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Open slather ... Reopen track proponents Adam Brooks and Brett Whiteley during the 2013 Federal Election campaign. They are with now Education Minister Christopher Pyne (centre)

APCA tracks re-opening media statement

The Tarkine coast in the Arthur Pieman Area has long been recognised as having outstanding Aboriginal heritage that is of international significance.

There is probably a greater number and density of Aboriginal material in the Arthur Pieman than there is anywhere else in Australia. Aboriginal sites include petroglyphs’ (rock engravings), hut mounds (former Aboriginal village sites), stone pathways, stone depressions (former seal hides), very large middens and specialist middens. Additionally many sites contact implements and human remains.

These combine to form a landscape of highly significant and non-renewable heritage that is easily damaged by vehicles, deliberately or inadvertently, many tracks passing over or next to significant sites.

Rerouting tracks is likely to uncover more sites. 

After a long period of consultation and much research the former Labor government in 2012 decided to close some tracks in order to better manage natural and cultural heritage.

In recognition of these special values, in 2013 the Federal government National Heritage Listed 22,000ha of the coastline, naming the Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape.

The decision of the current Liberal Government to re-open these tracks to appease the ironically named “Save Our Heritage Group” led by retired Legislative Council politician, Tony Fletcher, is undoing decades of planning, consultation and work and will contribute significantly to ongoing damage to mankind’s priceless and non-renewable heritage.

As a former Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife manager responsible for the area for the past 16 years I have retired early so I can speak out because the decision to reopen tracks in the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area lacks ethics and integrity and deserves scrutiny. There are several reasons behind this.

Firstly, the so-called iconic route south along the coast to the Pieman River has not been opened since the early 1980’s. The election commitment of the government was to reopen tracks closed by the former government not previous governments. Anyone that has been using the route since then have been breaching permit conditions and since 1999 have been breaking the law. 

No-one in the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (Parks) knows who came up with the $300,000 costing that the government is providing to reopen the tracks in a “sustainable” manner but they do know that that figure is a drop in the bucket for what is really required and highlights that the rhetoric used by the government and user groups about sustainability and concerns for the environment and Aboriginal culture are just weasel words to try to take the wind out of any opposition.

The private landowner is not supportive

The Church Rock Track near Arthur River is another track the user groups have been trying to “re-open” even though the private land-owner is not supportive and the track cuts through hut mounds that are the physical remains of an Aboriginal village, another priceless archaeological treasure.

Track 308, south of Temma, part of what is locally called (ironically) the Coastal Highway, mainly only accessible to motorbikes and All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV’s), was also closed because of the richness of Aboriginal heritage. This said, alternative access to coastal locations along this route are still available via tracks leading to the coast, parallel to the main north-south Temma to Greenes Creek track.

Something that this government is finding out is that for every concession it makes a new demand is forthcoming from the ‘Save Our Heritage Group’.

Now that the user groups have sniffed victory and weakness in the government it is now demanding to legitimise a play area in the sand dunes off-track west of remote Sandy Cape. They are now no longer just promoting the concept that “vehicles need tracks too” but they also need to be able to free range. This is an inappropriate use of any reserve under the National Parks and Land Management Act 2002.

Beneath these shifting sands are ancient soil horizons and Aboriginal sites that are easily uncovered. The concept of the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area being a “traditional playground” for vehicles was applauded by the attendees of the protest rally against Arthur Pieman track closures at Smithton in May 2012, which brings me to the second point.

That is, the protest that resulted in the election commitment to re-open tracks was founded on lies and mis-truths. Social media and user group promotion prior to the event made it sound like all the tracks were being closed and the whole area was being locked up.

This was a lie.

Adam Brooks, Member for Braddon, addressed the gathering by committing that the Liberal party would re-open the tracks because there had been no consultation.

Another big lie.

The spokesperson for ‘Save Our Heritage Group’ brought in from Queensland, John Rooth (Roothy), who had the temerity to say that Parks had not undertaken any management and that the community should fight the area being locked up.

Maybe someone forgot to tell him that Parks recently replaced three bridges on the main track south. He also said that all the decisions are being made in Hobart and Canberra.

More lies and mis-truths to entertain the crowd before their sausage sizzle.

The need to better manage the network (web) of tracks (over 200 km worth!) has been driven locally. Roothy’s comment to the mob that there had been 15 managers at Arthur River in 20 years was another massive exaggeration.

