Tasmania’s bushfires: a human-made calamity on par with the razing of Palmyra’s temples

First published on the Guardian

It is a three-hour, thigh-torturing climb to reach Tasmania’s high central plateau. Ancient myrtle rainforests flank the slopes. In years gone by, springs and streams gushed from the soaked highlands above, feeding the ferns and tall, old trees. The track passes Norm’s spring, from which local legend holds it is good luck to drink. But in these parts the luck has run dry.

Last year Tasmania suffered its driest and hottest spring. At the nearby Miena dam, October’s rainfall was just 10.2mm, a record 65mm below average. The second driest November followed.

For the world heritage-listed ecosystem above, these normally sodden forests are a fortification against the fires that perennially torch the lowlands. But their fluorescent mosses turned a circumspect pastel green in the heat. By the time December and January broke summer heat records, they were just waiting for a spark.

On 13 January a huge, dry electrical storm set more than 70 fires rampaging across the island. Within days the flames tore through the dried-out defences and into the world heritage area above. For more than a month, fire has rolled back and forth across the fragile plains.

At the lip of the plateau a spectacular field of cushion plants once marked the northern edge of Tasmania’s vast world heritage area. These fragile plant communities build on the skeletal wood of their ancestors. As the centuries pass they construct huge, alien-green mounds that bulge from the peat. Today they look like a tray of burnt sponge cakes.

A long glacial valley stretches out below, devoid of colour, filled only with twisted black branches and burned stones; a monument to entropy. The rocks still radiate heat even though a fortuitous cloudburst put out the flames weeks before. At every step the normally spongy soil bursts into puffs of dust. The torched bark of thousand-year-old pencil pines shines iridescent black.

Only in tiny pockets has some life survived. Due to some inherent extra wetness, a protecting rock or a random swirl of the wind, here and there a few square metres of peat still shout forth little fantasias of sphagnum moss, pineapple grass, honey richea and cushion plants. Like funeral photos of a young life cut short, these still-glorious toeholds only accentuate the bitter, irredeemable tragedy of the surrounding acres of ash.

When vandals of Islamic State blew up the temples of Palmyra, the sickened world responded with appropriate and universal rage. The director general of Unesco, the UN body that oversees world heritage sites, called it a “war crime”.

As the burning of Tasmania enters its sixth week, Unesco remains silent. But if the dire warnings of forest scientists are correct, this summer heralds a new era of decline for this great Gondwana ecosystem. Unlike eucalyptus forests, these plants have not evolved to cope with regular bushfires. Once burned, they die. In a region that has rarely experienced fire, the blackened trunks of millennial trees will burn again and again. Some fire-resistant species will remain but the change will be absolute.

The beginning of its end is a theft from us all. Two-thirds of the plant species on the plateau exist nowhere else on earth but Tasmania. According to one estimate, 4% of the world’s remaining pencil pines – among the longest living of all trees – have been lost in these blazes.

The British explorer Gertrude Bell once wondered of Palmyra’s temples whether “the wide world presents a more singular landscape”. For the pilgrims who visit Tasmania’s wild sanctuary, there is only one answer. They come, from both near and far, to worship a different articulation of the divine. Or, as one local bushwalker puts it: “This is where we go to have fun.”

Away to the west, fires still burn. Tasmania’s fire service says they are contained. Thankfully, the weather failed to produce the dire northerly buster that would have sent the fires deep into the wilderness. Damage has been limited to 22,000 hectares of the vast 1.5m-hectare park. The Tasmanian government has been at pains to point out that the great majority remains intact. Rather than the final cataclysm, the ruined valleys at the northern edge are a premonition of a warmer, less wonderful world.

Unesco says it is “not in a position to speculate about the extent to which global warming is responsible for this particular fire”. Earlier this month the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, attacked “activists” for “almost gleefully capitalising” on the fires, which he said were “naturally caused”.

But this ignores the unnatural rarity of these particular fires and the circumstances that preceded them. If they had been lit by arsonists, says David Bowman, a forest ecologist from the University of Tasmania, “that would be bad, but you would understand that that was preventable”.

Instead the rising background of climate change combined with a huge El Niño to create conditions in which peat bogs were dry enough to burn for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Tasmania’s rainfall has been decreasing since the 1970s, accompanied by a rise in annual average temperature of half a degree. Last week research confirmedthat even with an El Niño in effect, the occurrence of Australia’s three hottest-recorded springs in the past three years was “almost certainly” caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have also predicted that lightning strikes will happen 12% more frequently with every degree of warming.

“It’s a historically significant event,” Bowman says.

Deep in the valley, a tiny grove of pines is still green. From afar the trees (which look to be about 500 years old – young by pencil pine standards) appear to have been protected from the fire by a rocky slope. But closer inspection reveals that the peat burned right up to their bases. Licking flames singed the bark at the bottom of their trunks. Then, inexplicably, the fire turned away. Perhaps this was the moment the rain came to douse the flames. The chubby needles of the pines remain soft and lively. But if these trees are going to ride luck like this their end cannot be far away.

The parents of these young trees may have been young themselves when the citizens of Palmyra still walked their desert streets. The razing of these old treasures are two points on the wide spectrum of human failure. Along with the fractured temple of Baalshamin, Isis have broken the statues of Hatra in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban blasted the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of these places carried the aegis of world heritage. This week news comes that the violence of climate change has turned towards another Unesco wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

At the edge of the central plateau, a half-torched wooden signpost bears Unesco’s world heritage symbol, signifying the interdependence of nature and human ingenuity. Nothing within eyeshot is now worthy of such lofty recognition. Amid the blackened clumps of the cushion plants, the icon is a travesty.

