Well do I remember Judy Edwards, the then-Minister for the Environment, proudly announcing the creation of WA’s first official wilderness area. It was 2004, and the area in question was an extensive hectarage of forest in the deep south, near the small towns of Walpole and Denmark. It was not a ‘green-fields’ reservation, but a cobbling together of existing reserves, mostly national parks, but also including some state forests. The great thing about this new wilderness area, Minister Edwards explained, was that it would “protect biodiversity and ecological processes in the long term.”
She did not explain why biodiversity and ecological processes were not being protected in the existing reserves. This would have been to admit mismanagement by her department.
But she did indicate how the new reserve would be managed in the future so as to achieve her lofty aims. Mostly this focused on human use, not ecological processes. The area would only be accessible to the public by foot, she said, and there would be no walk trails, signs, or track markers. No “ground-disturbing” activities associated with bushfire management (such as fire trail construction) would be permitted; prescribed burning buffers would be located outside the wilderness area. Internal roads would be closed, or allowed to grow over, and road signs removed.
The minister said the aim would be to manage the wilderness area for its “intrinsic values” and “to provide unique recreational opportunities”. This “island of natural beauty” would be protected because it had been “relatively untouched by modern society”. Well do I also remember the incredulity with which this announcement was greeted by the round-table of retired foresters with whom I occasionally share a yarn and reminiscence. All of us had worked in this area at some time in the distant past, and had experienced the “unique recreational opportunities” of its extremely dense and prickly understory vegetation at close quarters.
What are the “intrinsic values” of wilderness, we wondered, and why cannot they be provided in a national park? The only unique attribute of a wilderness area appears to be a lack of access for vehicles, or of formed walk trails for walkers. Protection of landscape beauty and biodiversity is clearly the first objective in a national park. Moreover, most national parks contain trackless areas, especially those in the remoter parts of the Pilbara or Kimberley.
It is true that closing roads and banning vehicular traffic has some environmental benefits (vehicles can spread dieback disease and grading can lead to sediment washing into streams), but these threats can be minimised or avoided by responsible management. Vehicles are also noisy, especially the detested trail bikes, and occasionally a native animal will be run over. However, none of these impacts is likely to be significant in terms of the biodiversity of a large national park. The three big threats to biodiversity in WA are feral predators (foxes and cats), introduced herbivores (goats and rabbits), and large intense wildfires. None of these impacts can be reduced by merely closing roads.
At first glance I saw several ironies with the creation in WA’s southern forests of the sort of wilderness area envisaged by Minister Edwards.
Firstly, the vegetation in this area is karri and southern jarrah forest, interspersed by swampland. These ecotypes naturally have an almost impenetrable understorey. I spent a fair proportion of my early days as a forester fighting my way through it when carrying out survey and inventory work, and I can remember how I would come home from the day’s work with my trousers shredded and my hands cut and bleeding from battling sword grass and spiny wattles. In the tangled ti-tree and bottlebrush swamps, walking was actually impossible. When a particularly impenetrable swamp was encountered, the trick was to find a runnel used by wallabies and crawl along it. The men in the inventory crews used to reckon on a new pair of trousers every week, even when you had worn the old pair both forwards and backwards.
In winter, the southern forests are cold and sodden; it is either raining or dripping off the trees. One of the most ubiquitous shrub species is known to bushmen as “waterbush” because it collects water on its foliage until you brush against it, and then it drenches you. The cheering billy fire, of course, is not permitted in a wilderness area.
In summer, the bush is warm, humid and sticky, almost sub-tropical, and is rich with mosquitoes, march flies and tiger snakes. Yes, the trees, birdlife and wildflowers are beautiful, but these are more easily appreciated from a walking track, not from deep within a thicket of head-high karri wattle or the aptly-named “buggery bush”, a small acacia with needle-like spines.
My second concern about the minister’s statement was more critical. By downgrading bushfire management, including closure of roads and fire trails, and by imposing constraints on the use of earth-moving equipment, the minister had unwittingly written a death warrant for this reserve. Lightning strikes are common in the southern forests, and seriously bad fire weather occurs every summer. Sooner or later a ferocious wildfire will rip through the wilderness and it will be devastated. What then of this “island of beauty”? What then of its untouched biodiversity? Both will be cooked to cinders. A smaller, informal wilderness area established within the Walpole-Nornalup National Park some years earlier has already been subjected to this fate. It was left unburnt for many years and then, finally, was incinerated in an unstoppable wildfire.
Any failure to provide effective fuel-reduction burning in this area may also write the death warrant for local firefighters, forced to deal with a wildfire tearing out of the wilderness area towards towns, farms and other conservation reserves, or of bushwalkers caught in the middle of the wilderness area with no means of escape.
I do not object to governments declaring wilderness areas. This is their right, and in the case of the Walpole Wilderness Area, I know why they did it (Minister Edwards happily acknowledged the “assistance” of The Wilderness Society in developing her policy; in pollie speak, this means they wrote it). What I do object to is a failure to apply the sort of responsible management that will protect the beauty and biological resources of the area, and maintain regional standards of bushfire protection.
Luckily, there is nearly always a difference between what a Minister announces in a press release and what actually happens on the ground. The processes of strategic and operational planning expose departmental staff to the real world, including the views of local communities. People who only operate through the political system lose ground at this point.
Because of this, the Walpole Wilderness Area is managed more responsibly than I feared might happen. Not all the internal roads were closed, thus allowing access for emergency services. The area is crossed by a major and well-maintained walking trail (the Bibbulmun Track), and the restrictions on fire suppression have been watered down. Earth-moving equipment can now be used for fire-fighting, so long as approved by the department’s executive director, and it is hard to imagine him refusing a request to take a bulldozer in to attack a fire on a bad day. Some prescribed burning is also carried out; it is described as ‘mosaic habitat creation’ rather than ‘fuel-reduction burning’, but this is just political correctness: fuel reduction occurs nevertheless. The Indigenous rightful owners are allowed unrestricted access, and can hunt and fish the biodiversity without restraint.
The net effect is that while an official wilderness area has been designated, and is shown proudly on maps, little has changed on the ground. From what I can determine, however, the re-badging has satisfied everyone. This includes those city-based green sympathisers who like the philosophical concept of wilderness, and are pleased to see a wilderness area declared, but who have not the slightest intention of ever sampling its challenges on the ground.
Wilderness is a political and an urban concept, more about ideas and ideology than what happens on the ground. The demand for wilderness areas, like the demand for national parks, is largely satisfied by the fact of their dedication and naming, and the splash they make on the map. The reality is that if you want to sustain critical values in the long term, the critical thing is not what a piece of land is called, but how it is managed. Personally, I regard wilderness as a phony concept, and believe that we should stick to national parks, and then manage them responsibly. Management can include the dedication of trackless areas, but most importantly it must tackle the real threats to biodiversity and landscape, i.e., feral animals and large high-intensity wildfires.
Roger Underwood worked as a forester in the karri country during the 1960s and 1970s and later was the general manager of the Dept of Conservation and Land Management in WA