01.11.2012 Environment

Standing for the Tarkine

The threat of mining in the ancient Tarkine Wilderness becomes a reality. Story by Scott Jordan of the Tarkine National Coalition

Photo: www.robblakers.com

The Tarkine is beyond ancient. Sixty five million years ago, the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana, was dominated by temperate rainforest. The breakup of the supercontinent, numerous ice ages and dramatic shifts in global climate have seen just a remnant survive. Despite surviving and outlasting the dinosaurs, the megafauna and 65 thousand millennia of evolution, the impact of one species - man - has reduced this to a remnant of a remnant. In all but a handful of locations the ancient temperate rainforests are just memory. But memory breathes in the Tarkine.

The Tarkine remains as the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the Southern Hemisphere, and the second largest on the planet. That such a place can still exist is a miracle. That it can exist an hour from a regional centre and airport is a gift to the world. Increasingly, visitors come to stand in a place where a powerful connection to nature seeps through your skin, your bones, your soul. It is primal. And it welcomes you home.

And for many creatures and plants it is home. The rich canopy of myrtle and sassafras, leatherwood and blackwood shelters a wonderland of ferns, and lichens and mosses. Fungi in a rainbow of colours burst forth everywhere in every shape imaginable. A veritable ark, the Tarkine is home to more than 60 rare, threatened and endangered species. The skies of the Tarkine are ruled by the majestic Tasmanian Wedge Tailed Eagle, larger than its mainland cousin, with a 2.3 metre wingspan, with fewer than 100 breeding pairs remaining.

Also among the raptors are the White Goshawk (the pure white Tasmanian variant of the Grey Goshawk), the Sea Eagle and the Tasmanian Masked Owl. Seasonally, the rich colours of the Tarkine are accented by the visitation of the Swift, Orange Bellied, and Blue Winged Parrots, and the more common Green Rosella. In the Tarkine's streams and rivers, the Tayatea Lobster, a giant freshwater crayfish, can grow up to a metre long, while, on the ground, Spotted Tailed Quoll and the Tasmanian Devil survive on an abundance of small marsupials.

For the Tasmanian Devil, the Tarkine has particular importance. A rare transmissible cancer, the Tasmanian Devil facial tumour disease, has wiped out 80% of the population in just 15 years. The disease is spread by biting, and is always fatal. It has spread across the island state at an alarming rate. Most scientists predict extinction in the wild population within this generation.

Insurance populations in zoos and sanctuaries are being fast tracked against this eventuality. However, the Tarkine remains disease-free. This last refuge is vital to any hope of survival in the wild.

The future of the Tasmanian Devil prompted the Commonwealth to action when, in 2009, the Tasmanian government sought to push a road through undisturbed rainforest in the Tarkine, under the guise of tourism but primarily for logging.

Roads are a trap for Devils. Drawn to the roads by the availability of fresh roadkill carcasses to feed on, the Devil itself becomes a fatality. But more critical is that the congregation of Devils on roads leads to competition and fighting between them for the ready supply of carcasses. This fighting transmits the disease.

The decision by then Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, to apply the Commonwealth's Emergency National Heritage powers to the Tarkine stopped the road proposal and gave the Commonwealth a greater capacity to assess environmental impacts of future development. While the conservation movement celebrated, the mining industry saw a major threat to its plans for the Tarkine. Beneath the outstanding natural values of the Tarkine sit other values - zinc, iron, tungsten, gold, tin.

The Tarkine sits in one of Tasmania's most highly mineralised regions. Beneath the world's second largest temperate rainforest lies the world's second largest undeveloped tin resource. The Tarkine has seen mining - numerous sites bear witness to small scale prospecting and mining from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has also seen modern industrial mining. The Luina tin mine that operated from 1968 to 1986 has left a six kilometre legacy of poisoned river. The tailings dams spew acid and leached iron particulate into the Whyte River, suffocating aquatic life. Visually, it is unbelievably ugly with an orange sludge seeping through dead and dying vegetation. But you smell its sulphurous odour long before you see it.

In the heart of the Tarkine is the Savage River open cut iron ore mine. With its three pits, tailings dams and rock dumps, it is a five kilometre scar in the rainforest. Over the years, this mine has contaminated tributary streams and the Savage River itself. Despite genuine mitigation efforts by its current operators, the legacy of this mine, slated for closure in 2027, will be felt by the Tarkine for millennia.

The conservation movement sought to draw a line under these legacy mines to prevent these tragedies from happening again. The mining industry saw no reason to change. Collectively, the mining companies have initial plans for 10 new mines in the Tarkine, most in existing reserves, and nine of them open cut proposals. As a group, they successfully lobbied the incoming Environment Minister, Tony Burke, to allow the Emergency National Heritage Listing to lapse. Ignoring the Australian Heritage Council's assessment that 433,000 hectares of the Tarkine Wilderness met the required standards and should be permanently listed, Minister Burke refused to publicly release the report and asked the Council to repeat the assessment with a new deadline of December 2013. It was a clear delaying strategy to favour mining projects. Six mine proposals have been referred to the Commonwealth for assessment since the listing lapsed, with four more expected.

By the end of this summer, construction will begin on the first of the proposed new mines, a 118 hectare strip mine for iron ore, or the equivalent of 59 cricket grounds. This mine will run for just two years and employ just 20 people, but will permanently destroy this area. The same company will follow this with another iron ore mine 15 kilometres west in an already reserved heathland valley surrounded by rainforest. This one will be an open cut pit 150 metres deep, but again only operate for two years. Both these mines are simply 'cash flow' mines to aid in the funding of the flagship Mount Lindsay tin mine, a massive open cut pit, one and a half kilometres long and 220 metres deep in reserved rainforest.

At 1104 hectares, the mine lease is equivalent to 420 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (including grandstands). From the pit to the tailings dams to the waste rock dumps, the site extends over three kilometres by three and a half kilometres. It doesn't stop here though. Once the $150 million dollar tin processing facility is established, the company plans to dot the Tarkine with satellite open cut pits, trucking the ore back to the Mount Lindsay facility for processing. They currently have exploration drill rigs across their 380 square kilometres of exploration licences in the Tarkine. And they are not alone. In total, 27 companies hold 58 exploration licences through the Tarkine.

As the summer of 2012-13 approaches, the ghosts of the Franklin River campaign are stirring. The conservation movement is organising for campaigns in financial markets, political forums and a direct action blockade to prevent construction of new mines. The website tarkine.org is actively recruiting for what is shaping up to be the largest and politically most potent environmental battle since the Franklin. The stakes are high. A victory will send shockwaves through the investment markets and deter future projects. A loss will see the floodgates open. Like the Franklin, the future of the Tarkine will depend on ordinary people - the mums and dads, the students, the office workers - taking extraordinary action to collectively say, "We are not prepared for this crime against our natural heritage to be accepted." For me, the decision is clear. I'll stand for the Tarkine.

A feature length documentary Through the Trees and the Forest directed by Julian Knysh will follow the ensuing events and explore all the forces at play in this globally significant issue. Please get involved and support the making of this film through crowd funding at: http://www.pozible.com/treesandtheforest
More info at http://www.treesandtheforest.com.au

Scott Jordan

Scott Jordan is an environmental activist in Tasmania with particular interest in preserving the Tarkine Wilderness