Definition: Vernon: a small town in France 70kms from Paris. The origins of the name date back to the 15th century in which the first lord of the town is noted for saying: “a troup of strangers charmed by the freshness and beauty of the site, decided to stay and because they could see nothing all around but trees and greenery decided to name their new country Vernon.” (Michel: 1851).

I interviewed Robert Vernon for a number of hours in his home late last year for an essay I was writing on sense of place and the relationship the Vernons have with their land at Recherche Bay.
A number of revelations emerged from the interview which now, in the light of the decision made by Premier Paul Lennon and announced by Minister Ken Bacon, results in more questions to be asked.

Why has the state government not explored the possibility for a joint compensation bid for the land to be preserved? What was the outcome of the talks with the French Ambassador and Jeff Kelly, then head of the department, the man who around the same time spent $1.4 million on his new office? Why has the current government not stayed in line with the letter that Premier Jim Bacon wrote to the French Ambassador prior to Kelly’s meeting that expressed wishes for a mutually beneficial arrangement to be made in partnership with the French?

According to the Heritage Council’s Peter James, in an interview late last year, “The clear solution is for the government to acquire the land and timber but this is fraught with problems and would set a precedent. It might well be that if you can get the French and the Commonwealth governments involved on broader grounds, ie cultural grounds, it would be more likely that the land could be acquired.”

According then to James, the forestry sector of the government would like to see the area logged, and how true this statement rings today. The protection of the whole site, as recommended by James’ department, the Heritage Council, has been ignored. The protection of the whole site, as recommended by Premier Bacon has been ignored.

The French garden “project” is an example of how this government operates. It shows a microcosm of the internal thought processes, one that causes lack of independent thought with the forestry lobby dominating discussions and influence. Even the relationship between the Heritage Council and Gunns is questionable.

The point is the Vernon’s were, and still are, open to other options, other than logging the land:
“If somebody comes to us and says we don’t want you to use your property in that way, here is some money and some programs we want to put in place, and we’re not disadvantaged, we don’t have a problem with that”.

“The reality is there is only one offer on the table, the Gunns’ offer. If somebody turns around and says the value of your timber and roading is X, and we’re prepared to give you that to stop you logging it, then we’d stop. We could reimburse Gunns with that. If somebody came to us with an offer then we could use the property in a different way, but they haven’t.

“We already owe a substantial amount to Gunns. Imagine, if I said to Gunns we’ve changed our minds, we’re not going to log. They’d say oh right, and walk away, you owe us X amount of dollars. We’d lose our house, we’d lose everything, because we’ve started the contract.”

So the private landowners are now in a deplorable position whereby they owe Gunns for the cost of the road, an amount which presumably is to be deducted from the final harvest sale quota.

It seems the state government’s intent is to embark on a selective logging harvest method whilst ‘preserving’ the cultural remnants with a buffer zone.

As the leader in the Mercury stated, on November 5, 2003:
“There is no room for compromise over the integrity of the area. The suggestion that specific sites made famous by D’Entrecasteaux and his party more than 200 years ago could be protected by buffer zones while the rest of the area is logged is almost ludicrous.”

This seems to have echoed from some of the world’s leading cultural heritage and built environment specialists, for example Sir Richard Rogers, backed by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

“Facadism is an unacceptable conservation compromise. Challenging the presumptions on which it is based is a way of encouraging a deeper analysis of the nature of historic areas and the ways in which they can be kept alive and vital.

“The process of change and renewal, which, over the centuries has created these contexts threatens to come to a dead stop.”

The growing consensus is that facadism is a less than honest attempt to cloak the destruction of old buildings. Apply this to the conservation of our natural environment and you can see the similarities, the buffer zone as the facade, the clearfelled area as the trashed, hidden, destructed void, bereft of its own historical space and sense.

Yet the possibilities for undertaking a different approach, have not come from our political leaders and state public servants, but from the landowners themselves. Robert Vernon clearly stated that if they were offered compensation for the amount Gunns had offered, they would definitely consider it.

The Vernons have discussed how they might use the property and it is a sense of excitement that comes over David when he starts to explore these possibilities:
“I mean it’s a terrific thing to have; it’s exciting. The kids in my grade nine class were really interested, they wanted to know more, so we want to take them down there, we might even do some experiments on geomagnetism.

“I’m serious. We have thought about a tourism venture. We’ve talked about where we might be able to put things on the block, run some walkways through there to the convict well, to the garden, the observatory and interpretation areas.”

However the truth is the Vernon’s have been swayed down a path that is seemingly hard to stop. But maybe if other opportunities presented themselves, it could be different.

As local historian John Young points out in his essay on the Tasmanian town of Franklin, and the same issues still resonate today: “It was a culture which has encouraged the growth of a logging industry which provides a prime example of resource exploitation to the great advantage of interests which are out of local control, and at great costs to local ecosystems and human communities” (Young: 1995-96: 125).

What we have here is the lack of a coherent state conservation policy on sites of cultural and historical significance; the existence of policies, measures and back-up deficiencies inimical to conservation; and a failure to match heritage aspirations with practical action.

It is time for moral governance. To save mere pockets of cultural heritage, as has occurred in the northeast of Tasmania with our Chinese heritage, is not good enough. It infers that history is only skin deep.

Our value judgements about what to preserve or how to care for the physical patrimony need to be made on cultural, not economic, grounds. The case of Recherche Bay is an opportunity for Tasmania’s landscapes to be respected.

The historical, environmental, cultural, social and intangible values are valued by the world, but not it seems by Tasmania.