In the winter of 2008, forestry workers doing some airborne mapping of an area near Hobart stumbled across something rather extraordinary – the tallest flowering tree on Earth.
The mountain ash tree measured a touch over 100 metres and was immediately dubbed Centurion, the title of a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers. Easily the tallest tree in Australia, Centurion towers above any hardwood tree in the world and is surpassed only by the giant softwood sequoia trees of California.
But Centurion isn’t gawped at by hordes of tourists each year, or even signposted. Most people in Australia, let alone the world, are unaware this natural Goliath exists. It is emblematic, perhaps, of Tasmania’s long, agonised debate, which resurfaced again last week, over how “wild” its wild places should remain.
The Tasmanian government has released a new draft plan on the management of its world heritage-listed wilderness area, a vast expanse of forests, lakes, rivers and mountains that sprawls across a quarter of the state, from its remote south-west to popular tourist sites such as Cradle Mountain and beyond. The plan aims to put the wilderness area on the map for the world to see.
In places, this wilderness is a primeval, isolated wonder unmatched anywhere in the world. Its temperate rainforests emerged 60m years ago, its caves and escarpments hosting human life stretching back 35,000 years.
To environmentalists, the government’s plan is an abomination – the greatest threat to the world heritage area since the 1.58m hectare region was inscribed on the world heritage list in 1982. It opens the door, they say, to ruinous development, scores of aircraft and jet skis buzzing on lakes. What’s more, it takes a hatchet to the very concept of wilderness, replacing it with an open slather for big business and, worst of all, logging.
Those who support the plan point to Tasmania’s high unemployment rate (at around 7%, much higher than the national average) and sluggish economic growth and argue something has to change. The wilderness can’t remain an untouched relic, claim some, including the prime minister, who feel too much of Tasmania is “locked up” and therefore virtually moribund.
The government has played down fears that the name “wilderness” will disappear, although it will pursue a dual naming concept in respect to its Aboriginal heritage. But, conservation groups argue, the plan would mean the world heritage area is wilderness in name only.
Boating berths will be allowed on Lake Gordon, Macquarie harbour and Port Davey, as well as landing sites for planes and helicopters on Cradle Mountain and the Walls of Jerusalem. Select logging for “specialty timbers” will be allowed everywhere apart from visitor areas.
“Sensitive” tourism developments will be allowed, but what that definition actually constitutes can differ wildly depending on who you speak to in Tasmania. Following the tearing up of the Tasmanian forestry peace deal, a new, bitterly contested front is opening up between those who want wilderness to remain untouched and those who feel Tasmania could do more with its prized natural asset.
Simon Currant is someone who has run the gauntlet of opposition to development in the world heritage area. After 20 years of trying, Currant finally opened Pumphouse Point, a former hydro plant that stretches out onto Lake St Clair, the deepest freshwater lake in Australia, as a high-end hotel in January.
Currant is among a number of developers, including entrepreneur Dick Smith, who feel that the wilderness has been largely cut off from visitors who are unwilling to rough it in tents. There are people willing to pay for soft furnishings and Pinot by a roaring fire, rather than shivering in wooden huts on the six-day overland track, according to Currant.
“The whole process has been time consuming and expensive but I’d do it again because we can’t condemn everyone to carrying their own accommodation on their backs,” he says. “There is enough of the wilderness for everyone, we aren’t going to spoil it for those who want to rough it. To say we can’t provide anything other than a tent is a selfish and elitist way of looking at it.
“For God’s sake let’s get into 2015. The world has moved on. These greens say people can trample wherever they like, most of whom don’t take their rubbish away with them. And yet we can’t have a small development and bring people in by seaplane?
“It’s just as invasive to have bright red and green tents willy nilly all over the place as it is to have a 20-room lodge in the world heritage area. Here, we manage people, we take their rubbish and poo away. The impact is minimal. We can’t be dictated to by these extreme elements, these anti-everything people.”
Nick McKim, a former guide in the wilderness area turned Greens MP, rejects the idea the area is inaccessible to those more into their cheese than their canvas. “That’s bullshit, an absolute nonsense,” he says, pointing out that 200 businesses already operate in Tasmania’s reserve system.
Pumphouse Point is OK, McKim says, although he wishes it was “outside the world heritage area.” Much like Currant and the government, McKim backs “sensible” development, but he feels the term is used and abused by the Greens’ political opponents.
