Plan to reopen Arthur-Pieman four-wheel drive tracks wouldn’t protect Aboriginal heritage sites, report finds

Three vehicles make drive on a track on Tasmania's west coast.
The three tracks in question were closed in 2012.(Supplied)

A much-anticipated Aboriginal heritage report into controversial four-wheel drive tracks in Tasmania’s west has found there’s not enough evidence that proposed protection strategies would adequately conserve ancient middens and cultural sites.

Key points:

  • A scathing, long-awaited report into the cultural heritage review into three four-wheel drive tracks in Tasmania’s west has been released by the government
  • The report’s authors found the proposed mitigation measures were “unlikely to reduce the potential impacts to acceptable levels”
  • The government has moved away from reopening the tracks, but four-wheel drivers and Aboriginal groups don’t think the fight is over

The review of three tracks in the Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area (APCA), called tracks 501, 601 and 503, was released yesterday, nine years after they were closed and seven years after the Liberal Party promised to reopen them if elected in 2014.

The APCA is part of the Western Tasmania Aboriginal Cultural Landscape — an area protected by the Commonwealth Government’s National Heritage List.

The report was released late in the afternoon and the minister responsible, Jacquie Petrusma, was not made available for media questioning.

The 2012 closure of the tracks over Aboriginal heritage concerns prompted fierce large-scale protests in Smithton in the far north-west and legal back and forth in the High Court.

A map of Tasmnania highlighting three 4 wheel drive tracks on the west coast.
The Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area is on Tasmania’s west coast.(ABC News: Paul Yeomans)

Compiled by Aboriginal heritage experts and archaeologists, the review considered multiple mitigation strategies put forward by the government and ultimately concluded they were “unlikely to reduce the potential impacts to acceptable levels”.

“The current proposal is not currently supported by sufficient evidence that it will be materially effective in mitigating damage to Aboriginal heritage values, including listed national heritage values, associated with intended compliant use,” it read.

“It does not adequately address the unacceptably high risk of impacts associated with non-compliant activities which have created significant damage in the past, and in several instances, were observed to still be occurring.”

Arthur Pieman River sign
The report said evidence was found of unauthorised use of the tracks.(Supplied)

Some of the suggested protection measures included track surface protection, drainage works, fencing, track markers, signage and, in some cases, track realignment.

“Trials of the proposed hardening/matting medium have not yet been undertaken elsewhere within the APCA in relation to managing heritage impacts and no data is available regarding the degree to which users might comply with the proposed mitigations,” the report said.

“To the contrary, evidence was observed during fieldwork of unauthorised vehicle access along the currently closed tracks.”

In all, the review found there are 26 significant sites on track 501, two on 503 and 33 on track 601 — including some new sites and precincts identified in the survey.

The report said the measures would have a reduction in risk of direct and indirect impacts at 22 out of 61 sites.

There was found to be insufficient evidence for many of the mitigation measures, but “clear evidence that off-road vehicle use has directly impacted sites within the study area, and also contributed to general entropy.”

“The other key knowledge gain is that many of the sites are in poor condition and rapidly deteriorating. While many midden sites displayed intact deposits, these are actively eroding.”

Aboriginal people not consulted in review

The report’s authors noted multiple times the problems raised by not allowing Aboriginal people to be consulted as part of the review.

It identified one of the key knowledge gaps was “how the proposed actions are supported by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community”.

“The absence of consultation with the Aboriginal community does not allow for full documentation and appreciation of Aboriginal cultural heritage values.”

One quote in the review from Aboriginal Heritage Officer Brendan “Buck” Brown said the following:

“The Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area is not a ‘park’ to Tasmanian Aboriginal people. It is our country, one of the last places we can take our families and surround ourselves absolutely with the places and culture of our old people, who lived there for so many thousands of years. We connect there; it’s place of our memory and of our continuance. We feel our old people around us there.”

TAC CEO Heather Sculthorpe
Heather Sculthorpe said Aboriginal groups found out about the report at the same time as the public.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Heather Sculthorpe said the lack of consultation was not acceptable.

