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Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy


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Areas of Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula

Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy
Abrahams, H., Mulvaney, M., Glasco, D., & Bugg, A.
Office of the Co-ordinator General of Queensland
Australian Heritage Commission, March 1995

Areas of Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula

Part A - Conservation Values Using Broad Scale Peninsula-wide Modelling to Identify Areas of Significance

Part A of this report addresses those extensive values that occupy a large area and are widespread across the Peninsula. These values have been assessed using GIS based data sets and incorporate a degree of modelling of the natural environment before applying a threshold of significance. The values considered are wilderness quality using the methods of the National Wilderness Inventory, rare and uncommon vegetation communities, areas of vegetation community richness, areas representative of mapped vegetation classes, areas of terrestrial fauna richness and significant wetlands.

The methodologies of GIS interrogation are provided as appendices to ensure the body of the report remains readable.


The AHC initiated the National Wilderness Inventory Project in 1986. The Inventory is designed to assess wilderness quality across Australia. It is a decision-making tool which supports purposes such as monitoring wilderness loss, delineating wilderness areas and predicting the effects of development on wilderness values. A major impetus behind establishing the Inventory was community concern over the rapid decline in the area and quality of relatively remote and natural land in Australia. Sub-criterion B1 for national estate significance specifically includes areas of significance as wilderness.

The Inventory considers wilderness to be part of a spectrum of remote and natural conditions varying in intensity from 'pristine' to urban. There are four indicators, which are used to estimate the quality of wilderness across the natural landscape. These four indicators are:

The assessment of wilderness quality does not in itself delineate 'wilderness areas' but rather enables comparison of the wilderness quality of any area on the Peninsula with other parts of Australia.

Throughout Australia, the landscape bears evidence of at least 40 000 years of occupation of this continent by Aboriginal people. There would be very few areas in Australia which do not contain some evidence of Aboriginal habitation.

The term wilderness does not mean land without human history. Rather wilderness quality in the National Wilderness Inventory is related to the absence of impacts of colonial and modern technological society. Aboriginal custodianship and customary practices have been, and in many places continue to be, significant factors in maintaining what non-Aboriginal people describe as wilderness.

As part of this project the previous wilderness quality data for Cape York Peninsula (Lesslie et al 1992) have been refined. Changes to the data sets incorporated in the current analysis have been restricted to the biophysical naturalness layer. The development of that layer and associated assumptions made are detailed in Appendix 2 and Figure 3.1 shows the layer as incorporated. The approach to coding each of the four indices, on a scale of 1 - 5, and the method for combining the four indices in the assessment of wilderness quality remains as broadly outlined in Lesslie et al (1992).

3.1 Areas of High Wilderness Quality

Adding the four unweighted indices as outlined in Lesslie et al (1992) produces a graded assessment of wilderness quality on a standard scale of 0 - 20. It is possible, however, with the remoteness indicators being calculated on a continuum (with a score from 0 to 11), for the maximum wilderness quality to exceed 20; this is the case for some areas on Cape York Peninsula. The plot attached (Figure 3.2 - Wilderness Quality Across Cape York Peninsula) illustrates that result in a regional context, and Figure 3.3 shows wilderness quality for Australia.

An additional two plots are included (Figures 3.4 & 3.5) that address the identification of high quality areas. Figure 3.4 shows all areas which have a wilderness quality of greater than 12 and fulfil the requirements below with respect to each of the four indicators. This figure provides an indication of areas of high wilderness quality and can be considered potential wilderness areas. If in addition these areas contain nodes of wilderness value of 14.1 or greater of a substantial size (similarly conditions outlined below must be satisfied) these areas can be considered areas of high wilderness value. Figure 3.5 shows the areas of 14.1 or above where those nodes are in excess of 2000 hectares. The use of wilderness quality scores of 12 and 14.1 is consistent with previous wilderness quality regional assessments in Victoria and the Wet Tropical Forests.

The requirements for potential and node high quality wilderness areas are as follows.

3.2 Discussion

In a national context Cape York Peninsula is a key wilderness area particularly for coastal, eastern Australian, heathland, rainforest, wetland and riparian ecosystems. Thackway and Cresswell (1994) identify 80 biogeographic regions for Australia. The Peninsula is one of 15 of these regions where the majority of the area is of high or very high wilderness quality.

A number of global assessments of wilderness or disturbance values have been undertaken. McCloskey and Spalding (1989) and Hannah et al (1994) both consider global wilderness or disturbance indices in the context of biogeographic realms. Direct comparisons are therefore not possible, though there are large wilderness areas of tropical rainforest and savanna outside of Australia. Nevertheless, as noted by Udvardy (1975), any wilderness area that is significant within a biogeographic realm (such as Cape York Peninsula which is within the Australian realm) is of international significance as a wilderness area (i.e. the distinctiveness of each biogeographic realm is an important component of international significance).

Cape York Peninsula to be placed in a national context. Figure 3.3 shows the results to date of the NWI. It is clear that Cape York Peninsula is one of the key regions for wilderness areas in Australia. It contains the largest area of high quality wilderness in Eastern Australia (Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania) and the only large areas of high wilderness quality on the east Australian coastline.

Large areas of high wilderness quality are more common across northern and arid Australia, but none of these areas contain the diversity, in such large areas, of major vegetation structural types that are found on Cape York Peninsula. The Peninsula is unique, at least in Australia, in containing continuous areas of high and very high wilderness quality that encapsulates large areas of rainforest, open woodland, woodland, tall open forest, closed forest, heaths, (both dune field and plateau), riparian vegetation, coastal wetlands and freshwater wetlands (NWI 1994 and AUSLIG 1990).

The large areas of high quality wilderness quality found on the Peninsula, are also of importance in a national context for the maintenance of ecosystem processes. The large wetland systems on the mid-west coast for example allow for seasonal and local movement of large water bird populations when resources in a particular area become scarce or as drying out of seasonal wetlands progresses generally from the south to the north up the Peninsula (Taplin 1993 & Taplin pers comm).

Coastal landscapes of high wilderness quality are of particular value and interest. Within the Australian context comparatively few coastal areas are of high wilderness quality This is especially the case in the context of the eastern states where substantial areas of high wilderness quality are restricted to those on Cape York Peninsula.

River catchments in near natural condition are now rare in Australia, but these are relatively common on Cape York Peninsula where there are several river systems that are or are virtually entirely within areas of high or very high wilderness quality. These systems include the Jardine, Jackson, Olive and Holroyd systems. Such large systems of high wilderness quality are rare in Australia.

Related to the large extent of high quality wilderness that occurs on Cape York Peninsula is the fact that no plant extinctions are documented to have occurred there (Neldner & Clarkson 1994). Thirty-seven of the eighty phytogeographical regions of Briggs and Leigh (1988) are thought not to have experienced plant extinctions. In the instances where no plant extictions have occurred in a phytogeographical region, most have experienced extinctions of vertebrate species. The distribution of some vertebrate species on Cape York Peninsula has retracted, but no extinctions are known to have occurred. This is unlikely to be related just to available information as many earlier European settlers and explorers collected extensively in the region.

Another feature of the high wilderness quality of much of Cape York Peninsula is that the region provides a stronghold of several bird species that were originally widely but sparsely dispersed across Australia. These species have also had recent retractions in their ranges due to human disturbance of their habitat. The species include the Pied Oyster Catcher (Haematopus longirostris), Sooty Oyster Catcher (Haematopus fuliginosus), Black Necked Stork (Xenorhynchus asiaticus), and possibly the Red Goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiatus) (Watkins 1993, Driscoll 1994, D Baker-Gabb [RAOU] pers comm).