Celebrating 40 years of World Heritage in lutruwita / Tasmania

Celebrating 40 years of World Heritage in lutruwita / Tasmania

On 14 December 2022, it will be 40 years since the World Heritage Committee met to consider new places for World Heritage status at its headquarters in Paris. On that list was the Western Tasmanian Wilderness National Parks.

The United Nations World Heritage Committee decided to inscribe the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) for its unique cultural and natural values. The decision would create one of the largest conservation areas in Australia and prove to be decisive in the campaign to stop the Franklin Dam. (Main image top: The Franklin River in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, by Grant Dixon.)

The critically endangered orange-bellied parrot may be seen between October and March. This rare, beautiful bird breeds solely in the south-west corner of the TWWHA. Image: John Harrison.

At the 6th session of the World Heritage Committee, held from 13 to 17 December 1982, UNESCO declared:

The Committee is seriously concerned at the likely effect of dam construction in the area on those natural and cultural characteristics which make the property of outstanding universal value. In particular, it considers that flooding of parts of the river valleys would destroy a number of cultural and natural features of great significance, as identified in the ICOMOS and IUCN reports. The Committee therefore recommends that the Australian authorities take all possible measures to protect the integrity of the property. The Committee suggests that the Australian authorities should ask the Committee to place the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger until the question of dam construction is resolved.

Covering over 1 million hectares, or almost 20% of lutruwita / Tasmania, the Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area is a world-class expanse of Gondwanan forest, temperate wilderness, mountains and rivers.

Walls of Jerusalem National Park. Image: Jimmy Cordwell.

Most UNESCO World Heritage sites meet only one or two of the 10 criteria; the forest wilderness of lutruwita is the only place in the world that meets all four natural criteria, plus three cultural criteria, thanks to its rich First Nations heritage. People have lived in, used, managed and modified the forest landscapes of lutruwita for at least 35,000 years.

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area consists of these protected areas and national parks:

  • Adamsfield Conservation Area
  • Central Plateau Conservation Area
  • ​Cradle ​Mountain–​Lake St Clair National Park

  • Devils Gullet State Reserve
  • Florentine River Regional Reserve
  • Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
  • Great Western Tiers Conservation Area
  • Hartz Mountains National Park
  • Hastings Caves State Reserve
  • Liffey Falls State Reserve
  • Mole Creek Karst National Park
  • Mount Field National Park
  • ​Sarah Island
  • Southwest National Park
  • Styx Tall Trees Conservation Area
  • Walls of Jerusalem National Park

How the creation of World Heritage in lutruwita / Tasmania saved the Franklin and sparked a movement

The cover of Wilderness—Celebrating Australia's Protected Places; published by the Wilderness Society.
An extract from Wilderness—Celebrating Australia's Protected Places

On 14 December 1982, the Franklin and Gordon rivers were listed as World Heritage at a meeting of UNESCO in Paris. It was also the day that the Franklin Blockade commenced. Dozens of arrests occurred. Blanket coverage by the media meant that millions of Australians saw the wonderful backdrop to the action—the rivers and rainforests of western Tasmania—on their TV screens every night for weeks on end.

The Blockade lasted three months, with over 1200 people arrested for participating in peaceful direct actions. A separate but concurrent vigil was organised by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) at Kutikina Cave, next to the Franklin. The cave contained stone tools, marsupial bones and charcoal in deposits that attested to the Aboriginal people's 35,000-year occupation of Tasmania. The vigil led to several arrests, including that of TAC spokesperson Michael Mansell...

...In his first interview after being elected Prime Minister, Bob Hawke uttered the stirring words "the dam will not be built'. Legislation to stop the dam soon followed. The World Heritage Properties Act 1983 was arguably the world's first law dedicated to protecting UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But the Gray government and HEC [Hydro-Electric Commission] continued to work on the dam, with bulldozers pushing roads inexorably towards the damsite on the Gordon River. The constitutional impasse—of 'states rights' versus international obligations—went to the High Court...

Tensions were high on 1 July 1983 when the High Court announced its verdict. By a margin of four votes to three, it ruled in favour of the Australian government's ability to implement the provisions of the World Heritage Convention. The dam was stopped. The Franklin was saved. Jubilation broke out in The Wilderness Society branches and on the streets across the country.

The Franklin Blockade

A legacy of protection

Since its formation in 1976 to save the Franklin River, the Wilderness Society has gone on to successfully protect and advocate for the creation of protected areas, national parks and World Heritage, including:

  • Wollemi National Park, NSW: protected from three coal mines on the edge of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area

  • Munga-Thirri—Simpson Desert, SA: successfully advocated for the creation of Australia’s largest national park

  • Great Australian Bight, SA: we got multinational oil company—Norway's Equinor—to drop their plans to drill for oil in the Bight

  • Ningaloo Reef, WA: protected from huge resort development

  • James Price Point, WA: largest gas processing plant in history stopped

  • South-west forests, WA: over 350,000 hectares in national parks

  • Lalang-garrum Horizontal Falls Marine Park, WA: national park created to protect Horizontal Falls

  • Mitchell Plateau, WA: two of the world’s largest mining companies hand back their bauxite mining leases

  • Kakadu, NT: over 600,000 hectares in World Heritage area

  • Great Australian Bight, SA: BP backs out of plans to drill for oil in the Bight

  • Nullarbor, SA: 900,000 hectares protected in Nullabor Wilderness Protection Area

  • Marine Parks (Australia): Marine parks created right around the country

  • Arkaroola, SA: protected from uranium mining

  • Indigenous Wild River Rangers: 60 full-time Indigenous jobs

  • Shelburne Bay, QLD: the Wuthathi people of Cape York win their native title claim

  • Wenlock River, QLD: Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve protected from bauxite mine

  • Cape York Peninsula, QLD: 1.5 million hectares of Aboriginal national parks and traditional lands

  • Daintree Rainforest, QLD: nearly 900,000 hectares in World Heritage Area

  • Land clearing laws (Australia): 20 million hectares protected in Queensland alone

  • Fraser Island, QLD: sand mining and logging halted

  • South-East forests, QLD: 425,000 hectares in reserves

  • NSW wilderness, NSW: over 1.2 million hectares in national parks

  • Williams River, NSW: saved from huge dam

  • River Red Gums, NSW and VIC: over 200,000 hectares in national parks

  • Otways, VIC: 150,000 hectares in Great Otways National Park

  • East Gippsland, VIC: 45,000 hectares in national park

  • Franklin River, TAS: saved from huge dam

  • Tasmanian Forests, TAS: nearly one million hectares in reserves and World Heritage Area