In order to understanding how and why the coronial inquiry into the January 2003 Canberra bushfires unraveled, and in order to understand the recent decision of the ACT Supreme Court to clear Coroner Maria Doogan of ‘apprehended bias’, it is perhaps necessary to have some understanding of the various meanings of ‘wilderness’.
The following quotes are perhaps relevant:
“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and downs,
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress
Percy Bysshe Shelley, c. 1820
“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”
Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
“The emotional aspects of a wilderness experience might be compared to a religious experience. It is particularly valuable for those people whose unconscious association of pain and discomfort in relationship to man render a deity in human form impossible. Christianity is unacceptable to some people because of the use of the human symbol, but some who can’t accept Christ can gain a tremendous sense of peace from relating to uncontaminated areas.”
Donald McKinley, Forest Industries, February 1963
“Wilderness, in the environmental pantheon, represents a particular kind of sanctuary in which all true values – that is all nonhuman values – are reposited.”
William Tucker, Harper’s, March 1982
“Wilderness: Land that, together with its plant and animal communities, is in a state that has not been substantially modified by, and is remote from, the influences of European settlement or is capable of being restored to such a state, and is of sufficient size to make its maintenance in such a state feasible.”
National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity, Department of Environment and Heritage, 1996 http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/publications/strategy/gloss.html
“This might apply to the surface of Pluto or the centre of the Earth, perhaps, but it would be arrogance or ignorance to presume that there is any place on Earth that hasn’t, at some time in the past, been managed or substantially affected in some way by humans.”
Bob Beale and Mike Archer in their book titled ‘Going Native’, October 2004
“Wilderness is an outdated 70s concept and it is dangerous. It is dangerous because in its pure form it prohibits proactive management in the area.”
Phil Cheney’s evidence to the ACT Coroner’s Inquiry into the January 2003 Canberra bushfires
Definition of Wilderness in Australia:
“A large area of land on which direct non-government profit making enterprises are excluded.”
Davey Gam Esq. says
Like many people, I love wild and natural places. However, I think we need to beware of glib assumptions that they are the ideal habitat, especially if important disturbances, such as fire, are excluded.
An interesting news item by Michael Hopkin appears at http://www.nature.com (look for “Military exercises good for endangered species”).
It seems that some US military firing ranges in Germany have more wildlife than National Parks. Beneficial disturbances mentioned are fire, and tank track ruts, where Natterjack Toads breed.
I remember similar findings on military ranges in Britain some years ago. It has long been known in Britain that hedgerows (hardly wilderness features) offer wonderful habitat for birds, hedgehogs, rabbits, weasels, field mice, and a host of wildflowers.
Might not some Australian farmland be better habitat for some species than ‘wilderness’? A nearby golf course seems very popular with kangaroos. Perhaps it is similar to the grassy areas, now lost, that Aboriginal burning created and maintained.
Farmland suited to some wildlife? Quite possibly. For example, the 28 parrot and the pink and grey galah are two other examples that proliferate in grain farming environments. To the point where the farm plantation industry regards the 28s as feathered rats because of the damage these birds do to young trees. I’m not sure that these responses to extreme disturbance are inside my definition of “beneficial”.
Wilderness seems to me to be a transient state that we happen to become aware of during our short lives. Its apparent permanence and spiritual significance is a reflection of how short our lives are.
Neil Hewett says
Your perception of brevity and insignificance relative to wilderness smacks of pessimism. It is rather the lack of wilderness that yearns for instinctive fulfilment. The profundity of those occasions when the need is gratified should laud the benefits of greater immersion rather than decry the lack of wilderness within our short lives.
Perhaps I can illustrate with a couple of examples. I lack the conceptual language to do this another way.
I used to live near to Dwellingup, a timber town in the SW of WA. A work colleague who also lived there related how some of his friends from Perth came to visit. “How lucky you are to be surrounded by all this wonderful old growth forest” was the gist of their observation. To them the forest was beautiful. To me it still is. Thousands of tourists flock to this little town every weekend to enjoy in their individual ways the atmosphere, the ambience, of the forest and the river that cuts through it near the town.
Apart from a few isolated hectares, all of that forest is regrowth. It has all, from the edge of the farmland to the east and the west to the edge of the town, been logged more than once since the end of the 19th century. The river, which arises in the farmland inland from the forest, became saline in the fifties due to farm clearing. The tourists are not stupid, but they are happy with the experiences they have on their weekends there. If I had a dollar for every time someone from Perth has told me how lovely the forest is around Dwellingup ….