What would he know? The true figure is 6, which is typical if you consider that the area is reasonably isolated and difficult to manage when you consider the challenges of managing the world significant Aboriginal heritage and threatened and vulnerable species, including migratory waders, in an area infested with tracks and shacks, which brings me to my third point.

That is, various state governments over many years committed to a Shack-site Categorisation Program in the 1980’s and 1990’s which cost millions of dollars, resulting in the vast majority of shacks on Crown land and reserves being privatised (sold to the leaseholders).

No shacks have been removed

Some shacks, not being deemed as meeting heritage, environmental, health and safety requirements were designated for removal. To date in the Northwest, no shacks have been removed because no government has shown leadership or had the courage to follow through on their own finding.

In the case of the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area, the Circular Head Council has vigorously opposed removing any shacks, including from the West Point State Reserve and from Sundown Point State Reserve, both proclaimed in 1976 specifically to protect Aboriginal heritage. In the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area, the main shack nodes were privatised and excised out of the reserve.

The remaining shacks, scattered throughout the reserve, were meant to be removed, are currently allowed to remain on short-term leases. While these shacks remain, it is difficult to provide the Aboriginal community with the reconciliation required to be able to show that the general community is serious about addressing the atrocities brought on to the First Nation people by the stockman and sealers at the time of first settlement.

Also a good deal of the problems caused by off-road vehicle users in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area comes from some of these shacks such as damage to the iconic large midden at Ordnance Point.

This brings me to my fourth point.

That is, the blame shifting by the 4WD lobby is an attempt to deflect attention from their own behaviour. The claim by the 4WD lobby that this damage would not happen if only Parks did their job and undertake compliance by targeting the minority ratbag blow-ins has been proven to be disingenuous.

In 2012, a group of ATV riders drove off-road without approval in the Southwest Conservation area, causing significant and lasting environmental damage, including tearing up coastal marsupial lawns and using chainsaws to create new tracks on a coastline rich in Aboriginal heritage.

Parks undertook a highly professional investigation, photographs were seized, admissions were recorded and offence briefs were submitted. Several of those involved in this offence are respected leaders of four wheel drive clubs on the north-west coast, one being a prominent businessman.

Political interference following lobbying forced Parks to only issue Letters of Caution. These people are key figures involved in lobbying to have the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area tracks re-opened.

Populism and lack of leadership

This brings me to my fifth point.

That is, the populism and lack of leadership with integrity by local, state and federal politicians frustrates any chance Parks has of effectively managing the area and has created a general sense of anarchy where off-road vehicle users think it is okay to break the law in what is some kind of “wild west” regulatory free environment. 

It is unfortunate that the only thing that will mitigates this is the road toll which comes about from the unsafe use of vehicles. Ultimately this will force a greater level of involvement from Tasmania Police to undertake compliance.

The current Mayor in an informal council meeting said that it was his personal opinion that there should be no vehicles south of Sandy Cape. A short time later, just before council elections, the councillors voted unanimously to support the government’s commitment to re-open closed tracks.

There is no doubt that the recreation user groups are politically sophisticated. They know how to pressure politicians and bureaucrats. Former politician, Tony Fletcher, has led and coordinated the response by the local community for many years.

At the protest rally Roothy said that protests were the province of unemployed greenies form the mainland.

This is not the case.

There were protest rallies against any Arthur-Pieman track closures in 1998 (West Point), 2000 (Arthur River), 2003 (Smithton) and 2012 (Smithton). All led by a strong triumvirate consisting of Tony Fletcher, the Circular Head Council Mayor of the time and a business or recreation group leader.

All that said, Labor politicians Bryan Green (Member for Braddon) and Brian Whiteman (Minister for Parks) were exceptions because while in government they showed a high level of integrity and courage against pressure. Both men fronted rallies, the former to defend the development of a Management Plan and the latter, trying to implement the track recommendations coming out of that Plan 12 years later.

It is commonly known that the new Liberal government in its first year is delivering on commitments it made to its mates during its long term in opposition.

In announcing its policies it has not talked to anyone other than this narrow group of supporters and certainly has not involved getting advice from the public service in regard to the legal requirements of implementing its policies.

Now that the Liberals are in power they must be wondering why they made such a stupid commitment to re-open all the tracks when they would have won government anyway.

Nevertheless, the government is intent on delivering on its commitments regardless of the facts before them rather than renege on an election commitment. It is rather telling that the government left it to its local members, Adam Brooks and Joan Rylah (of ‘Unlock Tasmania’ fame), to announce in Devonport on 8 November 2014, along four wheel drive club representatives, to the local newspaper (and no other media outlets) that the tracks would be open before Christmas.