“We were told about this report at the same time as everyone else, despite the fact that it was us to do all the work to keep the tracks closed,” she told ABC Radio Hobart.

“This is just the latest in the long line of battles, but it’s still not over so we’ll be absolutely vigilant until we know for sure there’s no more danger.”

Acting general manager of the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC) Dianne Baldock said she welcomed the report, but questioned how well controlled access would be.

“My question would be if there are no vehicles or ATVs allowed in that landscape area, does that mean all? Or do specific groups have any access to those sites?

“If it’s going to be locked up, it has to be locked up for everybody.”

CHAC Diane Baldock CEO
Dianne Baldock questioned how access to the area would be controlled.(Supplied: CHAC)

Peter Benson, a Smithton Aboriginal man and former head of CHAC, said the report was just a “first step”.

“There are a whole heap of stakeholders who haven’t been heard from.”

‘There’s going to be big backlash’

The Liberal Party’s promise to reopen the tracks created tensions back in 2014 — tensions locals say have simmered away in the following years.

Both Ms Baldock and Mr Benson have already heard talk of protests.

“There’s going to be a big backlash … the writing’s on the wall,” Mr Benson, who also predicted a swing towards independents away from the government at the next election off the back of the review, said.

Smithton local Adele Hugo attended the headline-making rally in 2014 and said she was “disappointed” to hear the tracks may remain closed.

Adele Hugo
Adele Hugo believes drivers should look after the area, but that they deserve access.(ABC News: Manika Champ)

“In that protest, there was a lot of people really interested in seeing this area and [driving] the Pieman,” she said.

“I love to go four-wheel driving down there, looking at our local area, we’re just so lucky.”

Ms Hugo said she acknowledged drivers need to look after the area, but she thought “drivers still deserved to use the area”.

“The promise has been broken and that’s really disappointing.”

Four-Wheel Drivers Tasmania’s Barney Campbell told ABC Radio Hobart he believed the previously suggested permit model, whereby drivers could use the tracks with specific permits and GPS monitoring, would have worked.

“We accept that Aboriginal heritage is there, but we believe that the model for reopening the tracks did allow for that,” he said.

A hiker walks along a track in the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area on Tasmania's north-west coast.
The Arthur Pieman Conservation Area contains ancient middens.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The report found potential issues with compliance and cost with that model.

“The costs … have not been estimated but are likely to be considerable, and given the competing imperatives of capping vehicle numbers to limit impacts and reliance on vehicle permit fees for cost recovery, effective and ongoing impact mitigation may not be economically viable,” the report read.

He said if the three tracks in question could not be reopened, he’d be happy to talk to the government about using other tracks in the area instead.

Government to look at other tracks

In an afternoon press release, Parks Minister Jacquie Petrusma stopped short of saying the government would stop pursuing reopening the tracks.

“The government’s priority has always been the need to protect the significant cultural and natural values within the APCA, while allowing Tasmanians to fish, camp and explore the landscape,” she said.

“The government recognises the importance of recreational off-road vehicle access to many in the Tasmanian community and is committed to working with them to develop further opportunities on the West Coast.”

Ms Petrusma said the government would look at improving existing open tracks, building new campgrounds and developing new tracks.

Mr Campbell said he would be happy to see facilities improved, but was keen to see the detail.

In a joint statement, Labor politicians Michelle O’Byrne and Bastian Seidel backed the report.

“Given the Tasmanian government have embarked on a pathway to treaty with Tasmanian Aboriginal people, a commitment that has Labor’s full support, the government should now as a demonstration of good faith, confirm they will cease trying to reopen these tracks that have been closed since 2012,” they said.

The review is now being considered by the APCA Management Committee and further by the government. The government can decide whether to pursue federal environmental approvals to reopen the tracks.

Sign for the Arthur-Pieman
Four-wheel drive advocates believe a previously touted permit system would have worked.(Eliza Wood: ABC Rural)