What is Wilderness?
Wilderness has almost as many dimensions as the number of people who consider it. However, there is some consensus about the main elements of wilderness. It has three essential attributes – naturalness, remoteness and size. A wilderness area is defined as having, or as being capable of restoration to:
- a sufficient size to enable long term preservation of its natural systems and biological diversity;
- being substantially undisturbed by colonial and modern technological society; and
- being remote from points of mechanised access and other evidence of colonial and modern technological society.
In 1997 the Commonwealth defined wilderness areas as: “… large areas in which ecological processes continue with minimal change caused by modern development … Indigenous custodianship & customary practices have been, and in many places continue to be, significant factors in creating what non-indigenous people refer to as wilderness and wild rivers”.
Naturalness: While some wilderness areas may have been used by indigenous people for millennia, they remain essentially undisturbed. Wilderness can embrace rainforest, tundra, desert, other natural landscape or remote marine area.
Size: Purists want very large areas with a large proportion of the area at least one day’s walk from the nearest point of access to modern civilization. For others, wilderness may be found by a quiet walk in a relatively small patch of bush. Generally, though, wilderness must be a large area, even if people can experience wilderness qualities in smaller reserves.
Remoteness: Certain human actions, such as species habitat fragmentation, may reduce the amount of habitat, and subdivide and isolate populations. It is therefore helpful that wilderness be located away from potential degrading sources. One criteria suggests that wilderness must be at least half a day’s walk from the nearest road.
Threats to wilderness
Globally, wilderness is disappearing fast. Maintaining the remnants is our responsibility.
Some activities are incompatible with wilderness protection because they diminish its essential qualities of remoteness and naturalness. Such activities include:
- mechanised access and provision of mechanised access points and routes, eg. roads;
- extraction of resources such as timber and minerals; and
- use of non-native animals for transport or primary production.
Wilderness is threatened world wide by the demands of an ever expanding human population and ever increasing individual consumption. We are losing 30-40 hectares per minute around the world. Half of the world’s countries do not have any wilderness areas at all.
In Australia, wilderness is being encroached upon by the spread of settlements, unwise agricultural and pastoral activities, unsustainable forestry and mining, unplanned tourism and road use. Wilderness is becoming an increasingly rare and precious resource. It is therefore vital to preserve and maximize what remains by eliminating incompatible uses.
The Wilderness Concept
Defining wilderness in a physical sense is difficult enough. However, wilderness has other notional values which are often overlooked. Most people who endorse the concept of having wilderness reserves do not want to visit such wilderness areas themselves. They just want to know that wilderness exists and they draw considerable solace from that.
Relatively few Australians will ever visit the wilderness areas of Fraser Island, raft the Franklin, or climb mountains, or cross our deserts. This does not stop us enjoying the fact that they remain natural and wild and have not become an industrial resource or an urban jungle. Australians don’t have to go to Patagonia, Amazonia or Siberia to want them to be free and wild. We also want wild places in Australia without necessarily going to them.
We do not need to physically visit wilderness to benefit from it. Just knowing that it is there is enough for most people. Interestingly, one of the most vociferous and articulate proponents of wilderness in the United States was the philosopher, Gareth Hardin, who was confined to a wheelchair and had no hope of visiting the areas he advocated.
Antarctica: In the 1980s, when the future of Antarctica was being hotly debated, a comprehensive public opinion poll commissioned by the then Hawke Government found that a massive 93% of all Australians wanted to see Antarctica left as wilderness. They were opposed to any mineral exploration, no matter what potential mineral wealth may exist there. Clearly, 93% of Australians are not wanting to go to Antarctica. However, they do want to know that Antarctica will remain a wilderness for eternity.
The Amazonian Basin: Even though relatively few Australians visit the wilderness areas of Amazonia, most Australians, intuitively, are appalled by the loss of wilderness which is known to be occurring there and elsewhere. This is further evidence that wilderness does not need to be visited to have an impact on us.
Why do we need wilderness?
In wilderness we can see the world as it was before the changes wrought by our modern industrial society. Our remaining wilderness can therefore be used as a yardstick by which to measure these changes.
Wilderness nurtures one’s soul, provides inspiration and lifts one’s spirit.
Wilderness provides the opportunity for the variety of species which inhabit it to live and evolve in a natural way.
Wilderness is a storehouse of present and future genetic diversity on which we rely for food and medicines.
Wilderness is a major source of clean air, water and soil upon which all species depend.
Wilderness is essential to the survival of indigenous people and their culture.
Wilderness gives future generations choices and opportunities.
Once it has gone it is extremely difficult to restore, and it can never be restored exactly to its original state.
Fraser Island’s Wilderness Values
Fraser Island represents the best wilderness opportunity in reasonable proximity to the bulk of Queensland’s population which is located in the South-East of the state. There are no other natural areas of sufficient size which are remote enough to be considered as true wilderness. The nearest contenders, Cooloola and Lamington have roads to within a days’s walk to almost every part. The Central Highlands (Carnarvon Gorge, Salvatore Rosa National Parks etc) are further from Brisbane.