No doubt Mathew Groom MHA, the Minister responsible for Parks didn’t attend either ...

No doubt Mathew Groom MHA, the Minister responsible for Parks didn’t attend either because he is not personally committed to the folly or because the government wanted the media coverage to be limited.

They may also want the damage to be limited to Adam Brooks if it all blows up because it is his pet project. For example, earlier, on 26 February, in the The Advocate newspaper, the government announced their intention to re-open the tracks but the photo of Liberal leader Will Hodgman, deputy Liberal leader Jeremy Rockliff and member for Braddon Adam Brooks sitting on a quad-bike at the North-west Off-Road Club’s land in Spreyton was widely regarded as arrogant and not being a good look. This brings me to my sixth and final point.

That is, the Government’s claim that there had been no consultation or inadequate consultation in regard to the closure of tracks is a lie.

What the government really means is that the 4WD lobby did not give their permission for tracks to be closed. I would like to contend that I believe there has been more consultation on how these tracks should be managed than anywhere else, ever, period.

In 1976 two areas of the Arthur Pieman were set aside under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1970 and Aboriginal Relics Act 1975 purely to protect the immense Aboriginal heritage values in the area – West Point State Reserve (580 ha) and Sundown Point State Reserve (132 ha). Since then these areas have had legislative protection equivalent to national parks. For the remaining surrounding Crown land the Lands Department prepared a draft management plan in 1979 after consultation with groups with an interest in the Arthur-Pieman area. In 1982 the area was reserved as a Protected Area. Following major studies of the area, the Lands Department expanded the draft plan in 1987. This plan was considered by a Cabinet Sub-Committee which sort submissions from the public as well as receiving verbal submissions at public hearings. As a result, an Interim Plan was published in 1991.

This plan recognised many of the problems associated with using vehicles off-road. It proposed a policy of allowing vehicles to be used off-road while minimising associated damage. Despite adoption, impacts in the conservation area have continued to accelerate with the proliferation of off-road vehicles, including the rise in use of motorbikes, particularly four-wheel bikes, which are increasingly more high performance; and more lately, the rise in high lift four wheel drive vehicles with large tyres designed for mud running. The damage caused by the latter has been steadily increasing.

In 1993 the Arthur-Pieman Protected Area Management Advisory Committee was established to assist staff with the planning for day to day management. Except for a few years it has continued (now as the Arthur–Pieman Conservation Area Management Committee) despite ongoing issues with achieving representation from Aboriginal and conservation interests who complain of an unsympathetic and at times hostile audience. Nevertheless, this group has worked closely on behalf of the community with Parks on the management of tracks.

The Arthur Pieman Protected Area became a Conservation Area in 1999 giving greater legislative protection and allowing for a statutory management plan to be prepared, meaning it has the power of law. 34 public comments were received from a Consultation Draft. In 2000, 303 written submissions were received on a prescriptive full draft management plan. Due to the number and nature of submissions, and a community protest at Arthur River, the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) conducted an enquiry involving two further phases of public consultation; following the release of a draft background and recommendations report, and through the conduct of public hearings. The final Management Plan, signed by the Governor, came into effect in 2002 and reflects the almost total adoption of the RPDC’s final recommendations.

The Management Plan set up an Off-Road Vehicle Consultative Group which reviewed the tracks and made recommendations to the management committee but committee was unable to provide Parks with a consensus position and asked that more research be undertaken on the natural and Aboriginal heritage values of the area.

Of the 2,354 submissions received, 2,291 were form letters circulated by the 4WD community opposed to closures ... 

The RPDC predicted that there would be difficulties in achieving consensus on how the tracks should be managed and in the management plan gave Parks 12 months to have an operational system and three years (2005) for this to be shown as effective. Inevitably, benchmarks were not met and the Minister was required to implement the Default Prescriptions in the plan. The Default Prescriptions, effectively in operation since 2000, would continue to restrict vehicles to only tracks accessing shacks and the track south of Temma to Sandy Cape. All other tracks were to be closed.

In good faith in 2006 Parks applied for and received $240,000 from Cradle Coast NRM to achieve sustainable management of the coastline in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area. The aerial photography history of track development going back to 1953 was mapped and natural values and Aboriginal heritage values were researched, documented and recommendations made based on this and all previous work. In 2009 these findings were presented to the management committee and Off-Road Vehicle Consultative Group, the latter of which (including the Mayor) leaked the report to the media threatening protest action.

