What does a scientist do when a popular decision is made but the reasons don't match the science?
Recently, the Australian Commonwealth Government tried to reverse 70,000 ha of the 170,000 ha "minor boundary modification" in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area. The request was turned down in under 10 minutes to the great joy of "the conservation groups", and political one-liners rang out that the Wilderness had been saved and no more 90 m tall trees would be destroyed by the money-grubbing Government.
But the case wasn't about 90 m tall trees and wilderness areas ...and just as well too as there weren't any in the disputed 70,000 ha. There were good reasons for the original nomination, including the improvement of linkages between other reserve areas and improving the security of the inner zone by restrictions around the periphery. Unfortunately, the original proponents must not have felt totally confident in their argument because it was pursued as a minor boundary modification, which it clearly was not, to reduce the effort and scrutiny of the application. If a more comprehensive assessment and application had been made, the inclusion of plantations and commercially managed forests within the zone could have been justified along scientifically rational grounds of connectivity and structural diversity. Instead, the presence of these types of forest was used as proof of bias, political extremism, poor data capture, or basic stupidity. Those who actually managed the forests knew these logged areas and plantations existed, and they knew that such areas can be vital for good habitat management at scale, but such rational argument was not called for in the minor boundary adjustment claim.
Similarly, a more comprehensive original case would have acknowledged that the "industry" who had the most to loose in the "minor modification" - specialty timbers - was not represented in the self-selected group of "industry and conservationists" promising peace if the addition were made. Political action groups make mileage out of the waste of industries which clear fall forests, but were happy to ignore an important value-adding industry which did not use clear fall. There was a token allowance of some otherwise unwanted land to this non-clear fall industry which did not include the trees of importance in modification proposal, but clearly no discussions were had with the relevant people. Again, rational solutions could be had and the speciality timber industry could have continued to be profitable without clear falling forests, but apparently that was not politically expedient.
And because of that lack of expediency, blogs and commentators are making confused claims about forestry leading to degradation and destruction yet simultaneously being worthy of wilderness classification. In amongst, there are claims that manufacturers of fine furniture and even wooden boats should have their livelihood confiscated because they were only catering to rich elites anyway.
Can you imagine the clamour and public breast beating if the current Government simply lodged a "minor amendment" and changed the boundaries back? They could of course talk to people who are not directly involved in using the area before making such a request.
Ironically I think a comprehensive case could have easily been made for the original World Heritage nomination without hiding behind a fictitious "minor boundary modification" claim. But such a case would have had considered and compromised with the specialty timber users who were ignored by those wanting a quick political solution. It could also have to have spelt out that commercially harvested forests are not destroyed and in fact continue to play vital roles in biodiversity and habitat management.
So, I cannot applaud this current outcome. And I expect political expediency, misinformation and outright lies will continue to dog the whole forestry and world heritage argument for electoral cycles to come.