The quest to protect Tasmania’s ancient forests and world famous wilderness is familiar to most Australians.

It’s a story that goes back beyond the pivotal moment in 1982 when former PM Bob Hawke committed to save the Franklin River from being dammed — going on to win the 1983 Federal Election.

Threads of the story go to the early 1900s, to Austrian immigrant, amateur botanist and eco-tourism visionary Gustav Weindorfer, who, on visiting the wonderland of Cradle Mountain, declared “this must be a national park for the people for all time”. In the century since, hundreds of thousands of tourists have visited Waldheim, his forest home, and marvelled at the ancient King Billy rainforest in which it is nestled. As a former guide and park ranger, I always told visitors of Gustav’s story to convey the debt we owe the early conservationists, without whom there would be no Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

I moved to Tasmania in the late 1990s and was struck by the incomparable wonder of its ecosystems, and even more dismayed at their systematic annihilation. The bid to protect Tasmania’s natural environment shaped my life and those of many Aussies, including Bob Brown and Geoff Cousins, and it has inspired writers including Heather Rose and Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, who wrote: “In Tasmania, an island the size of Ireland whose primeval forests astonished 19th-century Europeans, an incomprehensible ecological tragedy is being played out.”

That tragedy is industrial logging, which Dr Brown drew national attention to last week with his arrest at Lapoinya. Logging is not the only threat to Tasmania’s environment.

Veteran Tasmanian forest activist Geoff Law described the situation in the wilderness as the “gravest crisis the World Heritage Area has faced”.

Veteran Tasmanian forest activist Geoff Law described the situation in the wilderness as the “gravest crisis the World Heritage Area has faced”.

At the time of writing, about 50 fires are burning in the WHA, threatening iconic places like the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and its stands of pencil pine and Nothofagus Gunnii — Australia’s only winter-deciduous trees. Some of these are 1000 years old.

Unlike many eucalypts, which thrive with regular fire, rainforests, peaty soils and alpine ecosystems can be permanently destroyed when burnt. I’ve walked through graveyards of dead pencil pines burnt by early explorers and yet to recover. These are sad, diminished places that will take millennia to mend.

Tasmania just had its driest spring in recorded history. There was almost no rain in January. Last week’s deluge brought relief to some areas, and damaging floods to others, but did not extinguish fires in the North, South and West.

This summer’s hot and dry conditions and lack of decent cold fronts, combined with electrical storms, has resulted in dry lightning strikes that have ignited the normally damp landscape.

David Bowman, professor of climate environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, described the fire in the wilderness as more than just a once-in-a-thousand-year phenomenon. “We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like,” he said in The Guardian.

Data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the World Meteorological Association confirms we just experienced the hottest year globally again. These are the consequences of global warming.

These are the consequences of global warming.

Tragically, the ancient rainforests and mountains of the Tarkine and Central Plateau now bear the brunt. And it’s not only rainforest trees and sensitive alpine ecosystems copping it.

In the northern Pacific, coral bleaching is turning reefs white. The US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has warned Western Australia’s coral reefs have a 60 per cent likelihood of severe bleaching during April this year, while the Great Barrier Reef could experience mild bleaching in March.

It is sad to know that because of climate change the pencil pines burning in the wilderness may never return. Future generations may never get to see, smell or feel the centuries old energy of these extraordinary ecosystems.

Perversely, governments continue to approve logging of carbon-dense native forests and development of huge new coal mines that will further pollute the atmosphere.

  • This article first appeared in the Hobart Mercury
  • Photo by Rob Blakers

Jess Abrahams

Nature lover. Mountain biker. Healthy Ecosystems Campaigner at ACF. Find me in the forest.