The result was that in 2009 the state government provided Parks $1.5 million to implement a sustainable recreational vehicle management system in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area. This included; an Aboriginal heritage assessment of the 94 tracks within the reserve, an online user permit system, development of a new business enterprise, park signage, a map and notes brochure, site planning, a new Parks office, staff houses and equipment shed, and a monitoring and evaluation framework. 

In 2010 the draft report was released for public comment. Of the 2,354 submissions received, 2,291 were form letters circulated by the 4WD community opposed to closures. These came from all over Australia from people who were erroneously given to believe that the whole area was going to be locked up. The resulting report on Analysis of Public Responses in 2011 further highlighted the contention around the management of the tracks.

In 2011 a study on the social values of the APCA to the Circular Head Community was undertaken with 115 people consulted.

Also in 2011 a community forum with key stakeholders took place as an important part of collaboration with the community to ensure that the there was a full understanding of the management issues being considered in assessment of the tracks.

A partnership program with the Motor Accident Insurance Board (MAIB) promoted the message that general road rules apply in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area and drivers need to have a permit, licence and registered vehicle before accessing tracks in the APCA.

Radio advertising and news print adverts are also part of this campaign emphasising the message that “Road Rules Apply”. 

Contrary to popular belief there has been extensive consultation regarding the tracks going back decades

The final report in 2012, resulted in further changes to original recommendations leaving 50 tracks out of 94 to be open. A big compromise was to allow restricted use as far south as the Interview River, assuming it could be done sustainably. Another big compromise was to permit vehicles to traverse close to rock carvings in the Sundown Point State Reserve.

So contrary to popular belief there has been extensive consultation regarding the tracks going back decades starting with the lands Department and carried on by Parks. It has been long regarded that there are too many tracks in the Arthur Pieman and the impacts on Aboriginal heritage and threated and vulnerable species are unacceptable.

For the government to say that the community has not been consulted is an amazing, staggering and ignorant thing to say when you consider the narrow sector of the community they consulted with in announcing the re-opening of tracks. The consultation with the rest of the community has been limited to local media announcements.

On 7 November the Members for Braddon, Adam Brooks and Joan Rylah, announced in Devonport that Parks had (unbelievably) until Christmas to reinstate “traditional access” 90km all the way from Arthur River following the completion of on-ground works, including re-routed sections of track to mitigate and avoid impacting on significant natural and Aboriginal heritage values. The state government has ignored the fact that this proposal needs to be referred to the commonwealth government particularly since part of the route has not been open since the early 1980’s and there will be impacts on nationally significant heritage values.

The vision for this to be a great off-road journey is made without any understanding of how it could made environmentally, socially and economically sustainable and how the journey could be undertaken safely. Only this year two of the key proponents of this proposal, both experienced local four wheel drive club leaders, drowned their vehicles crossing the Thornton River and had to be rescued.

This announcement, in the presence of the 4WD Tasmania President demonstrates what has always been evident; that the four wheel drive community are running the show and they will not accept any compromise. They have always been willing to work with Parks with the occasional working bee to ensure access and be seen as legitimate but their cooperation is on the condition that Parks let them do everything they want and go everywhere they want.

Presumably the Government really knows that this action will trigger the commonwealth’s Environmental Biodiversity and Conservation Act 1999 and are perhaps hoping the Feds will intervene to get them off the hook from this irresponsible commitment. However, I presume that the Feds will simply want confirmation from the state government that everything is in hand and may want to believe the government’s weasel words about “being respectful of natural and cultural heritage values”.

The overall theme coming from the ‘Save Our Heritage Group’ and others is that their several generations, at most, heritage is at least as important if not more important than Aboriginal heritage that has built up over tens of thousands of years. To put this in perspective, it needs to be understood that most of the shacks are post war and development was low key and access difficult until the bridge was built across the Arthur River replacing the punt. Ironically and uncharacteristically, the same year the Circular Head Council and local community enthusiastically supported a proposal for a Norfolk Range National Park in the southern part of the Arthur-Pieman because they could see that the area would come under threat and had heritage values that needed to be protected. Contrary to current claims of traditional access being a right, very few people would have had an old land rover that they would have taken them south all the way to the Pieman River.

Pressure from shack owners and council ...

