Tasmania is famed for its wild landscapes, much of which is protected in national parks and World Heritage.

In 2016, the Hodgman Liberal government changed the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) management plan, rezoning various sections of what was once Wilderness zone, into ‘Self Reliant Recreation’ zoning, which allowed developers to propose commercial developments in these zones. Perhaps the highest profile case has involved the plan to allow helicopter landings to take place at Lake Malbena on the Central Plateau. This was approved by the Federal environment minister, and has been slowly moving forward despite a strong community campaign and legal challenge.

In a significant development, it has now been announced the proposal will now require Federal assessment of its environmental impacts.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) reports:

The proposed project – which would include private helicopter-accessed accommodation on Halls Island, Lake Malbena –  has been declared a controlled action under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), triggering a more thorough assessment of its environmental impacts at a Federal level and a further opportunity for public comment.

The declaration by Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley follows a Federal Court action by Environmental Defenders Office, acting on behalf of the Wilderness Society (Tasmania), which challenged the Commonwealth Government’s original decision to allow the project to proceed without assessment.

Late last year the Federal Court decided in favour of the Wilderness Society (Tasmania) and found the Government’s decision to be invalid and ordered the Minister to remake the decision under the EPBC Act.

EDO Hobart Managing Lawyer Claire Bookless said the Tasmanian community would welcome the decision by Minister Ley to undertake a thorough assessment of the impacts of this project, as is required under the Commonwealth environment law.

“This declaration is vitally important because it indicates a need for a full, Federal assessment of this proposal to ensure it adheres to our international obligations around our World Heritage-listed areas,” she said.

“This is an opportunity for the Federal Minister to consider all the available evidence, including new expert evidence presented in recent court cases.

“Independent expert evidence has demonstrated this project would have an unacceptable impact on the wilderness values of the World Heritage Area through the construction of permanent buildings and by providing access into the heart of the protected area by private helicopter and related activities.

“The expert evidence has shown these impacts cannot be mitigated by, for example, a reduction in the number of flights.

“This is about more than one project. There are dozens of similar projects proposed for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, and the community needs to know we are abiding by our international obligations to protect this pristine and iconic natural area”.

The proponents, Daniel and Simone Hackett, operating as Wild Drake, said (reported by the ABC) they were ‘surprised by the ruling, but respected it and would cooperate”.

“It’s more time but that’s OK, we’re here to do the process that’s put before us and we want to make sure we get it right,” he said. 

“We’ll pass eventually. I’m quite a patient person.

“Some of our iconic tourism ventures have taken 14 to 15 years in Tasmania, so we’re in for the long haul.”

Failure of the federal laws

Sadly, the current federal laws are deeply flawed, and rarely stop projects like this. But it is still an important step that there will be an additional level of assessment, and with additional (new) information being assessed it will hopefully influence the minister’s final decision.

The federal government is currently seeking to further weaken the federal laws. You can sign a petition from Friends of the Earth here calling for stronger laws and an independent regulator with the powers to enforce them.

Further information

Reminder that there is a public meeting happening this Sunday September 20 near the Great Lakes. Details here.

The Wilderness Society Tasmania is launching a Wilderness Defence Fund today (September 18).

For background stories about the Lake Malbena proposal from Mountain Journal, please check here.

Follow Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access Tasmania for updates. FAWAHA is “a Lobby group of Anglers and Bushwalkers who oppose commercial Helicopter use in TWWHA, or what is known to Anglers as, the “Western Lakes”.