UN body calls Tasmania forest U-turn ‘exceptional’

Australia‘s move to strip part of Tasmania’s forest of its world heritage status one year after it was added is “very exceptional”, the UN has told the Guardian, adding its experts could not recall such a case in recent years.

Unesco spokeswoman said changes to world heritage sites were not uncommon. But, to the agency’s knowledge, the appeal to remove an area so soon after a national government had asked for its addition was unprecedented.

“It is highly unusual that a boundary change entail removing an extension requested just one year earlier,” she said. “Our experts in the world heritage centre have no memory of any similar cases in recent years.”

Shifting political agendas within the deeply polarised community of foresters and environmentalists who live on its fringes have caused the Tasmanian world heritage area to be changed more often than any other Unesco site.

“This site’s boundaries have already been modified four times, mainly for extensions. It’s the only site on the world heritage list to have undergone so many revisions,” the spokeswoman said.

The coalition government described the requested annexation of 74,000 hectares of forest as a “minor boundary modification”, saying the forests were “degraded” – a claim quickly disputed by the Wilderness Society. The area is part of a 172,500-hectare addition to the world heritage area requested by Australia and approved by Unesco last year.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will consider the amendment in June. It will decide whether the changes are classed as minor or major according to how they affect the overall value of the site. Minor boundary changes are significantly simpler to affect.

“The number of hectares is not what counts. Rather, changes are defined by their impact on what we call the “outstanding universal value” of the site; in other words, those characteristics that led to it being listed in the first place,” the Unesco spokeswoman said.

Peter Valentine, associate professor at James Cook University, said the committee was unlikely to consider any revocation to be minor and raised concerns about the precedent it could set.

“Because Australia did make a claim that the extension was a valuable addition, supported by both IUCN and the world heritage centre, it is unlikely that the committee would agree to just excising part of the world heritage area at the wish of the new government. Such an action would be a serious problem for future world heritage protection everywhere.

“It is my view that what the Australian government is asking cannot be seen as a minor boundary change. If the area is now so badly damaged perhaps the committee would seek an explanation of how this happened and what steps would be taken to ensure rehabilitation (which is an obligation under the world heritage convention).”

Should Tasmania stay GM-free?

Published in Guardian Australia – Comment is free 31 October 2013 At Thorpe Farm, in the midlands near Bothwell, Tasmania’s agricultural past and future coexist. Convict labourers cut the channels that feed Australia’s oldest working water mill. The thrumming millstone still produces … Continue reading

Hope in hell

BBC Wildlife

A treatment trial on Tasmanian devils has had unmatched success in combating the contagious cancer that has killed more than 70% of the species. But devil experts said the treatment could only be applied in captivity, meaning the endangered species’ survival in the wild remains uncertain.

Bonorong - Devil- Barrie Irons

Tasmanian government researchers injected the drug EBC-46 into advanced Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) lesions on four devils captured from the wild.

“Within 20-30 minutes you notice a difference in the tumours and by 24 hours down the track you could see that they had basically died. It’s a pretty dramatic response,” said study leader Stephen Pyecroft.

It is the first time a treatment trial on DFTD has succeeded. Pyecroft described the results as “remarkable” despite the subjects of the trial eventually dying from the cancer, which had already spread internally.

“It’s the only thing that’s killed the tumours. All the standard oncology stuff, none of it touches it,” said Pyecroft. “I think if you had an animal with early infections of small tumours that hadn’t gone walkabout, if you can pick that window of opportunity before they metasticise, then it’s a little bit more useful.”

How the drug acted against tumours was not completely understood, said Pyecroft. But it seemed to disrupt the blood supply to the growths, destroying cancer cells while leaving surrounding tissue intact.

Devil expert Nick Mooney said that treatment would only ever be applicable in captivity. But in the event of the disease appearing within the quarantined insurance population, he said, “a treatment would be fantastic to have, so it is of conservation value.”

Genetic diversity within the dwindling wild population, and those in captivity, is a major concern for devil conservationists. The ability to cure diseased devils from rare genetic groups could help keep the gene pool as wide as possible.

The Bruny Island Long Weekend

There are two types of car on Tasmania’s Bruny Island. One is a rusted workhorse, a no-frills veteran of the dusty roads. The other is a shiny, rented bubble of confusion, with muddled wayfarers poring over maps and brochures, too busy to notice other cars passing by. But when two of the island’s battered Holdens meet, an ancient rite is observed. An acknowledging finger rises from the steering wheel – the universal salute of the local.


We drove down the island’s main road with Rob Knight, the owner of its newest attraction the Bruny Island Long Weekend. He told us that the next three days would be all about getting beneath the island’s salty skin.

The locals seem to regard us ‘townies’ with a mixture of amusement and vague suspicion. By choosing not to live on Bruny Island, we seemed to have demonstrated a priori a lack of judgement – possibly dangerous. Or, as one islander put it: “Why would you want to live in town? All you’ve got up there are suits and caffé lattes.” By the end of the weekend, I don’t think there was anyone in our group who had not asked themselves the same question.

Bruny should be easy and in some ways it is. Close to the capital Hobart, stunning scenery, a flourishing cottage tourism industry and (basically) one road.  But it is a place where even Tasmanians can feel like tourists; where the raising of a finger hints at a secret world of beaches, forests and epic seascapes.

