This past weekend, a group of concerned Tasmanians gathered in Launceston, under the unlikely and unpretty acronym of “Fawaha”: Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access. Specifically, they were appealing against the construction of a private tourism operation on Halls Island in Lake Malbena, a remote and rarely-visited spot in the eastern part of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
The self-styled author and fisherman Greg French gave a short speech, which highlighted the concerns of many interested Tasmanians. They range from issues of ecology to issues of governance, including a lack of transparency, the thwarting of usual National Parks processes, and a general arrogance on behalf of the tourism operators and the government departments involved.
Lake Malbena, the latest of countless contested places in Tasmania, is within the boundaries of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a large patch of country accepted by world experts as having value for all of humanity. That includes the many who will never get to visit it. Tourists and other visitors may see it, but the implication of such listings, I believe, is that we can only encounter these places on their own terms. To try and alter this wilderness, it would seem, undermines the reasons why it is considered valuable. It is not inscribed on the list because it is financially useful. It is a World Heritage site because of its precariousness, because we need it as it is in order to maintain the diversity of our existence.
Wilderness is a wriggly word, and I understand why the Lake Malbena project may have some supporters in the Aboriginal community and also among the former graziers and old-timers of the high country. These parties have good arguments as to how the word ‘wilderness’ deprives them of their heritage. My opinion, however, is that the Lake Malbena project does precisely nothing to encourage our understanding of the human history of this special country.
Part of the issue that faces us is around the idea of accessibility. Proponents will argue that these wilderness areas are without value if they are only available to the small percentage of the population who are able to walk in self-reliant manner to remote places.
The frequent argument for operating tourism businesses in the World Heritage Area (and I actually work in one) is that by increasing the ease of access for visitors, we are promoting them for protection. At the best of times, this argument doesn’t entirely convince me – I have taken hundreds of visitors for bushwalks on the Overland Track, and my summation is that the conditions of buying a bushwalk usually preclude a real encounter with the kinds of things that make many of us desperate to keep Tassie landscapes in reserve. In the case of Lake Malbena, the argument cannot be made at all. That a handful of parties will be allowed to chopper into Halls Island, while the rest of us are banned, achieves precisely the opposite.
The other side of that argument is that by expanding business operations in the World Heritage Area, we are decreasing a version of land use that is special to Tasmania. “Perhaps the most important thing about the preservation of wilderness is that it provides inspiration and solace,” Greg French said on Sunday. We risk diminishing the possibilities of solitude, and eroding the amount of non-commercial land we have. Such things are endangered in the world. There are so few hectares like this on the surface of our world. We are lucky to have a decent amount of it here, but few us recognise it as a defining characteristic of Tasmania. I think it is.
Places like the Walls of Jerusalem are special because they are – for the moderately fit, well-prepared, and willing – actually quite easily accessible. A few hours by road, and a few hours on foot, and you have access to a huge area of landscape that has been recognised for its uniqueness and beauty. Without having to ascend high mountain peaks or use technical skill and equipment, you are in a rare place. Commercialising these spaces sabotages that potential.
You have been told that Tasmania has, or is, a ‘brand’; I contest that we have a way of life, and I resent that our culture has been distilled into something saleable, by marketeers and politicians who care nothing for it. So much of what has made modern Tasmanian life is related to the vast spaces of rarely-visited, uncompromised land. These spaces are a presence behind our every action. For the colonists, and for the contemporary greedy of Tasmania, they represent the very worst of the world; but for those who have chosen to stay here or move here over the course of a couple hundred years, the choice has been made with some relationship to the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape. We have breathing space here. We have slowness. We have solitude, or at least the option to pursue it.
As a young man I would have left Tasmania had I not discovered these landscapes. Fortunately for me, I discovered a culture and identity in the bush. I found something that Greg French echoed on Sunday: “Wilderness is transcendental. Uplifting. There’s not much of it left. Anywhere in the world.” I realised that Tasmania is extraordinary. However, we may lose much of it if we let our landscapes go into the hands of those who wish we weren’t so special, who prefer a version of Tasmania that is entirely commercialised and therefore (I would argue) globalised and generalised.
It is typical that this has been achieved by abusing the process we have laboriously put together over the years, the blueprint as to how we look after these spaces, which are, after all, on Unesco’s register of the world’s special places. Pathetically, there has been no tenable response from any of the proponents, including government, about the fact that they secretively changed the official management plan so that this project could fit with it. (This information was leaked.) The proponents – developers, tourism and government representatives – will wave their hands all around, trying to distract the public with caricatures of the conservationists involved, but they don’t have the guts to admit that they’ve steamrolled a legitimately-developed management plan to suit their own greedy whims.
This is a pattern in Tasmanian industry, of course: forestry and hydro-electricity are not bad industries, but we gave their representatives such power that they became unbearable. I wrote an article for Crikey three years ago suggesting that tourism could easily become the same sort of monster. I believe we have reached that point in Tasmania, and I am both pissed off and distraught about it. Thankfully, this lot, for their latest attempt to do whatever the hell they want with our National Parks, is being taken to court.