Bob Brown reflects on saving the Franklin River

Bob Brown looks back over the 30 years since the historic High Court decision that saved the Franklin
By Bob Brown June 10, 2014 Reading Time: 6 Minutes

WHO REALLY THINKS, given the greed and short-sightedness evident in human history, that this crowded populace will not invade, occupy and exploit the remainder?

Some say there is no pure wilderness left. Everywhere – no matter how remote – is contaminated with chemicals, heated by climate change or invaded by weeds and feral animals. The beauty of the night sky is blotted out by the glow of the cities and criss-crossed by the twinkling lights of jetliners and other objects, such as the space station, which appears brighter than Venus.

As if to hasten the end of wilderness, state governments in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland have recently agreed to open national parks to cattle grazing, recreational shooting (see page 36) and off-road motor vehicles, which will cause all manner of impacts. What is more, “sustainable” mining, logging and private-enterprise tourism businesses are on the drawing boards for some of Australia’s most far-flung and exquisitely beautiful places.

When I first floated down Tasmania’s wild ­Franklin River with Launceston forester Paul Smith in 1976, this was all on the way. Although the immediate threat to the Franklin was the contested ­Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, our talk around the campfire was about the loss of the remote and pristine nature of the landscape, qualities of truly wild country already missing in some parts of Tasmania.

Loss of pristine Tasmania forest

The devastating impact of the road from Maydena to ­Strathgordon was already evident. It was built in the middle of Tasmania’s southwest wilderness more than a decade earlier – funded by a £5 million (about $120 million today) grant from the Commonwealth under prime minister Robert Menzies.

The road increased access to Lake Pedder National Park, which was established in 1955 and folded into Southwest NP in 1968 before the construction of three dams for generating hydro-electricity flooded the lake itself. Once-fabled bushwalking destinations, including Frankland Range, Mt Anne and even the Western Arthurs, lost their character as the huge expanse of the flooding lake and its attendant white gravel roads affected the region’s landscape and remoteness.

On that rafting trip, Paul and I spent 11 days floating down the Franklin without seeing another human being. The side canyons, waterfalls, rainforests, eagles, platypuses and glow-worms had me entranced.

Paul pointed out the flood levels of the proposed dams high on the Franklin’s ravine walls and, just after we passed the Franklin’s confluence with the mighty Gordon River, we were suddenly confronted by the jackhammers, helicopters and explosives of dam builders looking for the best place to secure the first of the four proposed dams.

No longer entranced, I was horrified. We came back to civilisation determined to publicise the plight of the wild rivers.

Seven years of campaigning to save the Franklin River from a similar fate to that of Lake Pedder culminated in the 1982 ­blockade at Warner’s Landing, in which 1300 people were arrested.

Domestic and international focus on the campaign grew as popular celebrities including Sir Yehudi Menuhin, ­Barry Humphries, Eartha Kitt, Claudio and Lesley Alcorso, and ­David Bellamy (his arrest created headlines in London) backed the river’s rescue. More positive headlines were created when founder of Australian Geographic Dick Smith arrived in his helicopter and helped set up the remote blockade’s radio communications.

Franklin Rive comes to life in colour

Yet it was the river itself that saved the day. The advent of ­colour television brought the river’s natural beauty into ­Australia’s lounge rooms. The first ever colour campaign poster, featuring a photo of the Thunderush rapids, in the Franklin’s Great Ravine, was produced in 1979 by Sydney’s Southwest Committee.

In 1980, after a number of solo rafting trips on the Franklin, ­Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis captured the now legendary photograph Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend (page 64); it was reproduced an estimated 1 million times for the campaign.

I went halfway up Mt Wellington, to a Hobart suburb called Fern Tree, to visit Peter at home and look through his latest batch of Franklin River photos. I was riveted by his image of Rock Island Bend (the name I gave this scenic gem, because it would otherwise had its 1840s convict label, the Pig Trough).

Peter didn’t think it was his best photo but I instantly saw its mystical qualities. I knew this bend in the river would indisputably be flooded by the proposed first dam, which added to the photograph’s impact. The image embodies the legendary relationship photography and conservation have in Tasmania.

By mid-1983, determined Tasmanian premier Robin Gray had spent $70 million ($200 million today) on preliminary dam works. However, on 1 July that year, the four-to-three decision of the High Court judges endorsed the newly elected Commonwealth government’s power (under prime minister Bob Hawke) to stop the dam in order to protect the Franklin’s World Heritage values. In July this year, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of that historic decision.

