Environmental History


AS Murray, 'Huon Belle', 1900 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Differing attitudes to land use, largely a product of individual experience, contemporary ideology and political-economic conditions, have been central to Tasmanian environmental history. At times, issues such as pollution, land reservation and protection of native fauna and flora have transcended the local to assume a national, and on occasions, international significance.

Despite views to the contrary, government conservation proclamations date from the colony's foundation. Initially, measures were pragmatic: protection of Hobart's water supply, and a natural food resource, black swans. This, together with land grant requirements to clear and cultivate, established a government attitude to the environment which continued for much of the nineteenth century. At times government concern, as in awareness of the dangers of overexploitation of resources, could not overcome wider societal considerations. Concern about the fate of seals was of minor consideration to the economic benefits flowing to the colony. Surveyor-General Frankland's attempts to prohibit quarrying to protect the ferns, caves and forests of Salvator Rosa's Glen, Hobart, was one of the rare occasions when aesthetic considerations were paramount.

Many landuse activities had consequences unforeseen by most at the time. Under Native Game Acts, closed seasons were introduced for birds and game to ensure continued existence. That the economic was still paramount was evidenced by bounties being paid to kill rather than protect the thylacine, because of its reputation as a sheep killer. Continued logging of the blue gum and Huon pine led to demands for protection from the 1860s. A consequence was the appointment of a Conservator of Forests, George Perrin, in 1886. Concurrently, a few, mostly with scientific and/or artistic aspirations, observed, recorded and often collected specimens for local and overseas institutions.

Government power to reserve lands for recreational, health and scenic reasons, enshrined under various Lands Acts from 1858, aroused opposition, mainly on economic grounds. National parks had to await implementation of the Scenery Preservation Act (1915), which accorded such status to National Park, subsequently Mount Field, and Freycinet Peninsula in 1916. While the Scenery Preservation Board was responsible for flora protection and scenery preservation, police protected native fauna through the Protection Board established under the Animal and Birds Protection Act (1928). Starved of funds, the Scenery Preservation Board limped on until superseded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, created by the National Parks Act (1970). This new body united the functions of the two boards. Major economic activities, excepting some recreational and tourism enterprises, were precluded from these areas. Salient commercial forces, private and government agencies, in forestry, mining, hydro-electricity, and even tourism, repeatedly have sought to extend operations into Parks, whose boundaries have not proven inviolable. From the 1930s major battles have occurred at Lake St Clair, Mount Field, Lake Pedder and the South-West, the 'wild rivers' Franklin and Gordon (see Franklin-below-Gordon), the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests and the Tarkine. In the campaign over world heritage listing of western and south-western Tasmania, the question of federal-state sovereignty and legal implications of international treaties were vigorously debated. Sophisticated use of media, public protests, at times violent, and an excess of propaganda increasingly characterise such issues. Also noteworthy has been intragovernmental dispute between 'conservation' and 'pro-development' agencies and departments. Generally the former are smaller and less powerful and have to rely on community pressure groups to attain goals.

Less public but increasingly important have been pollution and land planning issues in both rural and urban areas. Disposal of human and industrial waste have been key issues. In the nineteenth century responsibility lay with local rather than with state government. However, requirements for economic growth, especially as part of the dream of hydro-industrialisation of the state, took precedence over environmental consequences of such actions. From the 1960s Tasmania was part of the global upsurge in increasing environmental awareness. Partly from their own initiative and partly from public pressure, a wide variety of environmental legislation was introduced. Combatting pollution of land, air and sea to effect remediation of past and present activities was one aspect of this trend while introduction of environmental impact assessment schemes was preventative in design. The formation of the Department of the Environment in 1972 was official recognition of the salience of environmental concerns.

Around the 1960s heritage concerns, predominantly for the built environment and the state's history, arose. The Tasmanian Historical Research Association (1951) and the National Trust (1960) were catalysts to increasing community awareness. The latter's bailiwick extended from stately Georgian homes to humble working class residences, and from individual buildings to streetscapes, precincts and towns. Official national commemorations and the genealogical phenomenon have stimulated further activity in material preservation and publications about myriad aspects of state history.

Since European settlement there has been an increasing awareness of the human impact on the environment and the corollary that human health, physical and mental, is affected by the environment. Under this umbrella, government intervention has extended to aspects of life previously regarded as the inviolable sanctuary of the individual or private enterprise. Action has not been solely the province of government: individuals have made substantial contributions in gazettal of reserves, and in creation of community groups with specific interests, such as the Tasmanian Conservation Trust (1968). Division of political parties, primacy in downfall of a government and creation of a dedicated conservation party, United Tasmania Group and its successor, the Greens, have been salient features of environmental politics. Although enacting legislation, government implementation and enforcement has not always been wholehearted. Partnership between all levels of government, non-government organisations and community and industry groups has become an integral feature of the environmental landscape. Conflict in many guises has been the focus of Tasmanian environmental history.

Further reading: Tasmanian Year Books, 19672002; C Hall, Wasteland to world heritage, Melbourne, 1992; G Castles, 'Handcuffed volunteers', BA Honours thesis, UT, 1986; J Mosley, 'Aspects of the geography of recreation in Tasmania', PhD thesis, ANU, 1963.

Tim Jetson