“We absolutely would support low impact opportunities but not resorts and large scale infrastructure,” McKim says. “Both Liberal and Labor parties thought the Gunns pulp mill was a sustainable development. We have no confidence in the Liberal party to be the umpire in this.”
For McKim and other greens (capital ‘G’ or otherwise), the plan assaults something almost intangible, the sense of restful peace and refuge of the wilderness area.
“I used to work as a guide and my clients would complain bitterly when plane flew overhead because they wanted a wilderness experience,” he says. “That kind of thing doesn’t go down well with people who pay to come to the wilderness.
“Wilderness is inscribed as part of the world heritage values. And yet the Liberal government wants to remove the values of wilderness from the management of the area. That’s the heart of the issue. This plan will disturb the natural environment and we will make sure the world heritage committee understands the threats posed by this plan.”
Bob Brown, the former Greens leader, has gone further, calling Currant and other developers “me-now profiteers” whose actions should see the area renamed the “Tasmanian once-was wilderness world heritage area.”
It may be hard to envision Currant’s classily-restored pumphouse as a mortal threat to the world heritage area, but there is a concern that future projects may end up benefitting developers more than the wider community, essentially privatising a glorious public space.
According to Tourism Tasmania, visitor numbers to Tasmania’s natural areas hit 1.06m last year, up from 815,000 in 2007. But there are spots where numbers are dropping – Cradle Mountain is down 11,000 visitors in the same period, while Lake St Clair is down by 40,000.
Greg Duncan has spent the past decade carving central Tasmania’s history into a giant wooden sculpture, situated in the small town of Derwent Bridge, which itself is enveloped by the world heritage area. Duncan, who spends eight hours a day, seven days a week carving into Huon pines that topple and are rescued from the river, would like to see new infrastructure benefit towns that are currently struggling.
“There are communities that are suffering that could do with the development,” he says. “We have thousands of people who pass through Derwent Bridge but we don’t have a public toilet – they put it in the national park instead.
“I think we need sensible development. There are already a maze of roads from previous logging that could be used without the need to break through virgin bush. The damage is done by roads. Buildings can be pulled down in time but roads can scar for centuries.”
While all parties jostle to embrace the mantle of “sensible” development, we still don’t know what is actually being proposed. Matthew Groom, Tasmania’s environment minister, told Guardian Australia there are 37 “expressions of interest” for wilderness developments under consideration, ranging from walking experiences to accommodation. Details on the scope of these endeavours have yet to be released.
Groom is at pains to point out that the government is committed to the preservation of the wilderness area, a sentiment echoed by Greg Hunt, his federal counterpart, who will have to sign off on the plan.
“We are open to sensible and appropriate infrastructure to support tourism experiences,” Groom says. “I don’t want to be prescriptive about those but I want us to be open to ideas. I also want people to clear of the overarching commitment to protect the special and precious values of the wilderness area, values that Tasmanians can continue to be proud of.”
Groom says the draft plan is not the “dramatic shift” the Greens have made it out to be, pointing out that selective logging in the area was already allowed under the (albeit torn up) forest peace deal.
“We have an obligation to be open to opportunities to share these areas with the world – that’s entirely consistent with the principles of world heritage,” Groom says. “This is a very large area, one of the most protected places on the face of the planet and under no circumstances will wild places be put at risk.
“But there are some people in this debate who say we should do absolutely nothing in the world heritage area, that we should leave buildings like the pumphouse to decay. I don’t agree with that and I think the vast bulk of Tasmanians wouldn’t agree with that either.”
Defining wilderness can be tricky – monetising it without destroying those fragile values even more so. Ultimately, the government’s own imagining of wilderness will prove decisive and those who savour Tasmania’s grand landscapes, those who feel the gears of the heart change as they paddle on the Franklin river or survey the giant trees of the Styx, will hope it somehow matches their own.
“Trust me, if they were to log this whole place I’d be one of the first to lie down in front of the bulldozers,” says Currant. “But that’s not being proposed. And things change. Bob Brown once said people just want to wind their car window down to see the wilderness. But that’s not true, it’s not a wind your window down kind of place anymore. The wilderness isn’t a museum full of artifacts, people want to live it.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010