been wrecked pretty much, and these few tracks south of Sandy Cape is the only area that has been a little bit protected, so the Aboriginal community is determined to keep it protected and we’re going to do what it takes to make sure that vehicles don’t get down there.”

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The Wilderness Society said the way the referral was handled was a “betrayal of trust and goodwill”.

“Ignoring the wishes of the Aboriginal community and expanding 4WD tracks across a nationally significant Aboriginal cultural landscape is indictment enough on Premier [Will] Hodgman and Environment Minister Matthew Groom, but to do it for pure political gain is shocking,” the society’s Vica Bayley said.

“This referral is both controversial and a process ordered by the Federal Court, yet it has been announced without a credible consultation with stakeholders.”

Former Greens’ Leader Bob Brown called on the federal government to reject the state government’s proposal.

“They’ve done no studies on that at all and it should be thrown out on that count but when they do get to talking about the impact of thousands of vehicles each year, down this fragile area of coast, they say it’s unavoidable that they will damage or go through some Aboriginal heritage sites but they’ll put them under the track - they’ll bury them and that will keep them safe.”

The referral was announced on Saturday morning by Braddon Liberal MHAs Adam Brooks and Joan Rylah.

Mr Brooks said the plan was to reopen tracks 501, 503, and 601 “in a responsible way”.

“We went to the election promising to reverse the Labor Green lock ups to allow recreational off-road vehicles to enjoy the Arthur-Pieman area, and we intend to deliver,” he said. "As a result of court action by those opposed to reopening access, we are now obliged to submit an application to the federal government under the EPBC Act.”

The Bob Brown Foundation released ReachTEL polling on Saturday that showed 45 per cent of Tasmanians surveyed opposed the reopening of the off-road tracks “through Aboriginal heritage sites” in the Tarkine, compared to 36 per cent who supported it, and 18 per cent who were unsure.

Braddon Labor MP Shane Broad said a solution needed to be “driven by the local community”.

“Labor wants to see a local management group re-established and, unlike the Liberals, we are properly engaging with all the relevant stakeholders."