“The number of day visitors has been increasing exponentially,” says Rob. “The ferry is so busy. But there’s so much more to Bruny than just coming for the day, doing the cruise and going to the cheese place.”

The ‘cruise and the cheese place’ – the famous, cliff-hugging Bruny Island Cruise and the addictive Bruny Island Cheese Co. – are two of many highlights on Rob’s food, wine and walking binge.

On the Long Weekend, we explored the island’s towering contours by sea, foot and eventually by air. Our days were divided between coastal walks and visits to some of the gourmet producers living and creating on this long strand of rock and sand.

As we travelled down the island Rob collected ingredients for the evening meal. The food on this trip is more than a highlight; it’s a reason to go. Lamb ribs and cutlets, wallaby carpaccio with sheep pecorino and mussels with leek and saffron cream are three of eight dishes that we tuck into on the first night alone.

Evenings of wine-soaked rest are spent at Rob’s brand-spanking forest camp. Camping never included a king-sized bed when I was a kid.

The weekend had started on Friday morning on the waterfront in Hobart where we boarded the Peppermint Bay Cruise that would convey us to Bruny. The 23-metre catamaran isn’t quite how they did it in 1777. But from my exclusive top deck seat, cappuccino in hand, I watched the island’s cliffs rise in the southern distance and it did feel like a voyage of discovery – minus the scurvy.

Captain Cook himself landed on Bruny in 1777 and met with the Nuenonne people of the island. It is possible that present at this meeting was a boy chief called Mangana. It is evidence of the swiftness of Tasmania’s indigenous tragedy that Mangana’s Bruny-born daughter, Truganini, would die just 99 years later, the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian.

Not far away from the Hiba English Garden, where we had lunch on the first day, Captain Bligh – of Marlon Brando and coconut chocolate bar fame – planted the apple isle’s first apple tree in 1788.

They also left their names. In 1792 the wonderfully French-sounding Chevalier Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux established that Bruny was, in fact, an island. This Gallic explorer lent his name to both the island (anglicised to Bruny in 1918) and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel that he found separating it from the mainland.

The island (really it is two islands connected by ‘The Neck’ a narrow sand isthmus) drapes itself along the map of southeastern Tasmania like a Rorschach inkblot. And like that famous test, people have tended to make up their own versions of the place.

Long the preserve of farmers, woodcutters and Hobartian shacks, Bruny has lately become a haven for artisans seeking a place of purity to grow, paint, make and raise all manner of fine produce.

“There are two reasons why Bruny has become such a place for food,” says Rob. “One is because it has got a very clean environment. Also I think the island attracts like-minded people that do these things.”

Get Shucked oyster farm allowed us to head out onto their lease on Great Bay for a tasting. Straight from their briny shells the way it was intended. I can say, without the least hint of hyperbole, that Tasmanian oysters are the kings of the phlegmy crustacean kingdom. And, if just for the name alone, Get Shucked oysters are worthy of the high praise.

Another treasure that Rob showed us was Bruny Island Premium Wines, Australia’s southernmost vineyard. I was thoroughly heartened by the predominance of Pinot Noir on their list. White wine is wasted on me, but with red it tends to be the other way around. After we had tried the wines and nominated a few favourites, Rob collected a swag of preferred bottles to be retested over dinner that night.

On Sunday, our last day, we revisited the sheer skirts of South Bruny on the Bruny Island Cruise. This time the cliffs were at neck-craning distance. The ocean hurled itself against the rock. It was a place of violence and turmoil and yet life was everywhere. The waves were stuffed with seals and dolphins and our nimble little boat darted right in there for a seal’s-eye view.

Exploring an island by sea seems like the proper way to do things. Leaving on a seaplane is just showing off. But the Bruny Island Long Weekend isn’t particularly bashful.

The Long Weekend showed us Bruny from every angle. We ate, drank, talked and walked it. We saw through the eyes of its locals, wildlife, explorers and original inhabitants. As we took off and looked down we had our last perspective, a scale usually reserved for the birds.

How long would it take to really know a place of such diversity? Before we parted I asked Rob if, after all the years of coming here, he ever gets a wave on the road.

“Give it another twenty years.”

Roadkill – Help Stop the Carnage

Tasmanian devil joey - Photo: Barry Irons

This article appeared in the December issue of Tasmania Enjoy Magazine.  An online copy is available at http://www.tasmaniaenjoy.com.au/enquiry.php, pg 28-32

One animal every two minutes.  There is no way around it, Tasmania is the roadkill capital of the world.  However Greg Irons, owner of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, is finding ways to reduce the terrible toll – and he needs your help.

“The one negative thing that we hear from visitors to Tasmania,” says Greg, an affable 27 year-old wildlife crusader, “is that we have so much roadkill.”

The numbers are staggering.  At least 300 000 animals perish every year under the wheels of motorists in the island state.  Greg says that when you include things like frogs and lizards the number may be in excess of 1 million.

“The really tricky thing about roadkill,” says Greg, “is that it is actually the sign of a healthy ecosystem.  If you have lots of animals, you have lots of roadkill.  In Tasmania we have the almost unique position of having over-populations of some of our native species.  This high density is the reason we see so many brushtailed possums, pademelons and Bennetts wallabies on our roads.”

So the sheer amount of dead animals is actually a good thing?

