Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Book review - Celebrating Wilderness

edited by Ian Brown
120 pages; RRP $60

Review by Andy Macqueen

Envirobook , with the support of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, published this glossy large-format work of writings and colour photographs to coincide with the Fifth National Wilderness Congress, held in Sydney recently.

It is a superbly presented book, with 46 full-page colour wilderness photographs by Rob Jung, David Neilson, Rob Blakers and Ian Brown .

More importantly, it is a book of very different and thought-provoking papers by eleven Australian and overseas writers, ranging from historic words by Myles Dunphy , to an appraisal of the ongoing battle for the Tasmanian forests by Helen Gee . Geoff Mosley tackles the ‘wilderness and the future' question, while Ian Brown stimulates us from the Antarctic wilderness.

But what exactly is being celebrated? Gee hasn't much to celebrate, except that she has been ‘uplifted and enriched by the experience of the extraordinary teamwork and perseverance of some of the best people on this planet'. In these days of climate change, habitat loss, and the rampages of the ever-growing consumer society, what is there to celebrate? Some might ask: is wilderness even relevant now — especially in the face of arguments that wilderness is an outdated concept, that it is a human exclusion zone, that it denies indigenous occupation and is linked to the colonial doctrine of terra nullius.

Answers to all these questions, I am happy to say, are to be found in the book. For a start, we in Australia can celebrate that we still have large amounts of country which is substantially in wilderness condition, even if much of it is not formally reserved or even recognised. In his excellent paper (also presented to the 8th World Wilderness Congress in 2005), Keith Muir takes us around the nation to see ‘where we are at', and canvasses all the important issues.

We are in a better position to celebrate if we clear away all the misunderstandings surrounding the word ‘wilderness' and see it for what it is. In his comprehensive paper, Haydn Washington does just that. Wilderness should simply be regarded as a ‘large natural intact area'—or ‘lanai' as he calls it. It is the most natural end of the conservation spectrum; the part least impacted by modern society.

For me, the issue of past and present indigenous custodianship is a key one. Importantly, Washington acknowledges that while wilderness advocates have never denied such interests, ‘the past history of wilderness campaigning in Australia may not have given explicit recognition to social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples'.

Muir also tackles this theme. Inter alia, he states: ‘... those concerned with environmental justice should close ranks with those who support social justice and use their collective talent to fight for the Earth. This isn't a dress rehearsal where we can split hairs over the meaning of wilderness while the bulldozers push exploration roads into remote river catchments. Those concerned with social and environmental justice will learn respect for the different perceptions of wilderness most quickly when joined in a common struggle. As the world's resources run out, these beautiful, precious undamaged areas will be on the front line for those environmental issues climbing to the top of the political agenda: energy and greenhouse policy.'

And therein is something else to celebrate: that many in the conservation movement and many Aboriginal people too, are coming to recognise that if we don't find the common ground, all is lost. There are pathways ahead. We must proceed along them together, and celebrate each forward step.

This book will look nice on your coffee table. It's also vital reading, for wilderness advocate and doubter alike.