For a fair chunk of my recent three week stint in Tasmania, I hitched around from town to town without any real destination in mind. But between all that I made it out to a couple of the more remote parts of the state for a pilgrimage of sorts – to the Florentine Valley and the Franklin River.
The Florentine is in Tasmania’s south-west. 25km past the last town in that direction, traffic is fairly infrequent. But from 2006 to 2012 it was the site of Camp Florentine, where a group of committed environmentalists held one of Australia’s longest lasting forest blockade camps.
The people in that camp battled the cold and the rain; the hostility of loggers and the forestry industry; the heartbreak of watching a forest clearfelled in front of them. To stay there as long as they did showed amazing resilience and bravery. But they also showed a lot of creativity – banner drops in cities (even off the side of the Spirit Of Tasmania ferry), barricades in the shape of pirate ships, angels on tripods. They were “forest ferals”; people who rejected the values of mainstream society to camp in the bush, eating roadkill, sneaking around the forest and getting arrested disrupting logging.
I have to admit it was towards the end of that six years that I first heard of the campaign, but it inspired me to hear of these people protecting from clearfell machines one of the country’s last wild frontiers. I helped run fundraiser events, did protests at Harvey Norman against the sale of timber products made from these forests. I heard people who had been there talk about the beauty of the Florentine and what it meant to them. “The Floz” to me was always a magical place.
For quite a while I assumed I would at some point make it to the Floz to help out. But in 2012 a truce was called while the logging industry and environmentalists negotiated a “forest agreement”. It wasn’t an easy process – forests kept falling, but environmentalists were told that any protests would risk the whole process being thrown out. Blockaders were shut out of the negotiations. Many felt betrayed not just by the government and industry, but by big environmental organisations. Long-term forest activist Miranda Gibson went up a giant eucalypt and didn’t come down for well over a year to keep the eyes of the world on Tasmania’s south-west forests.
In the end the “forest agreement” was bitterly disappointing. It included industry subsidies but little conservation outcomes. It included a gag clause saying the whole thing would be discarded if anyone protested against deforestation. And after all that, it was torn up a year later when the state government changed. But there was a victory of sorts – 170,000 hectares nominated for (and awarded) world heritage status. It even survived Tony Abbott taking the unprecedented step of asking the UN to rescind part of the decision.
I went to the Floz with a couple of friends. None of us had been part of the camp but we had all heard stories from friends who had. We slept at the old campsite; we walked through stunning rainforest full of fallen trees covered in bright green lichen, an undergrowth of ferns, a distant canopy of giant and ancient sassafras and eucalypts. We went to the Growling Swallet, where a creek disappears into an underground cave. We walked to the river near where the last Tasmanian tiger was captured in the 1930’s (of course we hold on to hope there are still some in that dense forest). We walked to the top of a mountain range, where the vast valleys of green were laid out in front of us, punctuated by the scars where forest had been clearfelled.
The Florentine Valley was certainly as beautiful as I had hoped, and walking those tracks gave me a new sense of appreciation for the people who struggled so hard to stop those ancient trees being knocked down.
A few days later I headed north-west towards Queenstown, knowing that along the way the road would be intercepted by the Franklin River. The Franklin holds an even more iconic place in Australia’s protest history than the Florentine.
In 1979, the Tasmanian government announced plans to dam the Franklin and flood the valley for generating hydroelectricity. Many of Tasmania’s rivers had already been dammed for the same purpose; but this time conservationists decided that this valley; forest so impenetrable few settlers had ever made it through (of course a notable exception being the legendary cannibal convict escapee Alexander Pearce), should be protected.
People from all over Australia took up the cause, first through political campaigning and then in late 1982-1983 by flocking to the Franklin River to blockade workers beginning construction of the dam. 1,400 people were arrested in the blockade, which became a media spectacle and captured the imagination of the public in a way few environmental campaigns have before or since.
In 1983, the federal Labor opposition declared in the leadup to the election that they would stop the dam if they were elected. With the Franklin duly playing its part, Labor won the election. The Tasmanian state government challenged the decision in court, even threatening to secede from the commonwealth. But in the end the Franklin was allowed to flow, Tasmania never suffered a shortage of electricity, and the campaign put the state and its phenomenal natural beauty on the world stage in a way that no amount of hydroelectricity could ever match.
The Franklin River meets the A10 highway near Derwent Bridge. I got picked up hitching by another tourist from the mainland – he had rented a car and had ten days to drive around the state. I told him of my plan to see the river and he said he’d like to join me.
As we took the short walk from the highway to the rope bridge across the river, I told my new companion about the history of the campaign and its significance (I stopped short of launching into a chorus of Goanna’s cheesy campaign anthem Let The Franklin Flow). When we got there though, the mighty Franklin was looking pretty subdued. No high gorges or swirling currents like the Peter Dombrovkis photo, just a nice if pretty average looking river ambling along at barely waist-high depth.That spot I guess is not one of its more spectacular points.
Still, we hung out for a while on the bank of the river, I stripped off for a refreshing (ie. very cold) swim. Just by walking from the highway we had left behind the last bit of industrialised civilisation between here and the coast – a fact attested to by the rickety one-person-at-a-time bridge that crossed the river. From here on the Franklin wound through country where the Tasmanian devils, quolls, pademelons and thousands of other species can roam freely.
This little pilgrimage to those two sites might seem quaint and a bit nerdy, but I’m glad I did it. Firstly it helped to enflesh for me these stories I have heard, helping me to appreciate them in a new way. Secondly, it allowed a re-evaluation of the history that has brought us to where we are today.
While I was in Tasmania, Donald Trump was elected as US president, the latest of a series of reactionary election results in 2016. I wish I could have shrugged it off, knowing I was on holiday. But instead, it prompted a lot of thinking. Can we of the pro-immigration, pro-environment political left really be losing this badly? As Hillary Clinton raged against “deplorables” and those she was targeting proudly took on the label; I had to wonder how we had gotten so out of touch. How many people in the political left have any kind of relationship with the average Trump/One Nation voter? When the mainstream view is so far from my own in so many ways, how to I find a place where I belong in this culture and these people?
These are questions that rolled around my head as I went on long bushwalks. I didn’t come to many satisfactory resolutions, but it was really nice to think of these environmental campaigns as part of the history that had shaped Australia – not a fringe sect, but a powerful movement that gathered people together, that gave voice to feelings that were deep-seated and shared by many, that influenced the society we live in today. And it is a part of our culture I feel I can proudly identify with and situate myself in.
And looking at that forest and that river, I had to admire the people who had given so much and staked it all on protecting these places. People who dedicated their lives to the cause, going to live in remote locations; standing in the face of a hostile media, government and local opposition. They didn’t see events as just unfolding guided by fate. They believed that we should play an active role in shaping the future. While one view of the future was proffered by the powerful people of Tasmania (and indeed the world), they were able to see a different one – and the proof is standing there in the forests of Tasmania that sometimes those visions of the future can turn out. Opening our eyes to a different vision of the past also allows us to envision a different future.