“Not at all,” Greg says.  “The opposite in fact.  These animals are not dying humane deaths and they leave behind untold numbers of orphans which are protected in the pouch when their mother gets knocked down.  It’s a serious animal welfare issue.”

“Possibly the worst effect is that we lose more than 3 000 endangered Tasmanian devils on our roads every year.”

Devils are scavengers, says Greg, and feed on other animals that have been knocked down.  Routinely falling victim to the cars themselves.  “Roadkill affects devils more than any other species in Tasmania,” he says.  “Roadkill is a devastating issue and at Bonorong we have been working very hard to create a community solution to this community problem.”

Greg has just won the Pride of Australia Environment Award for his innovative wildlife rescue program that he runs from his wildlife sanctuary near Hobart, Tasmania.  The “FOC Wildlife Program” is a 24hr rescue and assistance service which provides aid to animals in need.

Greg inspecting an injured wedge-tailed eagle. Eagles scavenge on the road and are often hit by motorists. Only a few hundred breeding pairs remain.

“When we started this program 18 months ago,” he says, “Tasmania was the only state in Australia without a wildlife rescue service.  Now we have close to 500 volunteer rescuers on the ground.  The numbers speak for themselves.  We are receiving over 2000 calls per year asking for our help.

“The rescuers are amazing.  The passion that they bring to the programme is incredible.”  Greg talks about Matt Barwick, a Hobart university student, who spent the last week trying for the “perfect week” of seven rescues in seven days.  “You have to hand it to these guys, they give up their time to help out animals in need.  Amazing.”  Although, says Greg, he suspects there may be an element of study procrastination for the student rescuer.  “We are planning on doing a recruitment drive on campus,” he jokes.  “We’ll be able to raise an army!”

So how can visitors to Tasmania be involved in reducing the roadkill problem?

“The best thing that anyone can do is to slow down,” Greg says.  “If we drove at 80km/hr instead of 100km/hr at night then research has shown that roadkill in Tasmania would literally halve.  That’s 150 000 animals.  Not to mention it is safer for all of us.

“Of course sometimes the animals are unavoidable.  They just jump straight in front of you.  Roadkill is a reality of driving.  The great thing is that now there is somewhere to call for help 24 hours a day.  Bonorong’s phone number is a hotline that is always manned.”  He adds that if you call him at night and don’t receive an immediate response, then keep on ringing.  “I sleep with the phone next to my head every night but sometimes I need a couple of goes to wake up.”

“We are here to provide advice and co-ordinate rescues, but people can start the process before they even call us.  The most important thing is your safety.  If you are getting out of your car and onto the road, make sure it is safe to do so.  A lot of our animals in Australia carry their young in a pouch, so it is really important to check and see if the animal was carrying a joey.  Often the mother cannot be saved but the little one can.”

If there is a joey in the pouch there are some easy steps to maximise its chances of recovery, says Greg.  “I taught these little tricks to over 3000 primary school kids last year, so there is no need for anyone to feel like they can’t make a difference.”


DON’T FEED IT anything (especially cows milk, they are lactose intolerant)

Keep it WARM and DARK like a pouch.  The best thing to do is to put the joey in a beanie, or another item of clothing.  It doesn’t want to be any warmer than the temperature inside your shirt and that is actually a great place to put it.

Stress is the biggest killer of these animals so keep it QUIET, don’t put the car radio on or talk too loudly

CALL BONORONG (03 62 68 11 84) any time of the day or night

According to Greg, motorists can also make a big contribution to the survival of the Tasmanian devil.  “One of the best pieces of advice that we can ever give to people was suggested to me by a six-year-old boy.  I was on a tour and talking about how devils get hit on the roads a lot.  This little fella piped up and said, “why don’t people put rubber gloves in their glove-box so that they can take the animals off the road when they hit them?”  Genius.”

“This is what I love.  If everyone just does a little bit we can make a real difference to a big problem.”

Twilight Tarn and the Deceit of Rum

All Photos taken by my very talented French Fry Remi Chauvin: http://www.remichauvin.com, thefrenchduke.tumblr.com

An incredulous snarl.  “Did you bring a torch?”  The man walked into the Mt Field ski lodge.  When he returned he handed out five tea candles to the boys.  Something was not right with these young men.  They wore only thin cotton jumpers in spite of the gathering autumnal gloom.  Their jeans and Dunlop Volleys were smattered with mud from the long haul up from the Lake Dobson car park.  The reek of booze was strong on their breath.  However what the man found most disturbing, as he would later tell his wife back in Hobart, was the laughter.  His sensible suggestion of a torch was greeted with something verging on derision.  He hustled his children into the car.  As he pulled away, the logo of a large Hobart private school flashed in the few rays of sunlight that were left.  “_______ is a great school!” one of them called, “wouldn’t be where I am today without those guys.”

photo : remichauvin.com

The boys hopped over some boulders to take photos of Lake Seal in the red glow of a forestry afternoon.  Their mood was good in spite of vicious hangovers.  Only a couple of hours of impressive speed and they would be toasting their toes in the old hut at Twilight Tarn.  But a sour moment came when they realised they had left the bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Gold in the car, an hours hike and three hundred metres below.

“This portends some terrible doom.”  Jacob Neil’son swilled the dregs of the last beer and groaned about a night with nothing but recycled teabags to stiffen their drinks.

“Never mind,” quoth Harold Hobart Hellybutt, the little renowned writer of the first half of two novellas. “We’ll get by on gumption alone.”

