Well do I remember Judy Edwards, the then-Minister for the Environment, proudly announcing the creation of Western Australia’s first official wilderness area. It was 2004, and the area in question was an extensive hectarage of forest in the deep south near the small towns of Walpole and Denmark. It was not a “green-fields” reservation, but a cobbling together of existing reserves, mostly national parks, but also including some State forests.
The great thing about this new wilderness area, Minister Edwards explained, was that it would “protect biodiversity and ecological processes in the long term”.
She did not explain why biodiversity and ecological processes were not being protected in the existing reserves. This would be to admit mismanagement by her department.
But she did indicate how the new reserve would be managed in the future so as to achieve her lofty aims. Mostly this focused on human use, not ecological processes. The area would only be accessible to the public by foot, she said, and there would be no walk trails, signs, or track markers. No “ground-disturbing” activities associated with bushfire management (such as fire trail construction) would be permitted; prescribed burning buffers would be located outside the wilderness area. Internal roads would be closed, or allowed to grow over, and road signs removed.
The Minister said the aim would be to manage the wilderness area for its “intrinsic values” and “to provide unique recreational opportunities”. This “island of natural beauty” would be protected because it had been “relatively untouched by modern society”.
Well do I also remember the incredulity with which this announcement was greeted by the round-table of retired foresters with whom I occasionally share a yarn and reminisce. All of us had worked in this area at some time in the distant past, and had experienced its unique recreational opportunities at close quarters.
What are the “intrinsic values” of wilderness, we wondered, and why cannot they be provided in a national park? The only unique attribute of a wilderness area appears to be a lack of access for vehicles, or of formed walk trails for walkers. Protection of landscape beauty and biodiversity is clearly the first objective in national parks. Moreover, most national parks contain trackless areas, especially those in the remoter parts of the Pilbara or Kimberley.
It is true that closing roads and banning vehicular traffic has some environmental benefits (vehicles can spread dieback disease and grading can lead to sediment washing into streams), but these threats can be minimised or avoided by responsible management. Vehicles are also noisy, especially the detested trail bikes, and occasionally a native animal will be run over. However, none of these impacts is likely to be significant in terms of the biodiversity of a large national park. The two big threats to biodiversity in WA are feral predators/herbivores, and large intense wildfires. Neither can be reduced by merely closing roads.
At first glance I saw several ironies with the creation in WA’s southern forests of the sort of wilderness area envisaged by Minister Edwards.
First, the vegetation in this area is karri and southern jarrah forest, interspersed by swampland. These ecotypes naturally have a very prickly, dense (often almost impenetrable) understorey. I spent a fair proportion of my early days as a forester fighting my way through it when carrying out survey and inventory work, and I can remember how I would come home from the day’s work with my trousers shredded and my hands cut and bleeding from battling sword grass and spiny wattles. In the tangled ti-tree and bottlebrush swamps, walking was actually impossible. The trick was to find a runnel used by wallabies and crawl along it.
In winter, the southern forests are cold and sodden; it is either raining or dripping off the trees. One of the most ubiquitous shrub species is known to bushmen as “waterbush” because it collects water on its foliage until you brush against it, and then it drenches you. The cheering billy fire, of course, is not permitted in a wilderness area.
In summer, the bush is warm, humid and sticky, almost sub-tropical, and is rich with mosquitoes, march flies and tiger snakes. Yes, the trees, birdlife and wildflowers are beautiful, but these are more easily appreciated from a walking track, not from deep within a thicket of head-high karri wattle or the aptly-named “buggery bush”.