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September 2017

The Fight for the Arthur Pieman - Why it should be opened

The Arthur Pieman Conservation Area (APCA) is a 103,147-ha reserve approximately 35 km south west of Smithton in Tasmania’s north west. Just about every person with an interest in the APCA is tired of the area being used as a political football by various Governments, political parties and other various interest groups.

 

At the moment, there is basically a standoff between two opposing and equally passionate sides – those that want the area shut down and to be accessed by foot only and those that want the area to be accessible to recreational vehicles. On the one side sits the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC), the Tasmanian Greens political party and a number of other ‘green’ proponents, most notably Bob Brown, the former Greens leader and senator. On the other side, we have the current state Liberal Government, the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC), 4wd Tasmania and what would seem like the majority of the local community. One obvious group missing from the current argument is the state Labor party who have as yet not announced their stance on the issue.

 

The APCA has always been a sensitive area in regards to Aboriginal Heritage and recreational vehicle access. In 2010 the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) released the APCA Sustainable Recreational Vehicle Access Draft Report. That’s where the current story starts and as yet there has been no ending.

 

The draft report identified 94 tracks in the area of which only 65 were still in use. The remaining 29 tracks were little known, not used or had disappeared over many years. Of the 65 tracks the Draft Report recommended closing 15. The cause of most concern to recreation users were;

  • Track 501 (Sandy Cape to the Interview River, 17.5km)

  • Track 503 (Interview Mines, 7.9km)

  • Track 601 (Interview River to the Pieman River, 11.9km)

Three tracks may sound like a small quantity but essentially makes up more than half of the areas of which recreational vehicle users could access. The main reason given to close the tracks was to protect significant Aboriginal heritage.

The Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) received 2,354 submissions to the Draft Report. 2,291 of these submissions were not in agreement with the track closures. In 2012 a rally was held in Smithton, the region’s largest town, where over 4,000 4wdrivers gathered to express their displeasure at the proposed track closures. The then state Labor Environment Minister, Brian Wightman addressed the crowd and said that the Government simply wanted to manage the area. Also at the rally was newly elected local Liberal member Adam Brooks who vowed that if his party were to be voted into Government then they would open all tracks slated for closure.

 

The washup was that when the actual APCA Sustainable Recreational Vehicle Access Report 2012 was released it followed most of the recommendations in the Draft Report with a few concessions; Tracks 501, 502 and 503 would be accessible by; PWS led Tagalong Tours; volunteer events access; maintain access for cultural management. Tracks 601 and 602 south of this area would remain closed completely.

Fast forward to December 2014 and the Liberal Party, now in government announced that they will follow through on their pre-election promise to reopen the tracks. Measures are to be put in place to re-route tracks, install track matting and to fence off areas of Aboriginal heritage. Any vehicles heading to the area would have to purchase a special 4wd Driver Pass (in addition the already required APCA 4wd Pass) and would be fitted with GPS trackers at the local Arthur River PWS Ranger Station to track where 4wd vehicles would be driving.

 

This plan was met with swift action by the TAC. The TAC took out a Federal Court injunction to stop the tracks from opening. The Federal Court ruled that the tracks could not be opened. The state Liberal Government appealed the decision and the Federal Court said that the matter should be referred to the Federal Government. That’s the short story…. It took over 2.5 years of legal argument to get here. Both the TAC and the state Government considered this to be a win….

State Minister for Environment, Parks and Heritage Matthew Groom, “Planning for the tracks will involve consulting with both Aboriginal communities and local 4WD groups, and the Government is committed to ensuring that any impact on Aboriginal Heritage or any other Matter of National Environmental Significance, is referred to the Commonwealth Government for a determination under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The Government will continue to work closely with all stakeholder groups to ensure that users can continue to enjoy this spectacular area while ensuring that its significant Aboriginal Heritage values continue to be recognised and protected.”

 

One issue that has dogged the debate is the obvious disconnect between the CHAC and the TAC, both Aboriginal organisations with opposing views. The CHAC represents the local Aboriginal community and wants the tracks opened and the TAC is the political body that represents the interests of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community state wide and wants the tracks closed. It’s a complex issue that goes beyond just the reopening of tracks within the APCA.

 

In September of this year the State Government submitted a proposed plan which has been referred to the Federal Government for assessment against the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Adam Brooks said at the time the proposal was announced, “The reopening of these routes along the spectacular West Coast will deliver one of the truly great off-road experiences on offer in Australia and is supported by many in the community."

