The first National Park in the world was declared in 1872 by U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant. It was rightly seen as a massive milestone in the preservation of natural heritage. Not so well known is the fact that nine years before that, in a remote corner of Australia, the Governor of Tasmania signed an act to establish 'reserves for scenic purposes'. Tasmania got there first. By Jeremy Torr
Launceston, 16 January 2017. Today, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) administers, monitors, protects and maintains 19 major national parks and 816 natural reserves offering everything from glacier-carved highlands to quiet beaches; from mysterious ancient rainforests to colourful, alpine wildernesses that boast unique plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. It is paradise when it comes to nature tourism.
As early as 1804, the man in charge of Tasmania’s new settlements (and convicts) put out a General Order that warned new settlers and government employees against “polluting the streams by any means whatsoever.” It also “positively forbade” local people from “going into, or destroying the underwood adjacent to the water, under pain of being severely punished."
This means that centuries before the general public accepted the value of our wild places, the island of Tasmania in the south of Australia was already a forerunner in preserving natural areas. Today, PWS continues that tradition with a staff of hundreds maintaining and caring for just under three million hectares of wild spaces across the island.
“This is the best job in the world,” the Park Ranger at Narawntapu National Park in the north of Tasmania told us as she looked out over a counter full of maps and Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) keyrings. “Look, over there you can see a few Forester kangaroos and some Bennett’s wallabies as well. They come here to shelter from the wind,” she said. “It’s lovely now, but it is just the most beautiful place ever when the sun sets.”
She may be right, but Tasmania has plenty of other National Parks that equal if not better that ranking. The stark and majestic Cradle Mountain, gob-smackingly beautiful Freycinet, the wild granite plateaus of Ben Lomond, the cruel and forbidding Macquarie Harbour and the cave-smattered Rocky Cape. All these make a trip to Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia and boasting the purest air in the world, a must.
Surprisingly, despite the island’s impressive history of land care, the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service was only set up as an official managing body in 1971. Prior to that the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB), established in 1915, oversaw the creation and management of Tasmanian parks and reserves. But from the start, the SPB was constrained by a lack of general recognition, authority and funding. It was often given laughably small budgets; in 1925/6 its state-wide funding was a mere £29.
This meant that volunteers were the only source of SPB labour and expertise, and as it was administered by the government Lands Department, it also suffered potential conflicts of developmental interest. These factors, combined with a lack of outright powers to administer and protect the land entrusted to its care made it hard for the SPB found to effectively protect the areas it looked after.
A twist of fate changed things for the better as far as preservation was concerned. In 1972, the Tasmanian Government gave the go-ahead to build dams on the Serpentine and Huon rivers to enlarge Lake Pedder for a hydro-electric scheme. The new dams were constructed in the previously untouched rainforest areas of southwest Tasmania, and raised considerable public concern over the destruction of native land and species. Additionally, the government’s removal of protected status from areas around the Lake Pedder National Park to allow construction works prompted a series of escalating protest actions and hundreds of activist arrests.
Eventually community action forced the collapse of the sitting government, the establishment of Australia’s first Green Party, and most importantly for visitors - the setting up of today’s Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS).
The original PWS staff of 59 were tasked with managing existing spaces – such as Mt Field, Freycinet and the Cradle Mountain: Lake St Clair region – as well as establishing new parks at Mt William, Maria Island and Asbestos Range (now Narawntapu), and Macquarie Island.
The government also established the National Parks and Wildlife Act, and repealed the old Scenery Preservation and Animals and Birds Protection Acts. It was the first time a comprehensive islandwide law had been applied to the registration and management of national parks and and the conservation of Tasmanian flora and fauna. And it made a massive difference to the status of Tasmania’s wild places.
In 1982, UNESCO listed the Tasmanian Wilderness area as a World Heritage site, with an area of over one million hectares – one of the last major temperate rainforests in the world. Today, Tasmania has three World Heritage sites with some 46% of its land area designated as National parks and reserves that the PWS manages for visitors to enjoy and marvel at.
Tasmania’s heritage of land conservation has, despite a series of hiccups, maintained itself as one of the world’s jewels of ancient natural history. This relatively small island features over 200 species of birds alone, 12 of which are unique, and mammals like the famous Tasmanian Devil, Pademelon (also known as Rufous Wallaby), Eastern Quoll, Long-tailed Mouse and Tasmanian Bettong which are found nowhere else in the world. It also hosts the up-to 3,000 year old Huon pine, one of the slowest-growing and longest-living plants in the world.
After having taken a stroll down to the water’s edge at Narawntapu, watched the Oyster Catchers strutting on rocks and seen the sun drench the majestic dunes as far as the horizon, we decided to go the whole hog and take up a two-year subscription for up to five people – for just $100 or so. Unlimited access to almost every wild and beautiful spot in Tasmania for 24 months, in all seasons. An utter bargain!
Photos by Jeremy Torr and Mallika Naguran