Little-known and rarely visited, this tranquil island has become an ideological battleground


TAS

Daniel Hackett doesn’t visit the remote island he leases in the Tasmanian wilderness as often as he’d like.

The tourism entrepreneur runs a fly-fishing business with his wife Simone, and it’s a tough eight-hour walk or expensive helicopter flight towards Halls Island, which sits on Lake Malbena in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

After eight months away, Hackett is furious to find someone has tampered with the row boat he uses to journey across the lake.

His motion-sensor cameras have been stolen, small logs have been sawn to make a track and someone has damaged the door to the ramshackle, historic hut built by the national park’s founder Reg Hall.



Photo:

Daniel Hackett has proposed to helicopter guests in and out of a luxury retreat. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

Hackett believes people opposed to his plans to fly tourists to the site by helicopter are responsible for the vandalism.

“I don’t think Tasmania needs this conflict — we’ve had conflict for so long, surely we’re tired of it,” he says.

“We’ve had it over hydro, we’ve had it over forestry, now it’s tourism.”

Little-known and rarely visited, tranquil Halls Island has become an ideological battleground over the future of Tasmania’s wilderness.



Photo:

Halls Island sits on Lake Malbena, in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. (Google Maps)

Hackett’s pitch to place luxury demountable huts on the site was initially approved by state and federal governments against the advice of independent advisory bodies, including the Australian Heritage Council, which warned bureaucrats the sound of helicopters accessing the site could compromise the wilderness values crucial to the area’s internationally recognised World Heritage status.

Hackett has long argued his proposal is small-scale and sensitive, saying the high-end experience will expose a new audience to the importance of conservation.

Opponents believe Hackett’s plans fly in the face of conservation principles and represent the start of a large-scale sell-off of previously protected Tasmanian wilderness.

The Hacketts will pay $6,000 annually in rent to the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service in the first five years of their business operation, while charging customers $4,500 a head.

‘What price do you put on wilderness?’

State Greens leader Cassy O’Connor believes commercial leases and licences in Tasmanian parks are being given away “for a song”.

“What’s happening here is that the Government’s trying to flog off what developers now regard as the last free real estate in the country, and those developers are able to negotiate with government for exclusive use agreements for public protected areas under a cloud of secrecy,” O’Connor said.

The Liberals came to power in Tasmania in 2014, pledging to invite more tourists into wilderness areas through a new expressions of interest (EOI) process.

Since then, the number of commercial leases over Tasmania’s reserve land, or land set aside in legislation for conservation purposes, has more than doubled.

There are now 136 commercial leases, of which the Hacketts’ leases for Halls Island and Reg Hall’s hut are just two.



Photo:

Hackett’s proposed tourism venture would see up to 240 extra helicopter flights through the TWWHA. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

Commercial licences to operate on or use public land have increased from 152 to 515 in the same period.

Leases can cover everything from apiaries to communications towers and community halls, but Parks and Wildlife Service head Jason Jacobi says about half of the commercial leases on reserve land relate to tourism.

Fourteen of the new leases and licences are for ventures that went through the EOI process.

Tom Allen from The Wilderness Society says it’s a confusing and opaque process.

“Fundamentally, why there is so much secrecy is because if these proposals and the process was transparent, and did allow for public engagement, these things wouldn’t get up.”

Hackett is the only tourism operator to release the terms and price of his lease — but he did so just days before the ombudsman ruled the information should be released under state right to information laws.

O’Connor said the Greens have now requested the release of leases attached to every proposal progressed under the EOI process.

“We don’t believe any part of Tasmania’s protected public lands should have exclusive lease and licences over them, and if the Government wants to see more activity inside protected public areas, it needs to have a conversation with the people of Tasmania who own those areas,” she said.

“These places belong to the people of Tasmania, to Aboriginal people, to future generations.

“They are priceless. What price do you put on wilderness which is a rapidly vanishing thing in this world today?”

The Garden of Eden

For some Tasmanians, it’s not about the money.

Seventy-year-old Peter Stackhouse first walked into Halls Island aged about 15, accompanied by his cousin, horses laden with food and legendary explorer Dick Reid.

The group was charged with taking supplies to Reg Hall, the Launceston solicitor who mapped and named landmarks within the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and pioneered a new style of recreational huts on the Central Plateau.

The journey was, according to Stackhouse, “quite a challenging walk”.

He said finally arriving at Halls Island after walking through bushfire-ravaged terrain was like reaching the Garden of Eden.



Photo:

The park’s founder Reg Hall built this hut. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

“The initial impression getting on to the island, it was just a paradise,” he said.

Still an avid bushwalker, Stackhouse is among walkers and fishers opposed to Hackett’s proposed development on Halls Island, believing the sound of up to 240 extra helicopter flights through the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) each year would ruin the wilderness experience.

He remembers a decades-old conversation with Reid, in which the bushman told him he never left tracks in the wilderness.

“He said ‘I don’t leave tracks, only vandals will follow me’.

“I thought wow, so he just pokes about in the bush and makes his own way around. Then I thought the other day, well, maybe the vandals now are following in a helicopter.”

State parks agency ‘absolutely’ helping developers

Hackett’s is one of the first proposals to proceed through the Tasmanian Government’s EOI process.

The Liberals have shown a willingness to ensure proposals that pass the process’s secret assessment panel process get the green light, even changing statutory documents such as the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) management plan explicitly to allow proposed developments to proceed.

When asked if his agency helped developers pass through state-based reserve activity assessment, Jacobi said “absolutely”.

