The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) is a World Heritage Site in Tasmania. It is one of the largest conservation areas in Australia, covering 15,800 km², or almost 20% of lutruwita/ Tasmania. It is also one of the last great expanses of temperate wilderness in the world.

In recent summer’s, significant sections of the TWWHA have been devastated by bushfires. The 2018/19 fires were especially destructive.

Fire is perhaps the greatest challenge for the management of the TWWHA, particularly in the context of climate change. With the September 2020 release by the Parks and Wildlife Service of a range of discussion papers for public comment, the state is moving towards the development of a Fire Management Plan for the TWWHA, as recommended by the 2016 report by Tony Press (Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Bushfire and Climate Change Research Project) and prescribed by the 2016 TWWHA Management Plan. 

How have the papers been received by conservationists?

The Tasmanian National Parks Association (TNPA) has released their submission to the discussion paper.

It is clear the TNPA holds concerns about proposals to ‘reintroduce’ a ‘significantly greater level of fire’. A key concern is the fact that there is only limited detail available on some of the more contentious components of the paper.

What fire and where?

‘The Plan also states (p.169) ‘there is a clear need to reintroduce a significantly greater level of fire back into the landscape to help maintain specific cultural and natural values ….” But, disappointingly, the recently-released discussion papers … contain insufficient detail of this ‘clear need’. Further, they say that:

‘The 2016 TWWHA Management Plan (p.170-171) states a ‘holistic fire plan’ is required and list a range of components that must be included, whereas this PWS discussion paper contains only a more general objective (below) for the TWWHA Fire Management Plan. It is important the Fire Plan contains sufficient detail on all the components noted in the Management Plan’. 

Fuel reduction burning planned

TNPA feels that a decision has already been taken to introduce more FR burning, however, the details on his have not been spelt out:

‘While the PWS discussion paper notes ‘a key question for fire management is whether or not to conduct planned burns or to leave nature to itself’, the 2016 TWWHA Management Plan makes it pretty clear an overall decision on this has been made. 

‘The discussion paper notes various reasons for undertaking planned burns – asset protection, fuel reduction, ecological and cultural. It is the selection criteria for any of these that are crucial but this is not spelled out’. 

There is, of course, a lot of debate about the value of FR treatment in stopping or slowing the spread of fire, and it seems that a key concern of the TNPA is that the discussion paper is too vague when it comes to explaining exactly how FR will be implemented in World Heritage Areas.

Do we let fires run their course?

The TWWHA is a massive, complex and wild landscape. There is always a tension about how we manage it, and how much we should intervene in it, including when it comes to fire.

TNPA say ‘There are some controversial proposals in the ‘way forward’, especially the potential ‘let go’ policy: 

In relation to bushfires, it would mean under some circumstances adopting a ‘let-go’ policy for bushfires when an assessment indicates outcomes similar to that of a fuel reduction or ecological burn, resulting in positive ecological outcomes and protection of life or property. 

If such a ‘let go’ policy is to be adopted, it is crucial the criteria and decision process for its use is clear to land managers, transparent to all, and able to be applied quickly in a fire situation. 

The impacts of fighting fire

There is some discussion of various impacts of fire fighting covered in the TNPA submission, including back burning, use of aircraft and machinery, use of remote area firefighting teams, and use of fire retardant. In most instances, TNPA requests that additional detail be provided about each of these.

Climate change is driving everything

They also say ‘there is little explicit acknowledgement of the direct impacts of climate change (e.g. temperature, precipitation, evaporation rates)’. 

A glimpse of the future

This is a glimpse of the terrible dilemma we face as we prepare for the fires of the future and the reality of climate change:

These changed climatic conditions, especially increased soil dryness, have the potential to cause local, if not total, extinction of particular plant species or communities, even in the absence of fire. For example, a stand of Cider Gums south of Miena (not far outside the TWWHA) has already succumbed to altered climatic conditions that are attributed to climate change, and inferences based on the Climate Futures for Tasmania project outcomes suggest some alpine communities may be unable to adapt or relocate.

This is relevant to both the fundamental question of what values are we trying to protect/maintain and also the prioritisation of fire-fighting efforts; e.g. if there is a choice between protecting a vegetation community that is viable in the long-term and one that is doomed to extinction by climate change, the resources should go into protecting the community with a long-term future.

Cultural burning

This is another incredibly fraught issue. In many parts of Australia where colonisation stopped traditional use of fire by First Nations people, it is now slowly being reintroduced. But more than a century on, there are questions about what sort of landscape we want to move to in terms of fire.

The TNPA say: ‘the PWS discussion paper says: 

‘There is an assumption that a reintroduction of Aboriginal burning will provide the solution to the bushfire risk we face. While this type of burning can potentially contribute to a reduction in fuels, it is not the panacea to the bushfire risks associated with climate change. 

‘The PWS discussion paper summarises a range of claimed advantages, particularly for Aboriginal people themselves, but also for achieving management objectives, but once again, the discussion paper refers to the ‘ecological health’ of the TWWHA without clearly specifying what this means. Neither does it acknowledge that Aboriginal burning practices from pre-colonial times (even if it can be established exactly what these were) may no longer be relevant in the altered climatic conditions resulting from climate change and may not be transferrable to ecosystems that have been changed by totally different fire regimes in the intervening two centuries’. 

They also say:

‘All this leaves it rather unclear how Aboriginal burning will be undertaken and integrated into TWWA fire management, and its extent and relationship to other management objectives, let alone its practical application. It is essential to provide more detail on this in the Fire Management Plan’. 

I don’t intend to dig into these issues here, beyond noting that Traditional Owners, ‘through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, have partnered with the Firesticks Alliance Aboriginal Corporation to undertake training to develop knowledge and skills of cultural burning’.

I would be interested to see details on an indigenous response to the TWWHA discussion paper. 

I will also update this story as I see responses from other key Tasmanian environmental groups.