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Tasmanian approaches to integrating geoconservation into the planning process
Chris Sharples
Consultant Geoscientist, Tasmania


In contrast to much of the geological heritage work that has been done in other parts of Australia, the development of geoconservation ideas in Tasmania has historically been focussed not only on bedrock geological features, but more strongly on landforms (geomorphology), and in particular on maintaining the natural integrity of active geomorphic processes such as coastal, fluvial and karst systems. This focus on the elements of geodiversity processes that underpin and play a critical role in maintaining natural ecosystems was initially driven to a significant extent by the identification of landforms and ongoing natural geomorphic processes as key values in the successful nomination of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) to UNESCO in 1989.

One early result of the recognition of geodiversity as a key value of the TWWHA was that the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service, which is charged with responsibility for managing the TWWHA, recognised the need to employ Earth Scientists to provide advice on managing these values. During the late 1980's and early 1990's a number of geologists and geomorphologists were employed in response to a series of geodiversity management issues that arose in the TWWHA. These included the problem of severe bank erosion on the wilderness Gordon River, caused by tourist boat wakes, and damage to the outstanding Exit Cave karst system that was being caused by a limestone quarry which at the time was still being operated immediately adjacent to the cave system. Once these officers had been employed, they began developing and extending their geoconservation programs to other issues, and actively lobbying for increased recognition of Geoconservation values. During the course of numerous subsequent public service restructures (which seem to happen like clockwork after each Tasmanian state government election...) the Earth Science Section of the Parks & Wildlife Service gradually transmogrified into a part of the Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment (DPIWE) which, amongst other things, resulted in a broadening of the focus of geoconservation management to other public lands outside of reserved areas such as the TWWHA.

At the same time as the significance of geoconservation values within the TWWHA was being recognised, the Tasmanian forestry (logging) industry was coming under increasing pressure from environmentalists to improve its forest management practices. In response to this pressure, a code of environmental management for the forestry industry known as the Forest Practices Code was developed, and in 1986 was given statutory authority by State Government legislation. Alongside the more traditional soil, water and biodiversity management issues, this code recognised the conservation value of landforms, with particular emphasis on relict glacial landforms and ongoing karst system processes. Both of the latter are important elements of geodiversity in some areas of production in the State forest in Tasmania, and a geomorphologist was employed by the statutory authority set up to administer the Forest Practices Code – the Forest Practices Unit – to develop appropriate management practices to protect significant elements of geodiversity in Tasmanian production forests. These practices include identification and mapping of significant features, process systems and catchments, and the establishment of unlogged buffer zones, special reserves and reduced impact roading and logging techniques to protect features such as caves, sinkholes, and their catchments. Many of the management practices developed in this way now have statutory force under the Forest Practices Code, and logging contractors can and have been prosecuted for breaches of these practices.

In the course of these geoconservation management programs within the Parks & Wildlife Service, DPIWE and the Forest Practices Unit, a series of projects were initiated to identify and create inventories of significant geological sites, landforms, geomorphic process systems and soil sites. In a significant advance during 1996, money was made available through the State-Commonwealth Regional Forest Agreement to amalgamate these into a single electronic database known as the Tasmanian Geoconservation Database (TGD). This database is now managed by DPIWE as a GIS-based dataset which is regularly reviewed and upgraded by an expert reference panel. Although the TGD has no legal status – that is, listing of a site on the TGD doesn't automatically confer legal protection – it has become recognised as the key government-managed Tasmanian geoconservation dataset, and is used by Tasmanian geoconservation workers as a tool for setting geoconservation work priorities. The TGD is increasingly being referred to and responded to by a wide variety of government instrumentalities, Local Government Councils and private developers.

Within the last ten years, a number of other planning and management instruments have had geoconservation incorporated into their frameworks. Tasmanian state legislation concerning parks and reserves now contains clauses referring specifically to conservation of 'geological diversity', and the five-yearly Tasmanian State of the Environment Report is the only Australian State of the Environment reporting system which includes sections devoted specifically to geodiversity. At a national level, lobbying by Tasmanian geoconservation workers was instrumental in having the concepts of geodiversity and geoconservation fully integrated into the Australian Natural Heritage Charter, which is a statement of 'best practice' conservation principles developed by the Federal Government's Australian Heritage Commission and Environment Australia instrumentalities. All of these initiatives have served to raise the profile of geoconservation and cause it to be increasingly addressed in planning processes such as the Environmental Management Plans for development projects.