The four wheel drive challenge 30 years ago would have been just to get the shack site. Pressure from the shack owners and council has resulted in the road being sealed to the Arthur River settlement and two-wheel drive roads being built to the main shack nodes. I recall distinctly a local politician complaining that Parks should maintain her road because her Saab bottomed out on the potholes and Parks should pay for the damage! It is interesting to note that while the Council wants to put up its hand in having a say on how the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area tracks are managed it refuses to have anything to do with maintaining the roads to the shack nodes where the owners don’t get much for their rates. It should not be core business of Parks to maintain roads to private shacks. Parks certainly does not have a budget for road maintenance though it was pleasing to see in 2007 – 2010 the government contributed $100,000 which enabled Parks to undertake significant road maintenance to the main shack nodes and replace 3 bridges on the main track south of Temma.

I can certainly appreciate the social value of shacks in wild and remote places and off-road access to iconic locations in the Arthur Pieman. The consensus is that balance needs to be achieved but there is no agreement on how this can be achieved.  In 1998 I recall saying to the Mayor, when he was reminding the government of its commitment to seal the Arthur River road that it would change the shack culture as the shack owners know it as electricity, phone and sewerage would follow, reducing the areas isolation and allow people to develop houses. His comment was that they needed economic development and jobs. In other words the shack culture is up for sale. The privatisation of the shacks allows the “storm boy” shacks that merge into the landscape to be replaced by urban buildings that are a blot on the landscape. It has also meant that people have to go further for their off-road experiences, causing even more impacts on the reserve. All these things are coming to fruition as access is improved and the area urbanises.

The contentiousness over Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area management is because most of the species under threat, the Aboriginal heritage, the shacks and the tracks are together only a small percentage of the reserve area, that is in the coastal strip. The modern and the old do not co-exist very well. It is also an area that is loved by everyone who gets to know it and as a result it excites passions in people. It is a place that grows on you. It is truly a unique and amazing place. That is something we can all agree on.

The track assessment process that has been underway for many years has rightly put a high value on some types of Aboriginal sites and has determine that vehicles should not impact on these areas. That is not to say there should be no access. Converting vehicle tracks to walking access would likely address most concerns and would provide business opportunities for guiding companies.
It is unfortunate that the focus on the tracks unites the community against Parks (which sits on the middle ground) and means that there is no maturity in the discussion of these related issues.
While the extremists in the 4WD lobby probably think that all the Park managers should be sacked, I believe that most locals think that the local staff are doing a great job and that the off-road system that parks has introduced in 2010 - 2012 has been working well and generally accepted.

The 4WD lobby have a narrow perspective. Their focus is on access and the experience. As a right they have demonstrated that they expect to be able to drive everywhere they want to go. The role the government and the people have given Parks is far broader. The legislation the governs the management of the area includes the requirement to manage and protect a range of values including Aboriginal heritage and the natural environment while allowing for appropriate recreation, interpretation, education and commercial activities. Activities that directly impact on highly significant Aboriginal sites are not appropriate. Four-wheel drive vehicles, ATV’s and motor bikes should not be permitted to drive on these sites.

The challenge for all of us is how to address the culture, mainly amongst the youth (but acceptance by the adults who “cut their teeth in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area) that damaging the environment is not acceptable. Also the community needs to value the Aboriginal heritage rather than justifying their own situation by diminishing what is there by saying that the middens are just sea wash or just blackfella rubbish dumps. Instead they tell a deep and long story about this place which is now part of our jointly owned story.

Geoff Coles PSM


*Says Geoff: I have just left the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service after 28 years of service, the last 16 of which I have been the manager responsible for the Arthur-Pieman reserves; most recently as the Regional Manager Northwest. I have decided to retire early because I want to speak out against the government’s proposal to re-open off-road tracks that have been closed. As you can see from the above, it is a long story and some people have a lot of explaining to do. Hopefully these decisions can be reversed once the folly of them is exposed.

ABC: Indigenous organisations labelled ‘fringe groups’ in dispute over 4WD tracks near Aboriginal heritage sites Federal Member for Braddon Brett Whiteley has labelled Tasmanian Aboriginal organisations “fringe groups” in response to their opposition to the reopening of four-wheel drive tracks in the state’s west. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community is threatening to stage protests against the State Government’s decision to reopen the tracks through a section of of the Arthur-Pieman area. The previous government closed 15 tracks in 2012 to protect threatened species and Aboriginal heritage sites, angering four-wheel drive enthusiasts. The area was listed as a Cultural Heritage Landscape of National Significance by the Australian Heritage Commission, which described the area as “one of the world’s greatest archaeological regions” for its rich Aboriginal heritage. Now 90 kilometres of four-wheel driving tracks will be reopened. Some were closed in 2012 while others were shut down earlier. Mr Whiteley has dismissed the opponents, including Tasmanian Indigenous Australians, as “fringe dwellers”.

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