Meri Vauchin, the only half accomplished artisan of the three, sighed and put away his Hasselblad medium format camera.  This was no way to spend an evening.  Stuck in the wilderness with two half-baked writers trying to out-converse one another.  At least the forestry burn-offs were refracting red, gold and purple light all across the barren granite.  The rocks glowed as if soaked in blood or wine or spiced rum.  Or maybe a deadly cocktail of all three.

Later, as darkness found them staggering the last few hundred feet to the hut, Neil’son felt a creeping dread.  Something like walking out of a movie and feeling THE HORROR.  His mind was caught between this world and a world where people have their loving, innocent stomachs split open by strangers and wild beasts.  Shadows took on a darker darkness, hinting at brutality.  Fear crackled through usually dormant synapses.  A primal state of awareness, alert to a predatory and nefarious world.  His fragile grasp tightened.

“The horror, the horror”, Kurtz’s final words in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  They rolled around Neil’son’s mind.  Waves of paranoia.  Make it to the hut.  Then…

An insipid fire and lukewarm tea.  Five tea candles weakly lit a corner of twisted wood and stone.  There was irrational apportioning of blame for “The Rum Situation”.  A dark night’s sleep, jumping awake at the scraping night noises.  Murmured warnings, whispered threats.  And…

Dreams.  Dreams of a brightly lit room.  ‘100th Birthday’ balloons droop from the wall on silver and gold ribbon, slowly deflating.  They have reached a wrinkled, indestructable state.

“Are you cold?” asks Jessie Luckman.  Rheumy eyes cut through thick lenses.  A pioneering bushwalker summing up a boy in her retirement room.

“No I’m fine thankyou,” lies Neil’son, feeling disrobed.

“I like to keep things a little fresh.  You’ve already broken the first rule of journalism.  You’ve assumed that I actually used the hut.”

Damn, thinks Neil’son, one of those dreams where you go to school naked.  “Ah, yes.  Um… Did you know the people who built it?” checking discreetly to make sure he’s wearing pants.

“It was built by the Ski Club of Tasmania in 1927.  There were quite a number of them.  Cybil Sale.  Cee Why Bee…  Ida MacCauley.  Em Ay Cee capital Cee…  She was a very keen skier.  Charles Wessing.  Someone Hutchison. The women built the fireplace.  They carried all those big rocks.

“I took up skiing in 1938.  We would stay at the government huts at Lake Dobson.  They were simple but not too uncomfortable.  By then they had put a road through to Lake Fenton so the walk wasn’t so long.  Before, they would arrive on the train from Hobart, you caught the train back-then.  The ranger would carry all their skis and packs on horseback while they walked to the snow.  When the lakes froze over they would go skating.”

Neil’son’s gaze drifts out to the river which filters past the centenarian’s window.  Little flies circle on the surface.  Dancing.  Drifting music orchestrates the dance.  They wheel and spin in hope and lust, without any knowledge that their lives on earth are short beyond imagining.  Fearless, immortal, wearing skates.

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He is back.  Feeling like he has walked many miles.  Again standing by Twilight Tarn in the on-rushing dark.  But it is different.  The world is colder, newer.  The lake is a bed of white pearl.  Across it the music still crackles from a hand-crank gramophone perched on a stump by the hut.  The hut looks smaller and the forest around it has been slashed back to provide building material and firewood.  A light in the window is all welcome as the cold grows fangs.  “They called the tarn Twilight because they’d arrive there as the sun disappeared,” said a voice in Neil’son’s mind.  A group of men and women glided in twos and threes across the ice.  Inexplicably clothed in dinner suits and evening gowns, they spun a lazy roundelay.  The tracks of their skates left a figure like infinity drawn on infinity.

Neil’son had a strong feeling that he was supposed to be somewhere else so he walked away from the tarn and down the black, cold, wearisome path of darkness.  No sooner was he below the first ridge, and THE HORROR was back.  Not creeping this time but tearing at his clothes, spitting foul volleys in his mouth and eyes.  Stumbling, lost.  Where was the track?  He saw Hellybutt in front of him, grinning through his mountainous beard.  “Gumption,” he urged.  Fuck That! wailed Neil’son in his mind, we’re lost and we’ve no rum…

“It’s ignorance that makes people scared,” said Luckman in her room above the river.

Neil’son looks at scribbled black marks on his notepad.  He shakes the chill from his spine.  “Can you get a true wilderness experience in Tasmania these days?”

“No.  Where are you going to go?  These places, I call them the lungs of the earth, are over-loved.  Some development is purely for the money they get out of it.”

“Were you ever scared, during any of your adventures in the wilderness.”

“No, we’ve no wild animals here,” she chuckles.  “ It’s fear of what you don’t know.  Well, that’s for townies…”

The milky light came without knocking.  It revealed three rooms.  One was a rustic museum of ancient wooden skis, tin cans, cutlery green with age, bottles (one still holding the remains of an ancient port).  Sepia photographs were tacked to the walls.  The Tarn scoured with the tracks of grinning skaters.  The hut and lake in a frozen embrace in the winter of 1936.  A thread of smoke climbing from a chimney built by women long since dead.

“Yes, yes.  This is really very cool,” muttered Hellybutt.  Tea fumes curling into his chin forest.  “They’d bring everything they’d ever want from town and party up here in the wilderness.”

Gramophone, skis, ballgowns … rum, thought Neil’son ruefully.