Second example. It has struck me during a couple of trips to Europe how much the Europeans of all nationalities love their forests. They are very obviously using them for recreation, personal rejuvenation and all the same reasons that we enjoy ours. There are no natural forests in Europe. They are all regrowth or plantations, though some are hundreds of years old. The southern end (and possibly all of) the Black Forest is a plantation actively regenerated, thinned, logged and clearfelled in compartments. All the forests we drove through and walked in were actively managed, in some cases with log landings right next to large tourist roads. The Netherlands saws more wood from its forests than WA does from millions of hectares of native forests, but people make jokes about how Holland only has one tree.
Like Aus tourists, Europeans are not idiots, or the victims of dulled senses. So why do people enjoy a forest for its “wilderness values” when so often those forests are not ancient, they are regenerated following logging and are actively managed by (shock and horror!) foresters. If you could go back far enough into a truly uncut forest’s past, you would find a cataclysmic collapse and regeneration, probably repeated collapses for millions of years. If you go to the Kimberley, you will be dumbstruck by the wild beauty of the place. It used to be covered by rainforest. Why is it still regarded a wilderness if it used to be typical of the type of forest most people equate with “true wilderness”?
The wilderness experience is real, it is to me. But it is something from within, it is a perception. I have had the same feeling driving through the wheatbelt on a sunny spring day, all the canola flowering and the wind rippling through the wheat, then cresting the top of a hill, looking 20km to the top of the next hill and really enjoying a sense of enormous well-being. And I’m a forester! That doesn’t degrade the experience for me, recognising that I’m making this perception within my own head, I just enjoy the moment. There’s nothing intrinsic to a wilderness that feeds me wilderness signals or spiritual feelings. I make it up myself and I’m really very happy with that.
So yes, I’m pessimistic and a cynic, but I really enjoy the wilderness experience.
Of course the link between wilderness and bushfires is totally spurious. The point about wilderness is that it’s a long way away from humans. The fire can (and should) go there as it wishes. It makes absolutely no difference to whether houses and lives are going to be lost. It was the bloody pine plantations that caused the Canberra problems.
And in Victoria the wilderness areas were less affected than general National Park areas.
Meanwhile, more fires start outside national parks and burn into them than the other way around.
jennifer marohasy says
Australian Aboriginal views on wilderness:
jennifer marohasy says
The army can be good for biodiversity in ‘wilderness areas’ see
Louis Hissink says
humans are part of the biosphere, inseperable, and therefore “wilderness” are those areas which we humans have not reached, visisted and therefore not experienced.
I pose some subtleties.
I have always associated ‘”wilderness” as a human condition, a state of mind.
You must have been the one in the family who, as a small boy, always said “Why?”
Once there was a piece of forest that was deemed to be of very high conservation value. A walk trail that runs from Perth (WA) to Albany on the south coast was realigned through said piece of forest. The Conservation Council spokeswoman had an emotional meltdown in the press about this desecration of the valuable piece of forest.
Presumably wilderness, as you imply, is seen by some to be something you know is there, but if the great unwashed visit it, it is no longer really wilderness.
Chris Smith says
There is no wilderness in Australia. According to Flannery in ‘Future Eaters’ Australia was the largest man-made construct in 1788. Every section was maintained and altered by human action. When whites first arrived in numbers, in 1788, every square foot of the Australian continent ‘belonged’ to someone.
Wilderness is an outmoded European imperialist concept to deny ownership and rights to indigeneous populations. In English, wilderness means ‘an uncultivated and uninhabited tract’ (OED) – an ideal description for a possibly profitable piece of real estate occupied by ‘natives’ and obviously under-exploited.
Wilderness is an affectation, not even harmless, developed by environment organisations and bush walking clubs to invest their endeavours with some importance. A weekend stroll through someone’s garden doesn’t quite cut it as much as a treck through the alpine wilderness – even though they are the same place. Likewise, how can environment groups ignore indigeneous rights or voices without denoting their land as wilderness? If groups such as TWS (The Wilderness Society – such an ignorant concept for an organisation claiming moral high ground!) listened to indigeneous voices they would have to change much of their policies.
I worked with and for environment groups in East Gippsland, and it was always a sore point that the groups made no effort to contact or talk to indigeneous locals, ignored the fact that many aboriginal people made a living in forest industries, and that all indigeneous organissations in the region had little if any desire to work with the environment groups.