Lake Malbena: On the front line in the battle against wilderness development

As mainland Australia burns, icy winds with misty rain buffeted the Central Plateau on Saturday, including the Aboriginal land of trawtha makuminya east of Lake Malbena.

Even from the edge of the Wilderness World Heritage Area, it was clear to see the appeal of the untouched Tasmanian landscape and temperate climate as an oasis in an ever-drying Australia, even if the island state is no stranger to wildfire.

This call of the wild has attracted eclectic groups - fly fishers, bush walkers, environmentalists and the guides who devote their careers to helping visitors experience the sensitive landscapes.

Rarely do these groups' causes overlap, until now.

About 150 protesters gathered at trawtha makuminya at the end of Gowan Brae Road on Saturday before some walked to nearby Olive Lagoon, and a small group walked to Lake Malbena. Picture: Adam Holmes

About 150 protesters gathered at trawtha makuminya at the end of Gowan Brae Road on Saturday before some walked to nearby Olive Lagoon, and a small group walked to Lake Malbena. Picture: Adam Holmes

They gathered at trawtha makuminya on the weekend to protest a proposal to establish four huts on Halls Island in Lake Malbena where a helicopter would fly up to 30 groups of high-paying visitors to bedrock nearby during 60 days each year.

A group of eight protesters made a "symbolic" trek to the lake itself, and others walked to the nearby Olive Lagoon.

While all of the 150 protesters were opposed to the project, there was also a deeper underlying view: that this was just the "thin end of the wedge".

The Examiner spoke with protesters to find out why they oppose allowing private tourism development in wilderness areas.

'No need for a helicopter'

An avid paddler, Frenchman Pierre Feutry has made many trips to the wilderness since moving to Tasmania five years ago.

He even stayed overnight at Halls Island once with some friends before they headed off on a packed rafting trip.

Mr Feutry came to the protest on Saturday with his partner Rosie Mollison and children Isabelle and Huon to voice their opposition to the helicopter access proposal.

Rosie Mollison and Pierre Feutry with Isabelle and Huon braved the wind and rain to ensure their voices were heard. Picture: Adam Holmes

Rosie Mollison and Pierre Feutry with Isabelle and Huon braved the wind and rain to ensure their voices were heard. Picture: Adam Holmes

He said the walk from the edge of the Wilderness World Heritage Area to Lake Malbena was not tough, and the walk itself was essential to gaining the full wilderness experience.

"It's not that hard to get there. The first section is on the track for two-three hours," he said.

"This proposal would be a change because at the moment when you get there, there's no one, which is nice. If you get there and there's people enjoying fancy food and drinks and the helicopter landing, it's not the same experience."

The nearby Little River was a torrent after recent rain across the Central Plateau. Picture: Adam Holmes

The nearby Little River was a torrent after recent rain across the Central Plateau. Picture: Adam Holmes

Ms Mollison also enjoys paddling regularly in the Western Lakes.

"I really love this area of Tasmania and I like the fact that it's free of the impacts of people and technology, and I'd like to keep it that way," she said.

"The helicopter would be really intrusive, it'd take away significantly from the ambience. I think it's destructive to the natural environment in a way that might be hard to quantify."

Privatisation concerns

Andrew Larner has worked as a guide for 16 years throughout Tasmania - including in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, home to Lake Malbena.

The Halls Island proposal has galvanised the guiding community, including Mr Larner.

Andrew Larner and Clinton Garratt are experienced Tasmanian wilderness guides, and are among the many concerned at proposed helicopter access. Picture: Adam Holmes

Andrew Larner and Clinton Garratt are experienced Tasmanian wilderness guides, and are among the many concerned at proposed helicopter access. Picture: Adam Holmes

"The privatisation of national parks and World Heritage Areas is why I'm here, and the helicopters - it's pretty bad when you've been walking a couple of days out and not hearing an engine and then you've got helicopters overhead," he said.

"It's a pretty loud, throbbing noise.

"I think if people want to take helicopters into places they can do it elsewhere in the world."

The Tasmanian Wilderness Guides Association has come out strongly against the Halls Island project.

Adrien Butler told the protest there was "concern, disbelief and frustration" at the proposal.

"We can see that our current state government has a particular vision for Tasmania, and we believe that this vision is short-term, self-serving and neglects the wilderness values," she said.

Guide Clinton Garratt said the entire process appeared flawed.

While rains made conditions muddy, all walkers believed the trek to Lake Malbena was easily achievable for people with even moderate levels of fitness. Picture: Adam Holmes

While rains made conditions muddy, all walkers believed the trek to Lake Malbena was easily achievable for people with even moderate levels of fitness. Picture: Adam Holmes

"How do you get a lease over a whole island in a national park? What was the process? Who thought that was OK?" he said.

"And then helicopters landing people in the World Heritage Area? It's a line we haven't crossed yet, and I know the management plan allows for it, but I really hope we can resist that. That's a real game changer."

'Thin edge of the wedge'

When asked for his views on a helicopter flying visitors into a wilderness area, Miena fisherman Greg Pullen had a blunt response: "it pisses me off."

But his concerns went beyond the Halls Island project.

Greg Pullen and Cheryl Salter believe opponents' voices have not been heard as part of the process. Picture: Adam Holmes

Greg Pullen and Cheryl Salter believe opponents' voices have not been heard as part of the process. Picture: Adam Holmes

"I really think that this is the thin end of the wedge. You get one development, then you get another development, where's the wilderness? Where is it? It's gone," Mr Pullen said.