“They used to walk here from the railway, miles and miles in the snow.  The ranger would bring all their gear up on a horse called Runic,” said Vauchin, his Cannon 5D Mark ii making pinprick beeps, sharpening the focus.

“I want a pet magpie called Runic,” said Hellybutt.  “He could sit on my shoulder while I walked around Salamanca.”

“There’s some kind of pioneering spirit in these photographs that is just gone,” said Neil’son.  “That man at the ski lodge, I think he may have despised us.”

“And all because we weren’t battered in goretex,” agreed Hellybutt.

Just because you’re going into the mountains doesn’t mean you’ve got to dress like an idiot, thought Vauchin.  He zipped up his leather jacket and threw a blue-black-check merino scarf louchely across his neck.  “Let’s go take some photos, this fog is starting to lift.”

Outside, the tepid sun was indeed trying to burn off the night mist.  All was silent except for the flickering leaf shutter on Vauchin’s Hasselblad.  The tarn was calm, cold but unfrozen.  Neil’son’s cigarette smoke mingled with the shreds of mist as they spiraled to the lake’s surface.  The filaments wound in an elegant, drunken formation and swept across the water.  There was unbridled joy in that frictionless Highland fling.  The reel grew faster and faster as the beat of the day increased.  Then the dancers disappeared, disbanded by the breeze.

Neil’son shivered, the wraiths of past winters still sliding before his eyes.  Hellybutt wondered at the literary sound of the clinking, empty beer bottles in Vauchin’s knapsack.  Vauchin smiled, wound back the film on the Hassleblad, and shifted the sloshing weight of the rum bottle on his shoulder.

A Letter from Bonorong

This piece was written for BBC Wildlife Magazine as part of my PR work as manager of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania.

It can be found at http://www.discoverwildlife.com/tasmania/letter-bonorong

Hot damn, it’s good to be a greenie in Tasmania right now. In the place where it all began, a new, smart and (if green is your colour) sexy brand of environmentalism is evolving. Instead of chaining themselves to trees, Tasmanians are now working out ways to buy the bulldozers.

Conservation v2.0 is a cool chowder of pragmatics and ideals. It sees economics as a tool rather than an enemy and it looks to the microscope rather than the megaphone.

I manage a wildlife sanctuary called Bonorong (www.bonorong.com.au). We are situated just north of Tasmania’s capital Hobart. In my work I have come into contact with many driven and creative people who share in this vision of a new conservationist creed. I want to share with you a little of what we do at Bonorong and the work of a couple of organisations that get our juices flowing.

Our mission is to run a tourism business which uses its profits to kick as much A for the environment as possible. In this way we use the traditional tourist dollar (Tasmania’s strongest industry) to encourage protection rather than exploitation. The term ‘social enterprise’ is relatively little known in Australia, however many of us are starting to use this term to describe our use of for-profit tools for non-profit jobs.

Bonorong works like this:

We offer guests a genuine and moving experience. Tasmanian wildlife is like no other, and you get to experience it in a setting which is nothing like a zoo. Get personal with the animals on hand-feeding night tours. Many of our residents are rehabilitating towards release, we want you to share in these stories. If everyone just played with a baby wombat now and then, I swear, world peace might be on the cards. It’s an inspiring place to hang around.

In return, you help us to protect Tasmania’s environment. Your entry fee covers the costs of running the sanctuary. Money after this, which would traditionally be profit, goes into our project fund. This fund operates a diverse range of large and small conservation projects.

For example, we:

  • Operate Tasmania’s only 24hr wildlife rescue service
  • Rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife and release them back to the wild
  • Fund and manage research on Tasmanian devils in the wild
  • Breed the now endangered devils in safe captive programs
  • Run free school education programs on saving wildlife
  • Train wildlife keepers, carers and rescuers

We definitely aren’t here to get rich, but we are having a bloody wonderful time. We describe it as doing well by doing good.
The great thing is that we are not alone. Tarkine Trails (www.tarkinetrails.com.au) is another Tasmanian tourism business committed with visionary aspirations. They take guests on life-changing bushwalks and retreats amid ancient temperate rainforest in Tasmania’s famous Tarkine region. This world-calibre forest is not currently protected and is threatened by active interest from forestry and mining companies. The mission of the Tarkine boys is to create an alternative economy in the area. If tourism becomes a viable and competitive industry, then there is every chance that this natural jewel will survive.

When they are not busy saving the southern hemisphere’s largest temperate rainforest, the lads also engage in some collaborative work with Bonorong. The latest is our devil population monitoring project. The Tarkine remains free of the terrible cancer which remains the devil’s greatest existential threat. With extensive fundraising for equipment, and some sneaky logistical planning we have organised for Tarkine Trails guides to become data collectors in one of the largest and most remote camera monitoring surveys ever undertaken in Tasmania. This will aid us in protecting the Tasmanian devil from the impending tragedy.

Along with tourism businesses taking steps towards environmental responsibility there are some fantastic organisations creatively building a better future. The absolute stand-out amongst these is the Tasmanian Land Conservancy (www.tasland.org.au). These guys buy and sell land. Sound simple? Mostly it is. When they buy land they place a protective covenant on it which stops anyone wrecking the place for a century. Then they sell it to someone who wants a little piece of environmental heritage for themselves. These guys started in 2001 with less money than it takes to fill a Holden ute. Now they have established 20 000 hectares of high-value protected land across Tasmania. How cool is that?