In his majority judgment, justice Lionel Murphy wrote, “The encouragement of people to think internationally, to regard the culture of their own country as part of world culture, to conceive a physical, spiritual and intellectual heritage, is important in the endeavour to avoid the destruction of humanity.” The justice regarded the rich Aboriginal heritage in the Franklin Valley wilderness, as well as the area’s wild beauty, as part of our culture.

And, thankfully, the majestic wild peak of Frenchmans Cap (1446m), which is drained entirely by the Franklin, was saved from the indignity of being surrounded by the methane-belching moat of a dammed river and drowned forests.

The inundation of Lake Pedder in 1972 created a national furore which, in turn, helped save other wild places as well as the Franklin River: the Daintree, Fraser Island, Kakadu, Victoria’s Little Desert and the subtropical forests of NSW.

In Tasmania, it led to the formation of the world’s first Greens party.

A decade after Lake Pedder disappeared, parts of Tasmania’s wilderness were declared World Heritage areas for the first time  and soon after that, the Franklin River was saved. However, there was a backlash from developers. In the decades that followed, state governments introduced draconian penalties, including up to six months in jail, for anyone who refused to get out of the way of bulldozers invading wilderness to construct new mines or dams, or were facilitating logging or invasive tourism operations.

Saving the Franklin paved the way to conserving other places

These operations are part of a dominant world culture of profiteering from nature, based on corporate power over elected and non-elected governments. Most conservationists are sidelined but this year’s magnificent win by campaigners, not least the Goolarabooloo people, against the Woodside gas factory and port on the Kimberley coast, WA, went against that tide.

When we gained the balance of power in the Tasmanian ­Parliament in 1989, the Greens ensured the inclusion of ­magnificent wild areas such as the Denison River valley, the Walls of Jerusalem and the eastern half of Macquarie Harbour, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, expanding it from 7160sq.km to 13,840sq.km.

In July 2013 another 1700sq.km were added. The newly protected areas comprise some of the tallest flowering forests on Earth, including those of the Styx Valley, the Upper Florentine Valley and the Great Western Tiers, together with Mount Field National Park and some smaller reserves.  

Today, the Tasmanian wilderness is one of the world’s greatest protected temperate areas. But protecting the island state’s wild places will not be complete until the Tarkine wilderness, in the north-west, is given World Heritage listing.

The Tarkine comprises 4500sq.km of inspiring ­natural country, including the nation’s largest temperate rainforest. Earlier this year, the Australian Heritage Council advised then environment minister Tony Burke to list the Tarkine. He rejected that advice and opened most of the Tarkine to mining.

The Tarkine is a wonderful place, from its wild coast to its ranges and buttongrass plains, from its pristine west-flowing ­rivers and lagoons to its rare and endangered species, which include the world’s largest crayfish, the Tasmanian devils, the quolls and the giant wedge-tailed eagle.

Its coastline is the land of the Tarkiner people, whose middens, rock carvings and hut sites are today being eroded by off-road vehicles.

In 2013, the first two Tarkine mines have been authorised by state and federal ministers “for the environment”. What will save the Tarkine? Only one formula will work and that is Franklin campaign-style public action: lobbying of politicians, funding of campaign groups (including Save the Tarkine), voting for candidates dedicated to its protection and, if need be, peacefully getting in the way of the destruction of this national heirloom. Although, perhaps before all else, the first thing to do is to visit the Tarkine, because to go there is to want to save it.

Bob Brown arrested in the Franklin blockade

I was arrested in the Franklin blockade in 1982–83 and spent 19 days in Risdon Prison (600 others also went to Risdon). Arrested twice more in the 1990s for peacefully obstructing bulldozers that were compromising the Tarkine’s remote and pristine qualities with roads and logging, I spent a further 11 days in Tasmanian jails with a bunch of other wilderness-loving ­citizens. The concrete walls of those prisons were the antithetic cultural statement to the wild places we had been defending.

Why is there so little public alarm about the death of the wild world? This was the question that was obvious to Paul Smith and me as we sat by the Franklin, and that I pondered in those cells, but which now challenges us all with greater urgency than ever.  

Nearly two centuries ago Thoreau wrote, “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. It follows that in wildness is the saving of ourselves. It is time we all got a little wilder about the plight of planet Earth, its wild places and all its creatures, ­ourselves included.