World Heritage Wet Tropics

In 2021 the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people were handed back the Daintree, Ngalba-bulal, Kalkajaka and the Hope Islands National Parks.

One of the world’s greatest living museums, housing the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforests on Earth, collectively known as the Wet Tropics, can be found between Townsville and Cooktown.

Reaching across rivers, sheltering gorges and sweeping over mountaintops, the Wet Topics rainforests contain an almost complete record of the major stages in the evolution of plant life on Earth.

Panoramic shot of the beach at Port Douglas in the Douglas Shire
Scenic shot of the beach at Port Douglas – by Lewis Young; May 1992; ITM1893773

But during the 1980s, northern Queensland was a battleground: police vs environmentalists vs loggers, the Federal Government vs the State Government. In 1983 and 1984, the development of the Cape Tribulation–Bloomfield Road stirred clashes throughout the Daintree rainforests as muddy protesters faced off against bulldozers and police officers.

In 1984, the Australian Heritage Commission engaged the Rainforest Conservation Society of Queensland to evaluate and report on the significance of the area. The report recommended that about one million hectares of northern rainforests be listed on the World Heritage register. The Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, did not want to proceed with a nomination without the cooperation of the Queensland Government, led by pro-logging Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Cover page of the Cabinet Minute regarding the State Government Involvement in National Rainforest Conservation Programme
State Government Involvement in National Rainforest Conservation Programme. – Mr W.H. Glasson, 1986; ITM2627480

In 1985, the Federal Government formed the National Rainforest Conservation Program to manage the long-term preservation of North Queensland forests. Over $22 million was to be dedicated to reviewing the timber industry, buying private land, preserving virgin rainforest and establishing a national rainforest research institute. But the Queensland Government did not take part.

With a federal election coming up in 1987, environmental groups began to ramp up their campaigns, resulting in the Hawke Government going to the polls with a policy to nominate the Wet Tropics for World Heritage listing.

A picture of the Fairyland tropical gardens near Kuranda in the Douglas Shire
“Fairyland” Tropical Gardens, near Kuranda; c. 1935; ITM1083534

Immediately after winning the election, and armed with a mandate from Australian voters, the Prime Minister stated his intention to move ahead with the nomination, rubbing a salty courtesy into the premier’s wound:

As you know the Government’s approach to rainforest conservation has been based on negotiating cooperative arrangements with the States. I was very disappointed that this approach has not led to the development of arrangements acceptable to both our Governments for conservation of the Wet Tropics.

In response, the Queensland Government formed the Northern Rainforests Management Agency in order to block the nomination, sending a delegation to the World Heritage Committee meeting and later challenging the constitutional validity of the listing. However, the efforts of the Bjelke-Petersen Government were in vain. On 9 December 1988, the World Heritage Committee formally accepted the nomination and the Wet Tropics joined the World Heritage list.

Scenic view of the Daintree River and tree ferns in the Douglas Shire
Scenic shot of Tree ferns and the Daintree River – by Lewis Young; May 1992; ITM1893771

Watch the interviews above with Mike Ahern AO, former Premier of Queensland, and Aila Keto, President of the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, talk about the events leading up to the World Heritage listing of Queensland’s Wet Tropics. They discuss how the listing changed relationships between conservationists and the forestry industry across the state. These interviews were part of QSA’s ‘Sunshine Rebooted’ exhibition. You can see all the videos produced for the exhibition here.

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