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The Author Erik’s family emigrated from Britain to the island State of Tasmania then lived in the woods. The family home schooled, helping to pioneer the home education movement in Australia. The Blog …explores ways to create a sustainable and just community. Explores how that community can be best protected at all levels including social policy/economics/ military. The Book Erik’s autobiography is a humorous read about serious things. It concerns living in the bush, wilderness, home education, spirituality, and activism. Finding Home is available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble and all good e-book sellers.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Roads Through Wilderness – can there be such a thing as a ‘wilderness development’ policy?

Tarkine Wilderness with Button Grass
Like ‘fighting for peace’ wilderness development is often seen as an oxymoron. It is thought that as soon as you have development, by definition, you cease to have wilderness, or you have less of it. Tasmania is one of the few places where true wilderness exists.

Wilderness is a place where human beings are transitory; where there is little if any sign of the existence of people, where if the modern world ended you wouldn’t notice. There are no roads, no signs, and in the strictest sense, no permanent walking tracks.  It is an ecological benchmark for nature untrammelled by man and unaltered by the modern world. It’s not about scenery or about any human aspiration. It is nature for nature’s sake – solely and unapologetically.

Unsurprisingly there isn’t much of it left. Further, the baseline for what is considered ‘wilderness’ keeps diluting. I cringe when I watch BBC documentaries where people enthusiastically describe, for example, the Scottish highlands as ‘pristine wilderness’. That land has been logged, cleared, grazed, farmed, fought over, stolen, bled for and owned for a thousand years. In my native Britain, if you can’t hear traffic – its wilderness!

Most people can’t see the use of wilderness. That’s because it doesn’t have a “use”. It’s a bit like justifying the “use” of happiness, beauty, love, truth, spirituality, or anything really important. It may be useful but it doesn’t exist to be useful, it just is.

This brings us to a recent suggestion that we build a road bisecting the South West National Park/World Heritage area and charge people $300 a day to drive down it. After all, there’s a lot of space out there going to waste. The Groom Liberal government has already done the same thing through the Tarkine wilderness but there is no toll (and if there was it would still never pay for the cost of road construction).

It’s an obviously nutty idea it but does betray a desire for greater access to, and profit from, our wild lands.  There is a limit to how much people will sacrifice for nature without getting tangible returns. There is a long term risk of ‘roll back’ if the green movement remains puritanical. The answer I think is quite simple.

Think of wilderness as a series of concentric circles. The closer to the centre you are the less sign there is of human existence. On the periphery you have scenic drives, short interpretive walks, lodges, boat ramps, scenic railways, picnic facilities and camp grounds. You might even have hotel accommodation that blends reasonably well with its environment (not concrete and glass with big car parks and golf courses). Further in you have well constructed walking tracks, toilets, shacks, and elsewhere, four wheel drive trails. Deeper in you have nothing at all. You raft or walk through but you take everything with you, and you do so at your own risk.

In Tasmania there is significant scope for investment in infrastructure to support nature based experiences around our wilderness areas without trashing the centre. Unfortunately there has been a history of inappropriate development proposals by people who don’t ‘get’ wilderness and don’t understand Tasmania. On the other side you have an anti development lobby that is paranoid about incremental loss of wild lands to uncontrolled development and reactively oppose anything that they see as infringing. This is partly because of a history where conservatives vandalise wilderness then claim that because its values are degraded it is no longer worthy of protection.
It would be very helpful if government opened a meaningful dialogue with environmental NGOs about developing a formal wilderness development policy based on the above principles. This might include for example, guidelines about the types of buildings and construction materials that are appropriate on the edge of our wild lands.

There is simply no reason why for example we couldn’t have small scale chalet style accommodation at the southern edge of Lake St Claire where the old HEC pump house is, or re-build the hotel at the Springs on Mt Wellington, or have a Mt Wellington cable car, or have a small development at the end of the Donough’s Hill track overlooking the Franklin River on the way to Queenstown. These things are not going to destroy the wilderness but they will connect people with it. Those who are able and willing to walk for 21 days unassisted through the South West still can; and they will be more likely to have a job when they get home. If we can put wedge politics aside we can move forward on these issues, but we can only do so meaningfully if we truly appreciate what we have. What we have is amazing. I attach a handful of photographs for reference.
Tasmanian Wilderness - a gentler way to travel

Ecotourism in Old Growth Forest
Tarkine Wilderness Lodge - development's sensitive side

Open Cut Mining - development's insensitive side
A Longer View
Tag line: Wilderness development, Tarkine, ecotourism, wilderness management, world heritage area management, national parks, Tarking mining, Tasmanian rainforest

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Quest for the Holy Grail – 'ecosystem management' of supertrawlers, forestry, and marine parks

Up to now natural resource management has been about sustainable yield. In simple terms ‘sustainable yield’ means that you can harvest a given amount of resource (timber, fish, clean water, etc) from a given ecosystem/area forever. That has been the stated objective of our natural resource management agencies such as forestry and fisheries since the 1950’s. Last year all that changed.

