World heritage goal for a wilderness wonderland

IT IS one of the world's largest remaining areas of pristine wilderness - refuge to endangered species and home to unspoilt rainforest, savannah and wetlands larger than Kakadu.

For decades, it has been regarded as worthy of international protection, not only for its environment, but for its cultural heritage.

After several stalled attempts, the federal government hopes to have a world heritage nomination for Cape York ready by February.

But it is an ambitious goal, not least because the government has given the ultimate say on whether it submits a nomination ahead of the UNESCO deadline in February to the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land.

It comes as Cape York's indigenous leaders are increasingly focused on developing economic opportunities for their people.

Visiting Cape York this week, Environment Minister Tony Burke said it was too soon to say whether an application would be ready in time.

''I am quite proud of the fact we don't know what the map will be - we don't know whether there will be something ready to go forward in February,'' he said. ''We have handed that authority completely to traditional owners, with the promise that if they come back with something that is eligible we'll sign off on it.''

Mr Burke said any nomination would need to tell the ''whole story'' of Cape York's natural and cultural values, and include examples of its wetlands, savannah, rainforest and cave paintings.

Behind the scenes, the indigenous-owned Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation is working on a consent process with some traditional owners. Corporation head Gerhardt Pearson has long maintained Balkanu would support only a limited nomination that covered some existing protected areas and potentially Shelburne Bay, once earmarked for mining.

''Securing this limited region for world heritage will add huge value, but it will also act to ensure other areas of Cape York that could be set aside for other land uses, pastoral and so on, is unhindered,'' he said.

Wik Waya woman Gina Castelain wants the Aurukun wetlands on the Cape's west coast included but other land earmarked for a bauxite mine expansion excluded, so the Wik people can benefit from the profits.

But not all communities want to engage with the Balkanu talks. Several traditional owners, including the southern Laura community, whose land contains significant rock art, have been working for more then a year on separate consent decisions for their land.

Others say the February deadline is not feasible. Aurukun shire mayor Derek Walpo said the government was rushing the nomination through, and the council wanted time to carry out its own consent process.

Wik man and director of APN Cape York, Bruce Martin, said independent information about what world heritage meant for pastoral, land management and carbon farming projects was critical. He doubted local families had enough information to make consent decisions by February.

And scientists and conservationists warn that a limited nomination will fail the UNESCO conditions for heritage listing. Gavin McFadzean, of the Wilderness Society, said the nomination needed to capture the scale and extent of Cape York's world-class environment. That included allowing any traditional owners wanting to sign on to the nomination to do so, whether they were in the Balkanu contract area or not.

James Cook University Associate Professor Peter Valentine says a nomination that ''cherry-picked'' a few national parks would fail.

This story World heritage goal for a wilderness wonderland first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.