That’s the story in Tasmania at the moment. There are many more businesses and organisations adopting innovative, inspirational approaches to conservation. There is a genuine feeling that what is happening here is special and we are all working towards the same thing. As the world changes more and more rapidly, Tasmanians are evolving new ways of keeping things just as they always have been.

Karl Mathiesen
Manager, Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary
Protecting Tasmanian Wildlife
593 Briggs Road, Brighton, Tasmania 7030
Phone: (03) 6268 1184 | Fax: (03) 6268 1811
Email: info@bonorong.com.au | Website: www.bonorong.com.au

The Sun was Shining on the Sea

This piece, which appeared in the Tasmanian Times in 2010, was my first published work.  It is a 2100 word investigation into the possible contamination of a river in north-western Tasmania.   

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

Karl Mathiesen


There’s something odd going on in the George River and there’s something even odder
going on out of it.  Trying to decipher the investigation into why the river is toxic is like trying to make sense of a Lewis Carroll poem.  Come for a wander along the beach, if you don’t get it, don’t worry, no-one seems to.

The George River trickles out of the Rattler Range in north-eastern Tasmania.  Gathering volume and speed it flows through tall stands of Eucalyptus Nitens plantation forest.  Emerging onto pastureland the George meets the Ransom.  It then flows sedately (and now toxically) into the oyster-laden bay which bears its name.

In February Australian Story reported on the travails of two doctors who have spent much of the last decade raising concerns about strange occurrences within the catchment.  Drs Alison Bleaney GP and Marcus Scammell became worried after a dramatic rise in oyster mortality in the late 1990s coincided with an observed rise in the cancer rate in the Break O Day municipality.  A preliminary investigation by the Government concluded that it was freshwater inundation from floods that was killing the oysters.  The oyster farmers in the area disagreed, saying that it was usual for oysters to survive and even thrive through periods of flood.  Something, they said, was wrong with the water.

In 2004 Bleaney, a local GP, and Scammell, a Sydney based marine ecologist, released a report called Environmental Problems Georges Bay, Tasmania, otherwise known as the Bleaney-Scammell Review or BSR.  They were worried that pesticides sprayed on the plantation forests in the upper catchment could be contaminating the river.  They also noted that there was a strange co-incidence of environmental health events – human cancer, oyster death and the emergence of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

Rather than investigate the report the Tasmanian Government has worked very hard to discredit the doctors.  The pair have since pooled their resources and compiled a large body of research which attests that there is something seriously wrong with the George River.  It appears that, in addition to pesticide pollution, there is a toxin drifting downstream.  Bleaney says that the toxin, when mixed with pulses of pesticides which occur during rain periods, can have compound effects on health right through the ecosystem.  The toxins can cross through tissue membranes.  This could have “unpredictable, unexplained effects.”  Bleaney and Scammell’s research was conducted through six independent laboratories.  It found that the toxin occurs in the leaves of Eucalyptus Nitens.  Bleaney says that during their investigation the Nitens tree was the only source of the toxin they could find in the catchment.

This was the story which was released on the ABC’s Australian Story program.  If the science proves to be valid (and Bleaney insists “the labs have been meticulous”) then the Tasmanian Government will have spent six years and many resources on discrediting two private citizens who have been raising legitimate public health and environmental concerns.

The Nitens tree is a fast growing eucalypt imported from Victoria.  Contrary to recent media reports the plants are in no way genetically modified.  Forestry Industries Association of Tasmania Chief Executive, Terry Edwards, says “there are no genetically modified trees growing in Tasmania.”  He says to do so would breach a governmental moratorium on GM crops and would require FIAT to apply for a special government permit.  The plants have been selectively bred in order to produce maximum yield.  Just as farmers breed the largest and healthiest cattle “the selection process that occurs is selecting the fastest growing seedlings”.  According to Edwards the chemistry of the leaf undergoes only a minute change if any at all.  When asked whether or not this selective breeding process could be a contributing factor to any water contamination issue he said simply: “No”.  In a letter to Australian Story before the program went to air he repeated that there was no genetic modification of the trees.  The program asserted that the trees were ‘genetically improved’ and did not offer qualification of this term.  According to Australian Story there is evidence of “subtle differences in chemistry with the leaves”.  In the program Dr Chris Hickey from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research says that these differences between Tasmanian and Victorian trees have nothing to with their toxicity but rather contribute to the stability of the surface foam in which toxins are transported.  FIAT has since called for the matter to be investigated by the federal and state governments.

The original BSR, Bleaney says, “was never a scientific document at all.”  The BSR “might have been flawed but jeepers, we couldn’t have done any more than that with no money, no resources.”  Rather it was a series of observations of environmental and human health anomalies occurring within one river catchment at the same time.  “A lot of science starts from observation,” says Bleaney.  “You see an apple fall from a tree and you start to wonder.”  It just so happens that this apple might be rotten.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

During the premiership of Paul Lennon a review of the BSR was commissioned by the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment.  The DPIWE review, conducted by Professor Paolo Ricci, focussed entirely on the nature of the BSR rather than its content and the issues raised within.  “The BSR lacks scientific credibility and should not be used for policy analysis,” said Ricci.  He goes on to make recommendations on the manner in which further research should be conducted.  However that was enough for the Government.  It gave them the ammunition they needed to silence the doctors and their supporters.

The following is an exchange recorded on Hansard between MPs Nick McKim, David Llewellyn and Steve Kons in the House of Assembly in March 2007.  It refers to the Percival report which supported the observations of Bleaney and Scammell.

