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Reviews: Geoff Law's 'The River Runs Free' and Greg Buckman's 'Tasmanian Wilderness Battles'

On July 1,1983 the High Court of Australia ruled to halt the damming of the Franklin River by the Hydro Electric Commission. The twenty fifth anniversary of this decision has prompted the release of two books that explore the Franklin River blockade and Tasmanian environmental campaigns.

Tasmanian Wilderness Battles by Greg Buckman is a comprehensive history of the nature-inspired conflicts of this century. The River Runs Free by Geoff Law is a personal account of his experiences during the Franklin River campaign and the adventures that helped to carve out his own commitment to protecting Tasmanian wilderness.

While Greg Buckman has several publications to his name, this is Geoff Law’s first. Both authors are accomplished bushwalkers who know the mountains, rivers and forests of Tasmania like dear friends, and are long-time activists for the protection of places of high conservation value. Both books carry forewords from Australian Greens Senators who obviously hold the authors and their writing in high regard. And both books study Tasmanian conservation battles, celebrate the triumphs, rue the losses and keenly scrutinise the heavy involvement of the Tasmanian state government in all these cases.

Despite the fact that Let the Rivers Run Free and Tasmania’s Wilderness Battles share some subject matter, the two books are vastly different in style and approach. They are excellent insights into the grit and tenacity of environmental activists but, while one is a rambling tale, the other is a reference for those wishing to know the details of events that have shaped the political landscape of Tasmania. Rather than competing for readership, these books complement each other perfectly.

Tasmania’s Wilderness Battles, written by a former accountant and skilled numbers man, is steeped in detail about the history of efforts to conserve Tasmania’s natural assets and explains the history of the industrial mindset of governments, developers and individuals. Buckman studies Tasmania’s three big industries — hydro-electricity, mining and forestry — and provides surprisingly easy reading for what is essentially a meticulous reference book. His review of the national parks system is critical of how governments of both political persuasions have made the conservation ethic subservient to tourism development in national parks management. It contains an excellent index and timeline of events, which further cements its usefulness as a text. It is a dense book due to the thorough use of supporting facts, figures and references, but made light by Buckman’s conversational tone

The River Runs Free is simply a compelling, nail-biting and funny book. Law spins a great yarn, keeping the reader in suspense throughout his stories of near-death bushwalking and rafting adventures and the Franklin blockade, even though the outcomes are known by all. Hand-drawn maps are an important addition for those who are not familiar with Tasmania’s south west. For readers new to the culture of environmental campaigns, some of the details of the daily activities on the Franklin blockade may be slow, but given the enormity of the event, Law has shown discerning restraint in compiling his anecdotes. He avoids the temptation to become bogged down in minutiae that would be fabulous for those who were there, but grinding for those of us who were not.

As Buckman’s book illustrates, issues relating to Tasmania’s natural areas have featured right through the Twentieth Century, yet most of the stories of the conflicts have been told through the editorials and letters pages of the daily newspapers. Consequently, our understanding of the protagonists and their motivations are limited to the restricted space and editorial policies of the day. The value of Buckman’s and Law’s accounts lie in the descriptions of people, events and their context. If Tasmania, a state riven like no other over a single issue, that is the environment, can ever achieve some reconciliation within its communities, then such narratives may prompt the understanding and humanising of all participants.

These subjects are of particular interest to me as an environmental activist of some years, and a keen observer of the continuing debate over forest conservation in the carbon age. These books are openly partisan accounts, so I was predisposed to enjoying them, knowing the authors and recognising some of the places written of. However, both stand on their own merits as excellent pieces of writing and well-presented publications.

If, as Dr Kate Crowley asserts, Green politics of Tasmania are the ‘politics of place’,* then these books reveal to us the places of the politics. The Franklin, Lake Pedder, the Tarkine, the southern forests, Wesley Vale and beyond have played a huge part in shaping the Tasmanian parliament either by prompting the election of Green party candidates or featuring strongly in policy and debate. The useful inclusion inTasmanian Wilderness Battles of excerpts from the1998 Labor Green Accord helps to detail an important feature of Tasmanian political history which is frequently referred to but seldom explained. The sinister power wielded by the Hydro Electric Commission over compliant premiers is vividly illustrated in both books. The poetically named Doubts Removal Bill that was enacted in 1972 and again in 1982 to facilitate the removal of land from within established national parks for flooding by the HEC has an uncomfortably Orwellian ring to it.

Some environmental conflicts are ongoing (rightly so, in my opinion), but is it time to put the old ones to bed? It would be grand to read other sides of the same stories; not as a contradiction of the validity of the accounts in the books by Law and Buckman, but simply to add flesh to the history of this state by telling everyone’s version of events. A bulldozer driver on the Tarkine ‘Road to Nowhere’, a logger at Farmhouse Creek or a police officer on the Franklin may disagree with the perspectives voiced in The River Runs Freeand Tasmanian Wilderness Battles and have a vastly different story to tell. Bring them on, I say. A little bit of narrative therapy might do us all good.

Stephenie Cahalan is a Hobart-based editor, researcher and conservationist.

*See K. Crowley, ‘The Place of Nature? Electoral Politics and the Tasmanian Greens’, People and Place, vol. 16, no. 2, 2008 p. 12.