Will Road-Paving Spoil Australia's Rain Forest?

TO get to the Daintree rain forest, you drive north from the metropolis of Cairns, pass through miles of sugar-cane fields, take a ferry across a river, and then bounce along a rutted one-lane road.

The Cape Tribulation Road is a jarring trip at times, but disturbingly short: A mere two hours separates steamy city and the only tropical rain forest in a developed country. And the trip is about to become easier.

The Daintree, a narrow 30-mile coastal sliver between two rivers, is a popular site for tourists who want to visit both the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical rain forest on the same trip. It's a beautiful area, with essentially the same unspoiled beaches and dense jungles of ancient plant species that Captain Cook saw in 1770.

The Daintree is a small portion of the 5,400-square-mile lowland coastal rain forest that since 1988 has been protected by listing as one of 100 United Nations World Heritage sites. As signatory to the World Heritage Convention, Australia has agreed to protect, conserve, and rehabilitate the area for future generations.

But many people are concerned about the effects of encroaching civilization on its pristine status. Sitting in the middle of the protected rain-forest area is a 1,080-acre subdivision. The impact of development on the protected area has people worried.

Landowners, environmentalists, developers, tourist organizations, and regulatory bodies are trying to negotiate their competing interests.

Most of the 1,100 subdivision lots have not been built on, because owners are waiting for electric power connections. Only about 600 people live in the Daintree. Tourist flow is still light, because the one resort hotel and a handful of motels and backpacker hostels built on the subdivided land are powered by generators and provide only a small number of accommodations.

The sealing (paving) of the Cape Tribulation Road is also a concern. The state of Queensland's $6.8 million sealing project for the 21-mile road began five months ago. The sealed road will open up traffic to any car, not just four-wheel-drive vehicles. The road should be finished in 18 months to two years.

Peter MacPherson, who with his wife, Pat, runs the Daintree Heritage Lodge, one of the tourist accommodations built on the subdivided land, says he's of two minds about sealing the road.

"From a business point of view, the road will bring more business," he says. "But will it, at the same time, wreck that which people are coming to see?"

The area was virtually uninhabited until a developer and member of the local Douglas Shire (county) Council, George Quaid, applied for a subdivision permit in the early 1980s. The council denied his application, but the pro-business Queensland state government overrode the objections.

Some people who bought the land, ironically, were drawn to it in 1983 by publicity generated by environmental activists who, protesting the building of the Bloomfield Track road that went straight through the rain forest, chained themselves to trees and buried themselves in sand in front of bulldozers. Seeing pictures on television of this unspoiled wilderness, would-be landowners were beckoned by realtors to "get your piece of the Daintree."

After they bought their land, however, purchasers found themselves in the thick of controversy, and the electricity that had been promised to them by real-estate agents is still not available 10 years later.

Electricity is being held up by the Douglas Shire Council and the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), a regulatory body set up by federal and Queensland governments to manage the area.

Bill Hinton, as an agent of Mr. Quaid, was one of those who promised electricity. Today, he and his wife live and work on their piece of the rain forest. They run the Floravilla Art Gallery in the Daintree. Mr. Hinton loves the unique botanical features of the rain forest: He and his wife are producing a book about the ancient flowering plants in the forest.

But Hinton wants to build a house and garden on his land. "People have got this strange idea that the whole of the rain forest is controlled by landowners," he says. "The freehold land represents less than one-half of a percent of the adjoining national park and listed area. So the Daintree can't be ruined."

Hinton wants to see electricity brought in and the subdivision run like a small town. But the thought of a large-scale rural residential settlement next to the rain forest worries others. Development brings problems of increased traffic, generator noise, sewage, and garbage disposal, they say.

The risk is "the impact of just being there," says Andrew McKenzie, spokesman for the WTMA.

While environmentalists say the real reason not to develop is the Daintree's botanical uniqueness, they argue the case in terms of economics.

Andrew Small, an ecologist who manages the Daintree Rainforest Environmental Centre, says, "A lot of people from the United States and Europe come here because it's been advertised as unspoiled. A survey showed that in 1991-92, 230,000 [visitors] came to the Daintree. In 1980-81, less than 20,000 came.

"[Tourism] is worth $76 million a year now. Estimates are that 400,000 people a year will be visiting by the year 2000 and bringing in $200 million a year. Just by the forest standing here," Mr. Small says.

Some would like to see the subdivision land repurchased from the owners. "Nobody would mind that, if they paid market prices," Hinton says. "We mustn't cheat the people."

The WTMA is buying up small parcels of land that owners want to sell, but its funding is slim. The state government is doing the same thing, as is a private foundation, the Daintree Rainforest Foundation.

Environmentalists say Quaid's development would never go through today, because the Douglas Shire Council and the Queensland government are now much more environmentally oriented.

Mike Berwick used to be the spokesman for the protesters opposing the building of the road. Then he was against the Douglas Shire Council, which built the road. Today, he's the head of it. Keeping everybody happy is tough, he says.

"[The area] should be national park, but it's not," he says. "We're having to make sacrifices, like putting power in. If you end up with a hostile population it won't work. We have to work with landowners to make it work."

The council is developing a seven-year central plan that will allow no further subdivision and no further tourist accommodations to be built. Environmentalists would like to see the council go further and issue tree protection or vegetation protection orders to landowners.

"We've taken a different view," Mr. Berwick says. "We're taking an educational, cooperative approach. We're about to start a vegetation audit, writing to all landowners, asking if we can come on their land. We'll map all that we find on computers and tell owners what they've got. We're hoping that will raise awareness."

The council is also doing a survey of landowners' plans for their property. "In reality you have people who have the right to build a house under the law," Berwick says. "We don't know what their aspirations are. Do they want to keep [their land], sell it, leave it undisturbed, build on it? The responses are starting to come in. But until you know that, it's hard to plan if you want to plan cooperatively."

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