 

The main points of the submission include the reopening of tracks 501, 503 and 601 with the following conditions;

  • Track works including 2.26km of surface protection, 3.05km of fencing, re-routing of tracks, signage and directional markers.

  • Extra Compliance staff to be employed to provide an on-ground presence on the tracks focusing on adherence with permit conditions, driver behaviour and education, track maintenance and management and protection of values. Two new positions will be created within DPIPWE for this purpose and DPIPWE will seek Aboriginal applicants for these positions.

  • Access to the tracks will require the purchase and allocation of a special permit that is additional to the permit currently required to access tracks elsewhere in the APCA. Initial allocation of permits will be capped at 12 vehicles per day. Permits will be valid for three days. The tracks will be closed between 1st of June and 31st of October inclusive. Driving will be restricted to daylight hours.

  • Track 601 is only to be open to ATVs, UTVs and trail bikes. Four-wheel drive vehicles will not be permitted on this track. The track may be accessed from the Pieman River

 

This proposal aligns with the views of 4wd Tasmania, the organisation representing 4wd recreational vehicle clubs and their members. They have been vocal in their support in maintaining access to the APCA for recreational 4wd purposes. 4wd Tasmania President Brian Hevey says that the view of 4wd Tasmania has never changed, “We just want the area properly managed. There are alternate inland tracks that can be used, away from Aboriginal sites.  We would like to see the local Aboriginal community play a role in the management of the area as Aboriginal Rangers, as they do in other states. We have no issues with seasonal closures of tracks and we would like to be part of the management of the area. Closing tracks should be a last resort.’

Brian Imlach, a local 4wd club member and an avid 4wdriver who has been a regular visitor to the area for over 40 years adds, “It starts with one (track) and then the others start to follow.” This is a real concern for many in the 4wd community who have seen a large number of tracks be closed over the years.

 

One disappointing issue which has hampered the efforts of the 4wd community and added fuel to the fire is the well reported instances of illegal access and damage to tracks, either by 4wdrivers, quad or motor bike riders. There is an argument that the sustained and managed access to these currently closed tracks will decrease the instance of illegal behaviour by these idiotic hoons. Instead of these hoons having the area to themselves with limited risk of being caught or identified, there will be the deterrent of law abiding 4wdrivers accessing the area, in addition to the extra PWS Compliance staff. Local Liberal member Joan Rylah agrees, “I believe that well-managed access to the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area will significantly reduce the incidence of unauthorised use and vandalism. More users means more observers, especially the passionate people who care deeply for the area.”

 

Where this ends up is anybody’s guess, but what is known is that the two opposing sides are nowhere near finding middle ground and it’s hard to see where that scenario is possible. Whichever way the Federal Government rules it won’t be the end of the issue as both sides are equally passionate and sure that their view is the right one. There will always be one side that be bitterly disappointed and will not be able to accept the decision. The debate is unlikely to ever end.

My Vision for the Arthur Pieman (and beyond)

Picture this Epic 4wd Adventure on Tassie’s West Coast……. Starting at the Arthur River PWS Ranger Station you check in with the Rangers, having booked your Epic Western Explorer 4wd Adventure 12 months in advance…. You had to book this far ahead because this ‘experience’ is in such high demand as there is a strict limit on the number of vehicles allowed to undertake this journey per year. It’s not a cheap exercise but you are happy to pay as this is one of the unique 4wd destinations in the country, right up there with Cape York and The Simpson Desert and the money goes directly towards maintain the tracks and infrastructure.

 

You first have to visit the (newly constructed) Aboriginal Heritage Centre where you watch a DVD on the Aboriginal History of the Arthur Pieman area and listen to a local Aboriginal guide explain the cultural significance of the area to their people. You are then on your way on your 7 Day adventure and head south to Sandy Cape and over the next few days you continue south and visit the Interview River, take a mining heritage tour, an Aboriginal heritage tour exploring middens and other culturally significant sites. You cross the Pieman River with your vehicle on the (newly constructed) barge. Take a cruise on Pieman River to have lunch at the Tarkine Hotel.

 

Continuing south you travel the scenic Pieman Heads Track, the iconic Climies Track and stay at the tiny but beautiful hamlet of Trial harbour. Keep heading south crossing the Henty and Little Henty Rivers as you drive Ocean beach and eventually finish your trip at Macquarie heads just out of Strahan.

 

Over 7 days you have completed 180km of low range 4wd action and virtually no black top! How good would this be!*

*Sadly this trip is not possible due to track closures - sorry.