A DECISION on whether several mines will open in Tasmania's Tarkine wilderness will be made without the federal government considering expert advice that it deserves national, and possibly world, heritage protection.
Past and present government heritage advisers believe the 447,000-hectare Tarkine - home to the world's second-largest temperate rainforest, and to wild rivers, buttongrass moorland, unique cave formations and Aboriginal middens - has important cultural and natural values that should be taken into account in assessing mining plans.
A report by a former Australian heritage commissioner, Peter Hitchcock, published on a government website last month, found there was a high probability the area would meet the criteria for world heritage listing.
But a formal recommendation the Tarkine become the 116th site on the National Heritage List has been delayed and is not expected before September - too late to be factored in when assessing plans for three iron ore mines and a large tin and tungsten operation. Two of the applications were lodged late last year and another two, by Perth-based Venture Minerals, earlier this month.
The chairwoman of the Australian Heritage Council, Carmen Lawrence, a former Western Australia premier and ALP national president, said assessment of the most recent mining proposals should be put on hold until the council gave its recommendation. "It would be ill-advised for the minister to make a decision before the heritage process is completed," Professor Lawrence said. "It has already had emergency heritage listing once before, and the assessment that was undertaken by the council at that time clearly indicated the existence of values that met national heritage listing criteria. The reason it has been delayed is basically because we wanted to do a comprehensive assessment."
Mr Hitchcock's analysis singled out mining as a significant threat to the environment and the ''outstanding heritage values'' of the Tarkine.
Heritage protection is strongly opposed by the mining industry and the Tasmanian government, which says mining is key to the state's struggling economy..
There are 10 proposals for mines across the Tarkine, and more than 50 exploration licences. A heritage listing does not lock up a site from development, but it raises the bar for a project to be approved.
Environment Minister Tony Burke, who visited the Tarkine this week, said the focus on heritage listing by lobby groups such as the National Tarkine Coalition often overstated the level of protection it provided by assuming it would automatically block development. He said the heritage process should be allowed to run its course, and that mining applications would be assessed under environmental law.
The Australian National University environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh said it would be pointless if heritage recognition came after mining turned the Tarkine into an ''industrial site''.