Part of the South-West (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

The South-West's European history has been dictated as much by the rugged topography, dense vegetation and harsh climate as by the lack of arable land or minerals. Early maps labelled the area a 'Transylvania', an impenetrable wasteland. When Huon pine was found along its rivers, a penal settlement was established at Sarah Island in 1822. Within a few decades prospectors, miners and surveyors criss-crossed the south-west as government surveys, exploration and track-cutting increased. Several small mineral deposits were discovered and tin has been mined at Melaleuca for over sixty years.

Recreational bushwalkers delighted in the rugged scenery but recognised looming threats to the integrity of this wildland. In 1968 a small South-West National Park of 191,625 hectares was proclaimed (extended to 403,240 hectares in 1976). In 1972 the Tasmanian government ignored massive national and international opposition, revoked the popular Lake Pedder National Park in the heart of the south-west, and flooded it for hydro-electric development. This focused international attention on the south-west, spawned the world's first green political party, and acted as a catalyst for the Franklin Blockade. Australia's most important environmental case, 'the Franklin Dams Case', a successful High Court challenge, influenced the outcome of a federal election and resulted in World Heritage nomination for south-west Tasmania in 1982.

Enlarged in 1989 to cover 20 percent of Tasmania's land area, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (1.38 million hectares) failed to protect the tall eucalypt forests excluded by a convoluted eastern boundary. These ancient forests are being progressively decimated by industrial forestry, despite an international outcry. The south-west is recognised as one of the earth's few remaining extensive temperate wilderness areas, a significant tourist drawcard posing fresh challenges as increasing visitor numbers impact on its outstanding natural values.

Further reading: R Flanagan, A terrible beauty, Melbourne, 1985; H Gee & J Fenton, The south west book, Melbourne, 1978; R & K Gowlland, Trampled wilderness, Devonport, 1975; T Jetson & R Ely, History of west and south-west Tasmania, Hobart, 1995.

Helen Gee