“We want to make sure that the tourism proposals are the very best that they can possibly be, but we also have a strong responsibility and pride in making sure we protect the outstanding universal values of many of our world heritage areas and also our parks and reserves,” he said.

He denied the state’s protected areas were being sold off, describing the suggestion as “just a furphy”.

“We are providing small-scale operators with the ability and the certainty to deliver exceptional tourism experiences, and to do that they need to know that they have the reliability of being able to access a particular area for a certain period of time.”



Photo:

The plans for the fly-in, fly-out luxury camp at Lake Malbena include a helipad, accommodation buildings, kitchen and toilet facilities. (Supplied: Rob Blakers)

Tourism Industry Council Tasmania chief executive Luke Martin said it was time for a “mature debate” over how leases and licences should be managed, suggesting more tourism operators could move towards paying a percentage of turnover, rather than flat rate for exclusive access.

He acknowledged community concern about transparency.

“Fifty per cent of the state’s land mass is in some form of Crown land or land protection, so there needs to be some sort of valid regime that gives everyone confidence around what those arrangements are, what’s appropriate, what can be released publicly and what’s the best economic return for the state, particularly the Parks service,” Martin said.

Parks Minister Roger Jaensch says tourism is a vital part of Tasmania’s economy.

“Without these arrangements, our parks would either be less able to be presented and enjoyed, or these activities would be less controlled,” he said.

“Every lease or license issued is carefully assessed to protect the values of a place and to develop sensitive and appropriate tourism experiences, or to enable important and critical services to exist.”

Operators ‘reluctant’ to reveal deal specifics

The Tasmanian Walking Company is one of the state’s largest nature-based accommodation providers with four leases and licences over reserve land, including the popular Overland Truck huts and guided walk.

A further four proposals requiring leases and licences are progressing through the EOI process — a policy executive director Neil Lynch says actually adds a layer of bureaucracy, in contrast to criticism of the program.



Photo:

Reg Hall mapped and named the landmarks within the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

Lynch says the business’s lease arrangements means it has paid the Parks and Wildlife Service more than $3 million in the past decade.

On top of that, it pays council rates, services public amenities and contributes to local programs, such as the Tasmanian Aboriginal-run wukalina Walk.

Lynch says the Tasmanian Walking Company supports a shift towards a more transparent system of leasing.

“Operators are reluctant to talk about the specifics of their deal by fear they’ve got something different to the person beside them, and that’s what creates this commercial element,” he said.

“We would support a consistent approach to everybody, so if somebody wanted to come up with a flat rate and a flat set of standards for training, safety procedures and protocol that every commercial tour operator had to adhere to, we’d be very supportive of that.”

When asked by the ABC, the Parks and Wildlife Service did not disclose how much revenue it receives from private leases and licences.

‘We need land to be given back’

For Tasmanian Aboriginal people, leases and licences handed out by the Government represent further dispossession.

In a letter, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre this month told UNESCO that tourism developments could impact on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area’s wilderness values.

“When we go for our on-country trips, we’re going there because we know it’s going to be us there in that landscape, talking to our old people and being part of the life they lived,” TAC chief executive Heather Sculthorpe said.

“It’s incompatible to have a whole heap of tourists there and helicopters and off-road vehicles at the same time.”



Photo:

The Aboriginal Heritage Council’s plea to reject the Lake Malbena development was ignored by the State Government. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance co-chairman and Aboriginal Heritage Council chairman Rodney Dillon urged the Government to hand the TWWHA back to Indigenous Tasmanians.

The Aboriginal Heritage Council’s plea to reject the Lake Malbena development was ignored by the State Government.

“We need land to be given back for us to have some say in the management of it,” Dillon said.

“The people who make these decisions probably went to school to be told Captain Cook found this place and that we didn’t even exist, that Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aboriginal.”

‘We can do this sensitively’

The Lake Malbena project has been challenged at each level of approval, with a Supreme Court challenge led by The Wilderness Society still outstanding.

It’s also been the subject of rallies at Hobart’s Parliament House and within the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, and has seen an interest group, Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access, form specifically to lobby against the proposal.



Photo:

Daniel Hackett says his background is in conservation. (ABC News: Emily Baker)

Jacobi from the Parks and Wildlife Service is at pains to point out the Halls Island project has not yet received final sign-off from his agency, which is looking at submissions and feedback from a federal assessment.

He is open about assisting developers such as the Hacketts through the state-based Reserve Activity Assessment and said the wilderness surrounding Halls Island was “not pristine”, pointing to decades-long human use of the area.

The TWWHA is one of two sites in the entire world to meet seven of 10 UNESCO criteria for World Heritage status.

“I have absolutely no regrets or anything to hide in terms of supporting the Hacketts to deliver the best possible proposal that they can,” Jacobi said.

“It’s very important to me as the regulator of this significant and in some ways quite controversial proposal to make sure that they get it right.”

“This is one of the first expressions of interest proposals to make its way through the system, so it’s important we get it right.”

With Lake Malbena glistening behind him, Mr Hackett disputes that he has had an easy ride, pointing to ongoing tribunal and court challenges, the political commentary around his project and the recent vandalism now under investigation by Tasmania Police.

He has no plans to back down.

“We know we can do this sensitively, we can do this to the best standard in the world and create something amazing,” he says.

“My tertiary background is conservation. My professional background is tourism with conservation.

“To allow someone with no other reason than ideology to say you can’t do your job is completely unacceptable.”

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news



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