Even on Fraser Island the wilderness opportunities have been significantly compromised by the network of roads established for the timber industry and by the exploration tracks put in for the sandmining industry. However with the cessation of logging and sandmining there is now an opportunity to close roads and tracks to motorized transport to create true wilderness. The best opportunity for true wilderness though exists in the northern end of Fraser Island.
Now this opportunity is being threatened by a selfish few who demand the right to drive on every track on Fraser Island.
A visit in 1947: Leading Australian poet, Judith Wright, described her trip to Fraser Island in 1947 to the Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry in 1975:
I went across on one of the timber loading boats from Maryborough. There was almost no access to Fraser Island for tourists at that time and I worked my way across as cook. The boat tied up in a mangrove creek. I do not like to remember the experience of the sand flies. After leaving that area, I walked. There was almost no way of seeing the island except on foot. I walked across to the ocean beach and through a good deal of the rainforest and it was an extraordinary experience for me. I had not been long in Queensland, I had not seen the kind of landscape that the north coastal Queensland areas offered at all. It was my first experience of rainforest itself and I found it very moving indeed, and I would say that, at that time, walking through Fraser Island was a more exciting experience in its then more or less untouched state than driving across it was the last time I went. Of course, when you are walking, when you are actually camping in a place, you do have an experience of it that cannot be provided when you are in a vehicle, which is one reason why I think that the wilderness experience of Fraser Island should be preserved. Access should be more by personal experience that I have never forgotten, more particularly, as I think, during my whole three days on the island, we met only three people and they were all Forestry employees.
The beach was totally deserted as far as one could see. It was, I think, in October and there was hardly anybody on the island at all. And yet, when I returned in 1973, the same experience was there quite clearly.
These are the qualities of wilderness – the qualities of the ocean-side wilderness – which Fraser Island does particularly represent, and the water, the lakes and the rainforest, which Patrick White describes so well. They give a sense of awe, I think, of sensitivity towards the landscape, and I feel that that sense of awe pervades both the novel and the paintings. I know very few children – urban children – who have been able to experience, as people of my age did, the joy of loneliness on a coastline, of beauty experienced without human interference.
Fraser Island’s Loss of Wilderness
Since Judith Wright’s first visit, Fraser Island’s wilderness values have been progressively eroded away. Better facilities have been provided for visitation. This has led to exponentially greater visitation and a loss of remoteness from civilization. It has also meant that the sense of isolation has been lost. Loss of the remoteness from civilization brings more than a twinge of nostalgia to those who knew the region in earlier times.
Better communications: In the 1970s, to improve public safety, the National Park Service began installing public telephones in the various campgrounds. Now, if anyone has forgotten anything when they set off for the island, they can call up anyone in the world to rectify the problem. Next, Telecom extended telephone service to every house on the island. To do this they made inroads into the core of the Bowarrady area in order to establish a repeater. Then came the wider use of UHF radios. These are now used by fishers to call up their mates to advise them where the fish are biting. However, to boost their range, repeater stations have been established. In one audacious move, UHF afficionadoes even demanded that they be able to erect a UHF booster on Indian Head, despite opposition from Aboriginal and conservation interests. Finally, there are now even better communications through the use of mobile cellular telephones. Mercifully the coverage of the island is limited, but there are pressures to extend the reception area on the island. The combined effect of this has been to remove the sense of isolation and the need to be self reliant.
Loss of self reliance: In earlier times it was necessary to take absolutely everything that was needed for the duration of one’s stay or else suffer any deprivations from one’s omissions. Until about 1965, the only regular weekly boat service to Fraser Island was run by the Forestry Department launch, “M.V. Korawinga”. Now there are several vehicular ferries running continuously seven days a week, and at least four tourist launches providing a scheduled daily service. Now there are shops, hotels, fuel stations, and ambulance and first aid posts mean that even diabetics regularly turn up on Fraser Island without their insulin.
Intrusion of civilization: Until the 1960s there were no Eurong or Rainbow Beach settlements, or even a road to Rainbow Beach; there was no Orchid Beach or Dilli Village; Happy Valley was much smaller, being a collection of shabby fishing shacks. During the 1960s, as these settlements were being established and expanded, the region was being vigorously explored for its mineral potential. This intruded heavily into the wilderness, breaking down the wilderness values. Mining from 1971 to 1976 directly degraded about 400 ha. At the same time the insatiable timber industry was probing further and deeper into the forest. In 1990 the Kingfisher Resort began operation. Wilderness shrank further.
More reliable transport: The Four Wheel Drive revolution has made off road vehicles more available to the public. As it has become more available and more reliable, more people have ventured into what were previously regarded as remote parts of Fraser Island.