The wet tropics region of Queensland extends from just north of Cooktown to Bambaroo, south of Ingham, a distance of nearly 400 km. Beyond Ingham there is a break until the wet-tropics Paluma Range, which reaches south to Townsville's latitude. The region is relatively narrow, usually not extending more than 40 km inland. At a point north of Cairns it reaches only 15 km inland; its widest extent (60km) is south of the Atherton Tableland.

The region occupies 1.8 million hectares. About half of it is a World Heritage Area (1988), two-thirds of which is rainforest. The balance is eucalypt-dominated tall open forest.

Within the World Heritage Area there are numerous national parks, including the Daintree north of Mossman, Bellenden Ker, south of Cairns, Lumholtz, west of Cardwell, Hinchinbrook Island and Paluma Range. Numerous rivers run off the wet tropics ranges: two inland; ten eastwards, including the Barron (Cairns), Mulgrave (south of Cairns), Johnstone (Innisfail), Tully and Herbert (Ingham). The Burdekin, which mostly flows through the dry tropics (separate entry), has headwaters west of the Lumholtz National Park.

The wet tropics region has spectacular biodiversity. It is the sole habitat of over 400 plant species and over 70 animals which are rare or endangered. It is home to relic vegetation, including ferns, cycads and ancient conifers. Its rivers pass over basaltic escarpments, causing massive waterfalls during the annual high rainfall period, usually November to April. The mean annual rainfall is between 1.2 and over 4 metres; the area of greatest concentration is around Innisfail where moisture is trapped by the Bellenden Ker Range.

Whilst half the region is World Heritage Area, the rest is alienated or under occupation. The history of European settlement has generally followed the pattern of mining, timber harvesting, agriculture, horticulture and dairying, in that order. Mining is discussed in entries on the Palmer River, Herberton Minerals Area and the various shires listed under further reading at the end of this entry. Timber harvesting was mixed with closer-settlement farming, it being a condition of land clearing. Furniture-grade timber was burnt, left to rot or put to low-grade uses because of inadequate southern transport. Agriculture, mainly by Chinese market gardeners, preceded closer-settlement because of the need to feed mining and port town communities. There were alluvial flats along several rivers where they entered coastal plains.

Just as timber could not be properly marketed because of poor transport, horticulture was held back by the same weakness. A lack of shipping during World War I and the slowness to get railways to the Atherton Tableland and connected to Brisbane killed off horticulture. After 1910 the State government promoted land alienation for farming, particularly on the Tableland. The river valleys were fertile sites for the sugar industry, particularly the parts of the Mulgrave and Russell Rivers where they flow from Gordonvale and Mirriwini respectively.

Improved transport in the 1920s made Tableland forestry a paying proposition. Government forestry management was critical of the plunder and demolition of wet tropics forests, preferring conservation over uneconomic scrub clearing for marginal dairying. Alienation for farming continued in the 1930s and 1950s, but remote forests were reserved for timber. Queensland sawmillers pressed for high harvesting quotas, and generally succeeded. They had more powerful postwar machinery, and by the 1970s the machinery's touch on the land had changed from light to heavy. A Rainforest Conservation Society (1982) cast a concerned eye over the damaged surface, and in 1983 sprang into action when Port Douglas Shire started building a road through the eastern part of the Daintree National Park from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield. A campaign blockade ran for four years. Affiliation of the campaign with the federal Labor Party led to declaration of the wet tropics as a World Heritage Area in 1988. The area was put under the supervision of the Wet Tropics Management Authority in 1993.

Since the cessation of logging and the listing of the wet tropics as a heritage area, tourism and recreation have become the economic focus. The Tableland has three of the five most visited sites (Lakes Barrine and Eacham and the curtain fig near Yungaburra). Mossman Gorge in the western Daintree National Park also has high visitation. Hospitality and accommodation have prospered in the coastal cities which can offer beach and mountain holidays.

There has been quite a complicated pattern of local government in the wet tropics. Several local government boundaries run along forested ridge lines, meaning that some coastal and inland shires have coastal or inland plains and shared mountain ranges. From north to south the local-government bodies have been:

Postwar Post-2008
Cook Cook
Hope Vale Hope Vale
Wujal Wujal Wujal Wujal
Douglas Cairns
Yarrabah Yarrabah
Mareeba Tablelands
Johnstone Cassowary Coast
Hinchinbrook Hinchinbrook
Townsville1 Townsville
Dalrymple2 Charters Towers

1Dry tropics location.
2Shared common boundary in Paluma Range.

Rod Ritchie, North Queensland wet tropics: a guide for travellers, Millers Point, NSW, Rainforest Publishing, 1995

Geoff McDonald and Marcus Lane, eds, Securing the wet tropics?, Leichhardt, NSW, Federation Press, 2000

S.E. Stephens, ‘Horticultural districts of Queensland: the wet tropics’, Queensland Agricultural Journal, October 1952, p 207



Copyright © Centre for the Government of Queensland, 2018. All rights reserved.

UQ Logo