“Mr McKim [Greens MP]- ‘Members will recall the Percival Report, which was commissioned from a scientist within the then Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment.  Members will also recall that I actually released that report on behalf of the Government and members will further recall that Dr Percival made it very clear in that report that it was not just freshwater inundation that resulted in a massive death of oysters in Georges Bay.’
Mr Llewellyn [Deputy Premier]- ‘Remember that I said I don’t agree with him.’
Mr McKim – ‘I know that you do not agree with him, Minister, and that is very interesting because what that says to me is that you commission research from within your department and if it suits you politically you agree with it but if it does not suit you politically you disagree with it.  That is what that says to me.  Interestingly, what you cannot do is provide any scientific rebuttal -’
Mr Llewellyn – ‘There is scientific rebuttal.’
Mr Kons [Minister for Primary Industry, Water and the Environment] – ‘Paolo Ricci.’”
What is interesting is that Ricci’s review was concerned solely with the BSR.  There is no mention of the Percival Report.  Llewellyn claimed that the Ricci review offered scientific rebuttal to a report which found that there was something other than George River floodwaters causing oyster deaths.  The Ricci review was never designed to address the oyster death issue.  As Ricci stated:
“This review is based solely and entirely on the material contained in the report Environmental Problems Georges Bay, Tasmania.”
The Government used the Ricci report as a comprehensive repudiation of any suggestion that further research needed to be conducted in the catchment.  The Ricci report is available from the DPIPWE (they added Parks this year) website (http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/Attachments/LBUN-63C9LL?open).  Tasmanian Times contacted the Department in order to find out how much the taxpayer had paid Professor Ricci and received this reply:
“As for your questions, it’s not this Department’s policy to put public servants up for student assignment interviews whether those requests be written or in person. The staff are busy in the conduct of their jobs, as I’m sure you would appreciate.”

The only other place the Ricci report is available is on the website of Croplife Australia.  Croplife is the major lobby group for the pesticide industry.  Bleaney describes them as “the heavy mob”.  They represent corporations like Monsanto, Du Pont and Syngenta.  The Lennon Government essentially funded a lobby paper for these polluters.  More worryingly for Tasmanians is that in their attempts to discredit Bleaney and Scammell they employed combative tactics usually reserved for these heavy-weight lobby groups.
“My commitment to you is that I welcome frank and fearless advice,” said Premier David Bartlett to the Tasmanian Public Service in February 2009.  This issue is a true test of that statement.  It is also a test of Bartlett’s commitment to move away from the bullying tactics that were considered a characteristic of his predecessor Paul Lennon.
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

The George River Water Quality Panel was convened in March at Bartlett’s request.  Their brief was to establish a process “to address the scientific research issues raised in the “Australian Story” ABC television program”.  That the Tasmanian Premier is taking his cues from a current affairs program illustrates the bizarre nature of this affair.  Bleaney explains that she used to believe that the media was a waste of time. “That you could write the science and that would be enough.”  Clearly Bleaney felt that the only way to force the Government’s hand was to circumvent the process by going to the media.

Due to release an interim report on Monday May 31, the panel announced on Friday May 28 that it would be delaying for a month in order to wait for some “outstanding information”.

This information is being provided by the Director of Public Health Dr Roscoe Taylor.  As Dr Andrew Lohrey and Robert Belcher have already said in Tasmanian Times the Director has his reputation at stake here.  On Bleaney’s observations of a cancer cluster in the Break O Day area Taylor has argued consistently that “there has been nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary or adverse trends”.  He has also repeatedly said that the water in the catchment is safe to drink.  He also requested the Tasmanian Government supply funding so that carbon powder can be added to the water to remove harmful substances.  Just in case.  Taylor’s latest press release on the issue can be found at http://www.bodc.tas.gov.au.  It repeats the phrases “no scientific evidence”, “it is not clear” and “no evidence” constantly throughout his release.  Still framing the argument through the prism of the Ricci report.

The public relations company Font PR, which is managing the Panel’s media communications, has confirmed that the Ricci report is one of the documents that the Panel have been referring to during their investigations.

Bleaney’s response to the delay was that they were stalling.  “My expectations are limited,” she said.  “I’m becoming very cynical.  What gets me is that we’re six years down the track and we’re still arguing about whether to get serious about this toxin or not.  Sticking your head in the sand is actually counterproductive.”

On Tuesday June 30 the Panel released their findings.  The official word is that there is no further investigation needed.  Bleaney calls it a good summary of the science so far, “all then wrapped up in politics”.  Greens water spokesman Tim Morris has said that this highlights the need for an independent body to investigate water health issues.  The question Tasmanians will ask is – isn’t that the government’s job?  Why should we need an independent panel to look into…  Hang on:

“About the Panel:  A panel of eminent, independent [emphasis added] scientists has been brought together to address scientific research issues linked to water quality in the George River.”

What is happening in the George River is odd.  The governmental reaction has been even stranger.  Why has the Tasmanian Government allowed this issue to continue for so long?  And why has it consistently undermined the work of Drs Bleaney and Scammell?  It is not because the public is ambivalent.  Bartlett cited “public concern” sparked by the Australian Story program as the motivating factor in convening the Panel.  Why are we delaying while a river may be poisoning itself and us?  Nonsense.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

(The Walrus and the Carpenter was first published in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll in 1872.  Walk along the unswept beach at http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html)