It is important to realise that the gradual raising of the profile of geoconservation in Tasmania, and its increasing incorporation into public planning processes, has been – at least to a large extent – a result of two key factors:

1. The efforts, initiatives and enthusiasm of individual geoconservation workers has been instrumental in raising the profile of geoconservation amongst professional land managers and government planning agencies in Tasmania. None of the progress described above would have occurred if it were not for individuals with a commitment to geoconservation taking it upon themselves to both utilise and create opportunities for promoting the cause of geoconservation, and to lobby for inclusion of geoconservation into new planning instruments such as the Australian Natural Heritage Charter. This promotional work has occurred both within the framework of management jobs initially created for more limited reasons, and also as a result of unpaid efforts by individual workers in their own time. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the progress that has been achieved in Tasmania could have occurred without committed workers taking it upon themselves to actively extend their efforts beyond the strict requirements of their terms of employment.

2. An emphasis on the importance of maintaining ongoing geomorphic and soil processes has arguably made the idea of geoconservation more acceptable and understandable to land managers such as the Parks & Wildlife Service who have traditionally been largely focussed on biodiversity conservation. Whereas small static geological features may be of some interest to land managers, these elements of geodiversity are commonly regarded as essentially robust and in any case of little relevance to the conservation of broader ecosystem processes or the soil and water quality issues with which much land management is traditionally concerned. However, it is not hard for land managers to recognise that maintaining the integrity of ongoing soil, fluvial, karst, coastal and other geomorphic processes is essential to maintaining overall ecosystem integrity and once this rationale for geoconservation is recognised and funded, it is then possible to fund work on the more traditional bedrock geology aspects of geoconservation by incorporating these into geoconservation programs that have been initially established to manage active geomorphic process systems.

However, whilst efforts to date have produced significant progress in incorporating geoconservation into land management processes at the State government level, especially in the context of reserved lands and publicly-owned State forests, significant deficiencies still remain in a number of other areas. A large proportion of Tasmania is private freehold land, and although many significant elements of geodiversity are known to exist on private land there has been little opportunity to inventory such features and include them in the Tasmanian Geoconservation Database. At the same time, local government councils, which exert the key legal controls over private land developments through their statutory planning schemes, have to date shown little interest in incorporating geoconservation management objectives into these schemes. In the writer's opinion, the lack of significant progress in geodiversity conservation on private land to date – including through the influence of local government planning schemes – has at least in part been a result of the real or perceived difficulty and sensitivity of trying to tell private landowners what they should be doing on their land. In contrast, it is a relatively simpler task to establish geoconservation in the planning framework for publicly owned lands. It seems that the way forward for geoconservation on private land will be to try to educate private landowners to take some pride in their possession of significant elements of geodiversity.

Another area which has received little attention in Tasmania is Geotourism. In many parts of the world geotourism is seen both as a way of making geoconservation 'pay for itself', as well as being a means of justifying expenditure on geoconservation initiatives. Much of the progress in geoconservation that has occurred in Tasmania has been justified primarily on the grounds that it is essential to good land management practices, and only secondarily because Tasmania's natural heritage of geodiversity is seen as being potentially attractive to visitors. This is all the more remarkable considering that the tourism industry is a significant sector of the Tasmanian economy. Much of that tourism is classified as 'eco-tourism' and is based on promotion of Tasmania's relatively undisturbed natural environment to visitors from more heavily developed and populated parts of the world. Thus, whilst the natural landscapes of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) are one of the drawcards for tourism in Tasmania, the glacial, karst and other landforms which give that landscape its special character and significance seem to be largely regarded as a sort of 'backdrop' to the wilderness, instead of being promoted as features of high geodiversity interest in their own right. Whilst efforts have been and are being made to provide interpretation of the many geological and geomorphic features in Tasmania, these have generally been low-budget efforts lacking in the strategic directions and funding that a well-conceived and high-priority geotourism strategy might provide.

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