Wilderness has been a bigger community issue in Tasmania than in any other Australian state, so a history of the fight to preserve it has a lot of ground to cover. Buckman organises it chronologically within four strands – hydro-electric power, forestry, mining and national parks – and traces them from the 1850s to the beginning of this year.

‘The Hydro’ created the biggest issues: Lake Pedder and the Franklin River made national headlines and political history from the 1960s to the 1980s. The conservationists’ focus then shifted to forestry, confronting the rise of woodchipping and the (stalled, as of October 2008) Tamar Valley pulp mill.

The environmental damage caused by mining has been significant but generally localised, such as that around Queenstown, and the protests against it were therefore separate battles. Finally, Buckman examines the evolution of the now-extensive National Parks system and the balance between conservation values and tourist access in them.

A recurrent motif is the closeness of the relationships between big business, whether hydro-electricity, forestry or mining, and government, whether Labor or Liberal. Cronyism may be inevitable in a state as small as Tasmania, but its results have not been pretty. Buckman does not pretend to see Tasmanian history from the resource development viewpoint but does show that neither the HEC nor the forestry industry policies made any long-term economic sense, that they took no account whatever of any values other than the narrowly economic and that they (more or less accidentally) had negative consequences on every other front.

A more rational view would have been to assess each project in terms of the triple bottom line, maximising the social and environmental, as well as the economic, benefits. Only now, with the rise of a large and politically organised environmentalist constituency to counterbalance big industry, is that beginning to even look posssible in Tasmania.

The scope of Buckman’s study means he has little space for personalities so his book can seem rather dry, but it is valuable for the perspective it provides. As he says, many people have been involved over the decades but each tends to see their own campaign as an isolated event rather than a part of a broader public process. For a broader focus still, interested readers could seek out the histories of Australian environmental movements by Hutton & Connors (1999) and Doyle (2000).

Jacana, June 2008, $29.95

Review originally published Aug 2008
Page created Oct 2008