First published August 17

Two years ago was the centenary of the founding of Tasmania’s first two national parks, Mt Field and Freycinet Peninsula (both declared at the same time). Dr Kevin Kiernan correctly anticipated that the state government would use the centenary to spruce its supposed environmental credentials while failing to acknowledge some darker aspects in the history of the park and the fact that our national parks exist only because committed citizens have worked tirelessly against political and corporate attempts with their “infinite agenda” of commercial development. Kiernan decided to further develop a brief paper that he had previously published outlining some forgotten unpleasant truths regarding the background and subsequent history of Mt Field National Park.

However, as he told those gathered at the launch of the book that eventually evolved, he soon began to recognise very similar situations as he had experienced in his own activist years through the 1970s and 1980s as he explored earlier conservation debates. Concluding that in many respects conservationists have not so much fought different battles over the years but rather the same battles over and over again he set out to explore this further, consider the causes, and set Mt Field into context within broader Tasmanian conservation history. His brief kept enlarging until … some months later, it emerged as quite a tome.

Tome is the right word – it is a tome with tonality and titillations, and delicious to read as its cuts swathes through the horizontal cutting grass of Tasmanian environmental politics. As a source of information this book is factually fastidious and fascinating, which is what we come to expect from Dr Kevin Kiernan. Every page is full of referenced information (545 references in total), across 488 pages or about 160,000 words by my calculation.

However, do not let size discourage you. Kiernan tells it like a fascinating jaffle-fire story that keeps the reader hungry for more. It is a book that can be read chapter by chapter according to key themes. More importantly, and perhaps the title of the book is misleading here, it covers much more than just Mt Field and the Florentine Valley; it covers the full gamut of political, bureaucratic, recreational, forestry, mining, and tourism history.

Design of the book is by Hobart graphic artist Julie Hawkins, who has complemented the written text with a very pleasing aesthetic design.

Each chapter is illustrated with photographic evidence, including two major chapters that provide the first popularly accessible account of the broad natural history of the area of a kind not previously available to bushwalkers and other visitors to the park, of sufficient breadth that they could be published as a separate park interpretation book by themselves.

The key themes in the book include the historical background to founding of Mt Field National Park and role of competing interests and issues like mining; forestry; wilderness integrity; management of recreational use; and managing commercial tourism. There are eighteen chapters and each is really worthy of a separate review. These chapters are arranged in four sections, the first on the park’s history; then a section on abuses it has since suffered; then wider events that made its recent partial re-connection to the south-west wilderness possible; and finally some issues that need to be addressed for the future. The book’s focus is not merely on what has happened in the past, but on exploring why things happened, how wider social circumstances and political circumstances have shaped the conditions that influenced the later fate of Mt Field, and lessons to be learned from the past, including the need to stem recurrent corruptions of proper process.

In exploring these things and developing the context in which Mt Field’s fate has been shaped, Kiernan provides the most detailed accounts to date of such issues as the damage caused to Lake St Clair by hydro-electric development, the revocation of the Florentine forests from Mt Field NP, the stilling of Cataract Gorge, the proposed tri services military practice range at Cockle Creek, the background behind later forestry issues such as the Farmhouse Creek fiasco, and the early days of the campaign to save the Franklin, well before the birth of the Wilderness Society of which he was founding Director. It does not attempt to cover better-known issues such as Lake Pedder or the Franklin dams debate, but rather to trace untold histories that laid the foundations for later, better – known campaigns.

But Kiernan stresses that his real purpose was to help inform those who will need to defend our parks in the future if all the hard work put in by some many dedicated people for over a century is not to be brought undone by issues already arising or on the horizon, and the environmental amnesia continues to result in little compromises by successive generations who fail to see the inevitable cumulative impact.

In his tourism chapter, Kiernan points out that, while William Crooke promoted the establishment of Tasmania’s first national park primarily for nature conservation, advocates for commercial tourism, including ET Emmett (founder of the Hobart Walking Club but also state government tourism supremo) soon drove him from the new park board. Conflict between these two fundamentally competing values over one hundred years ago continues today. Kiernan, who alienated some of his former conservation colleagues when he later chose to work inside the forest industry in the belief that loggers also had their own valid story, is broadly supportive of tourism in principle. But he contends that attempts to better resolve conflict between competing interests are ill-served when corporate and government interests dress up inappropriate developments as supposed ‘ecotourism’, a green-washing exercise that misleads clients who want the real thing and disadvantages those tourism operators who genuinely seek to provide it.

As Kiernan concludes …

“But tourism can be a double-edged sword. The quest for money that might be earned from tourism has the same potential to result in excess and over-reach as can occur in any other form of commercial enterprise. Its environmental consequences can be severe. An old axiom cautions that tourism is like fire, because while it can cook your food and keep you warm if managed properly, if poorly attended it can also burn down your house. The key determinants of whether good or bad is delivered by tourism are the degree to which the natural, cultural and social values present are recognised” – an observation that we can only hope all levels of government might heed.

*Dr Geoff Holloway, above was State Secretary of the United Tasmania Group (UTG) 1974-77 and again since revival of UTG two years ago. Geoff has a PhD (sociology), specialising in social movements, health and research methods; poet (4 books published); climber; traveller – two years in Chilean & Argentinean Patagonia, but also Colombia, Ecuador and Brasil, twice recently to Cabo Verde and Lisbon, fluent in Spanish, understands written Portuguese; focus over past 20 years on children with disabilities, child protection and youth justice issues.