After seven years of negotiation our federal fisheries authority granted, through their minister, a licence for a Dutch supertrawler (FV Abel Tasman aka Margiris) to harvest a given quantity of fish from Australian waters. The quota was based on best available knowledge and then heavily weighted to allow for uncertainty i.e. the catch was set well below what was considered sustainable. The Official view was that the supertrawler could fish for a hundred years and not deplete stocks.

However following a massive community campaign the Environment Minister rolled the Fisheries Minister in Cabinet, changed the Act, and withdrew the licence on the basis of “scientific uncertainty”. The Minister has since explained this action in terms of requiring complete ecosystem management rather than simply counting the fish. This changes the game completely. ‘Ecosystem management’ means ensuring that all parts of the ecosystem and their interactions remain intact, or at least robustly represented in secure reserves.

Ironically the same environment minister had no concern for such matters when allowing open cut mining in the Tarkine. Further, an examination of publicly available maps and management plans shows that the new marine reserves declared by the minister last year give some of the most fragile and important marine habitats (IUCN cat I and II) little protection from highly damaging activities such as demersal trawling. An overlay of marginal electorates provides a very clear explanation as to why.

On the other side of Bass Straight there is relatively little conflict about 'sustainable yield' when it comes to forestry on public land. There is however entrenched disagreement over whether forest management in theory and in practice compromises/damages/changes or otherwise harms various forest ecosystems. On a personal note I spoke recently with a river guide with decades of experience on the Picton river. The Picton flows through now heavily logged forest valleys that the conservation movement sought to preserve. He had a raft of complaints about logging impacts from permanent reduction in water flows that have ended his commercial rafting operations over summer, to loss of mosses on the river bank due to water turbidity.    

If we understood completely every organism in a system and all the interactions between them we could then conduct controlled experiments to determine the impact of harvesting. We could then with confidence manage ecosystems sustainably. That will never happen. Ecosystems are just too complex. At Elizabeth Middleton Reef for example there are 1000 identified species of fish. That’s just the fish. Then there is the coral, the sea plants, and all the stuff that crawls around in the mud. If you were to attempt to chart the interdependencies between these elements of the system you would soon run into the multiples of millions of links. The human mind cannot manage this complexity. Supercomputers can manage the data volume but that does not mean we have understanding.

Furthermore much of the world’s biodiversity is microscopic and the microscopic world is still poorly understood. The Craig Venter institute for example, has an ongoing program wherein they sail around the world taking regular water samples and analysing their contents. They have to date identified over 60 million new genes and hundreds of thousands of microbes previously unknown to science (see further http://www.jcvi.org/cms/research/projects/gos). To put that in context, microbes generate about half the oxygen in the air we breathe, drive every biochemical cycle that allows life to happen, and make up about half the world’s biomass but we know almost nothing about them.

OK not all ecosystems are as complex as Elizabeth Middleton reef, but they are complex. Fungi for example are key to decay and hence regeneration in temperate wet forest/rain forest in Australia but many are not even catalogued. A team of mycologists working a random 100m transect in the Tarkine discovered entirely new species and found many examples of very rare species. Can we really do ecosystem management with clearfell and burn?

To make the task even more impossible we don’t have baseline data for most of what we do in natural resource management. In other words we often don’t really have examples of undisturbed ecosystems to compare and we can’t know exactly how things might have changed in the last 100 years or so. There is now a whole science of palaeoecology that attempts to reconstruct what undamaged ecosystems were like. I would not be the first person to say that our failure to fund basic science is a policy of deliberate ignorance by stealth.

How then can we harvest resources without losing species? For many environments we can’t and this makes complete non-sense of the ‘wise use’ argument that market forces can somehow look after the planet and we don’t need preservation or wilderness. What we can do is preserve representative samples of viable ecosystems as a baseline for study and comparison, and then consider ways to extract resources from what’s left. If we really want to avoid extinction, and if we deal in science rather than perception, there will be profound implications for wilderness and natural resource management.  I will touch on some of these in the next blog.


Tag line: Margiris, Abel Tasman, Supertrawler, sustainable yield, Tarkine, West Report, Professor West, natural resource management, forest piece deal, forestry, marine reserves.