SIGNATURE wild river preservation laws blamed for putting vast tracts of Queensland in economic mothballs are to be scrapped in favour of a regime that encourages mining and development.
Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party government will begin the process of repealing the laws on Cape York Peninsula, the scene of a bitter dispute between environmentalists who backed the measures and indigenous interests that claimed they strangled the economic life of local communities.
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney said wild river declarations covering the Archer, Wenlock, Lockhart and Stewart basins would be replaced by a new regional plan to designate discrete environmental no-go zones and “unashamedly” fast-track development on Cape York.
“When this plan is put in place for that region, the wild rivers declarations will be revoked,” he told The Australian.
“There has been no balance up until now. It’s all been about protecting things, locking things up, taking away opportunities without any consideration of the long-term future of those Aboriginal communities.”
The wild rivers scheme was introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government in 2005 to protect pristine waterways. It was expanded by his successor, Anna Bligh. The law created a 1km buffer around declared river catchments, precluding most mining and high-impact agriculture. But Labor insisted the protection was balanced and allowed most economic activity.
By the time Labor was crushingly voted out of office in March of this year, 13 river catchments had been declared as wild on Cape York, World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, north of Brisbane, and in the channel country in Queensland’s far southwest.
Opposition to the listings was led by Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, who denounced wild rivers as a “green foot” on the neck of local communities. His brother, Gerhardt, said yesterday the new regional planning process was more likely to strike the right balance between environmental protection and economic development.
“We’re now placing the emphasis of economic development at the centre of attacking indigenous social dysfunction – the terrible welfare situation we have – and the need to encourage economic development and investment,” Mr Pearson said.
But he said a High Court challenge instigated by wild rivers opponents would for now be maintained to preserve their legal rights. “We’ve . . . maintained from day one the wild rivers decision-making process was flawed,” Mr Pearson said.
Mr Seeney, who is also Queensland’s Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, said there was “absolutely” a place for mining on the Wenlock River, about 2000km north of Brisbane, one of the four declared wild rivers on Cape York.
“That’s what this statutory regional plan is about,” Mr Seeney said. “It’s about identifying the areas for economic development and the areas that need to be preserved.”
But Mr Seeney said the planning changes would not represent a green light for resource development and companies would still have to undertake thorough environmental assessments.
Mr Seeney said the statutory regional plan would also map where government infrastructure and social services should be placed.
Bauxite miner Cape Alumina has flagged its future intention to develop its Pisolite Hills bauxite deposit, which was stymied by the Wenlock River declaration in 2010.
Tim Seelig, of the Wilderness Society, predicted the proposed statutory planning regime would ramp up mining development on Cape York, at the expense of conservation.
“This is unquestionably a very bad direction for the government (to take) on the environment,” Dr Seelig said. “This is much bigger than just about Wild Rivers – although we know there are genuine wild rivers and we anticipate there being a big fight over (unwinding) wild rivers declarations.”
Some conservationists said they were concerned the decision would take Cape York planning out of Environment Minister Andrew Powell’s control and instead give it to the mining-focused Mr Seeney.
Services and infrastructure will also be mapped out in the plan. The government has started regional plans for the Darling Downs and central Queensland regions to designate areas of prime agricultural land.