WIDESPREAD concern from pastoralists about the impact of the proposed national heritage listing of the west Kimberley surfaced last week at the annual Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) conference in Perth.
Though the PGA had earlier hoped federal or state environment ministers would attend the conference, it was left to public servant James Shevlin, head of the heritage division of the Federal Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts department and Australian Heritage Council member, Libby Mattiske, to try to allay pastoralists' concerns about what the controversial listing would mean.
More than 70 pastoral leases could be affected.
In February 2008 the State and Federal Governments agreed the west Kimberley region should be considered for national heritage listing and in July 2008 the Australian Heritage Council began a process of assessing the outstanding and unique natural, indigenous and historic heritage values of the area.
The council's preliminary assessment, released last month, found almost 20 million hectares of the west Kimberley potentially had "high threshold values" that would qualify it for National Heritage listing.
A consultation period is underway with affected owners, occupiers and indigenous people, with written submissions closing at the end of May, with the council required to complete their final report by end of June.
Mr Shevlin said national heritage listing would not affect ownership, native title or management of lands and any lawful land use that was existing before listing could still occur afterwards.
"The listing will have no impact on anyone doing anything in the region unless there is a significant change or potential impact on some of the special values of that area," Mr Shevlin said.
"Listing is about recognition of the special values of an area and it is as much about the story as it is about the places.
"It is not about having a fence around large areas so nothing can happen there."
"Our job is to work with the owners or managers to identify how we can best work together to protect whatever values we have identified in the area."
Mr Shevlin acknowledged there had been a lack of consultation in the past with landowners affected by national heritage listings.
Warroora station is adjacent to the Ningaloo Reef coastline and lessee Leonie McDiven said in theory, national heritage listing sounded fine but from her experience in the last 20 years with Ningaloo Coast, nominated earlier this year for world heritage listing, the consultation had been "extremely limited" with those on the ground getting little say.
Now nearly six months into the 18-month period required before world heritage listing, she was still not sure whether a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) delegation was coming to look at the area for assessment purposes and had not been provided with details of the "pure science" behind its listing.
Several pastoralists at the conference said the promises of increased tourism and better employment opportunities made before the controversial world heritage listing of Shark Bay in 1991 had failed to materialise.
Former pastoralist Ross Wood, Kalgoorlie, said as soon as any line was drawn around an area, there were commercial realities involved.
"Until politicians in Australia understand that the moment you draw a line around any place, there is an impact from that point on, with a risk of compensation attached to it and due processes of law that should be adhered to," Mr Wood said.