"This is a pristine place and we need to keep these places. If you want to go in here, you've got to walk in. The value of getting in there is the walking in."

He believed the government's expressions of interest process was "clandestine" and robbed locals of their chance to have a say on development in wilderness areas.

"This wasn't open to public scrutiny until we all got down to the Central Highlands Council meeting, that's a problem. And that's been recognised in the Federal Court by the sounds of it," Mr Pullen said.

For future generations

Fisherman Jerrym Pilon was among the eight to make the trek to Lake Malbena on Saturday, wanting to play a part in stopping wilderness development for the benefit of future generations - including his own 15-month-old son.

Western Lakes regulars Robbie Jordan and Jerrym Pilon prepare to walk to Lake Malbena on Saturday. Picture: Adam Holmes

Western Lakes regulars Robbie Jordan and Jerrym Pilon prepare to walk to Lake Malbena on Saturday. Picture: Adam Holmes

"This parcel of land really shouldn't just be given away for a dollar, and then the public can't even access it," he said.

"This is such a unique part of Tasmania. You can walk in here in half an hour and not hear a sound. If you have helicopters flying over the top, it just ruins the experience."

He was joined by mate Robbie Jordan, both regulars in the Western Lakes.

Experienced bushwalker Charles Chadwick said other national park tourism proposals would be keeping an eye on the progress of Lake Malbena. Picture: Adam Holmes

Experienced bushwalker Charles Chadwick said other national park tourism proposals would be keeping an eye on the progress of Lake Malbena. Picture: Adam Holmes

Hobart bushwalker Charles Chadwick also walked all the way to Lake Malbena, believing groups needed to make a stand now before a precedent was set.

"The wilderness is shrinking, both in Tasmania and elsewhere as well. It's so precious," he said.

"It's not wilderness if there's a helicopter going in and out. I am walking out there today to say this is world heritage and Tasmanians can go here, you can't lock us out of this."

'It just doesn't seem fair'

Standing with his two young children Erin and Lois, Darren Green, of Nunamara, is not against using Tasmania's wilderness for tourism venues but believes there were better ways than the Halls Island project.

"I'm sure there would be a way to do it sustainably without compromising the values of the national parks. It just doesn't seem to play out that way at the moment," he said.

Darren Green and Frances Horan with Lois and Erin hope Tasmania's wilderness can be fully retained for future generations. Picture: Adam Holmes

Darren Green and Frances Horan with Lois and Erin hope Tasmania's wilderness can be fully retained for future generations. Picture: Adam Holmes

"There has been people who have been visiting that island for years - multiple generations - it just doesn't seem fair.

"I came because I would like future generations to be able to enjoy this part in the same way that we've been fortunate to enjoy it."

Frances Horan, of Launceston, said other parts of the world offered helicopter access to remote areas, but Tasmania's wilderness should only be accessed by foot.

"It just seems like something that doesn't fit for an area that should only be accessed by foot, it takes away I think from the purpose of why you should be going there, and what it should be used for," she said.

"There's plenty of other places where you can get a helicopter where it's suitable."

Where the proposal stands

The Halls Island fly fishing proposal has had a chequered history since it was first raised in 2015, emerging under the government's EOI process - one of many waiting in the wings.

It involves establishing three accommodation huts and a communal hut covering 64 square metres, and a helicopter landing several hundreds metres from Lake Malbena. The proponent estimated the "premium" tourism experience would have a price tag of $4500 per person for three nights.

The public made more than 1300 submissions against the proposal when it went before the Central Highlands Council, which rejected it, resulting in a planning tribunal appeal.

The tribunal found the council did not have the power to consider the submissions and the assessment had already occurred under the reserve activity assessment. Opponents claim the RAA offered no opportunity for submissions and that the government had rewritten the laws for this purpose. Parties are now proposing conditions on the project, and a further Supreme Court challenge seems likely.

An early impression of the standing camp proposal for Halls Island in Lake Malbena.

An early impression of the standing camp proposal for Halls Island in Lake Malbena.

At the same time, a Federal Court challenge to the federal government's decision to bypass a detailed assessment of the project was partially upheld, and Environment Minister Sussan Ley has set aside the earlier approval for reconsideration. The Environment Defenders Office argued the minister had not considered noise and impacts of World Heritage values.

Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer defended the government's approvals process.

"It's now ended up in the Federal Court and the determination there shows that the process works, that people throughout the planning process can have their say," she said.

The location of the exposed bedrock helicopter landing area (to the right), the route of the rowing boat, coastal protection areas (orange) and exclusion zones (pink).

The location of the exposed bedrock helicopter landing area (to the right), the route of the rowing boat, coastal protection areas (orange) and exclusion zones (pink).

"Our government is not against people peacefully protesting as long as it doesn't impact - in that situation - on the environment."

The Federal Court decision also impacted the protest, with the Wilderness Society told it would need an environmental assessment. Individuals had to make their own decision on walking to Lake Malbena.

Organiser Greg French told those gathered that they would keep fighting.

"[This] will be withdrawn only when the government realises that persisting with it is political poison," he said.

This story The front line in the battle against wilderness development first appeared on The Examiner.