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Chapter 17: Vandalism of the Lea Tree

Chapter 17: Vandalism of the Lea Tree

Published in:
Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector / P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989
ISBN 0 642 14605 5
(Australian studies in law, crime and justice series); pp. 255-263

Of the many unique features of Tasmania, one of the most celebrated is the Huon Pine. Dacrydium Franklinii, as it is known to botanists, exists only in the rain forests and river valleys of south-west Tasmania, and is the only member of the genus Dacrydium native to Australia. Since the early 19th century, its timber has been prized for its beautiful texture, and for the ease with which it can be worked; unlike most timbers, it can be turned on end grain. Rich in aromatic oil, the wood is exceptionally resistant to decay. Trees which fell centuries before, and had been submerged or buried for years, still yielded remarkably well preserved timber. During the first century of Tasmania's European history, Huon Pine was regarded as ideal for boat building.

Because of its valued properties, the Huon Pine was energetically exploited during the colonial period. The decimation of the Huon Pine began shortly after the establishment of the notorious Sarah Island Penal Settlement in Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pining became an important industry in Southwest Tasmania, and by the turn of the century, mature Huon Pine were rare in the Lower Gordon (Long 1983). A Parliamentary select committee was appointed in 1879 to enquire into the preservation of the species; it recommended that further felling of Huon Pine be prohibited. In 1882 the issuance of licences to cut Huon Pine was suspended (Millington 1982). The government sought to designate for protection a strip on either side of the Gordon for 16 miles upriver from Macquarie Harbour.

These conservation efforts were not entirely successful. In the 1960s, the rarity of the wood, combined with the technological advantages of helicopter transport and chain saws, saw renewed exploitation of the resource. Development was to take an even greater toll. The construction of the Gordon River Dam in the mid 4970s flooded extensive stands of Huon Pine. Before the waters rose, much of the timber was salvaged - over 3,000 m3 in all. Further stands were threatened by the proposed Gordon below Franklin project in the early 1980s.

The reason behind concern for the Huon Pine is its exceptionally slow growth rate. Most Huon Pine is not millable until it has been growing for half a millenium. Indeed, a tree merely 20 cm in diameter could be as much as 500 years old. One of the oldest Huon pines on record, felled prior to the flooding of Lakes Gordon and Pedder, was found to be at least 2,183 years old. Mature Huon Pine are therefore the oldest living things in Australia.

The existence of another ancient Huon Pine in the area designated to be flooded by the Gordon below Franklin Dam was not disclosed at the time by the Tasmanian government, lest the case against the Dam be strengthened. Its age was subsequently estimated at 3,452 years, making it the second oldest living thing in the world (Woolley 1987).

The Huon Pine, those who would exploit it, and those who would preserve it, in a sense symbolise Tasmania and its divisions. The conflict between advocates of conservation and those of development, a recurring theme over the past century of Tasmanian history, began to heighten in the 1970s. On the one hand, there were those who sought to preserve one of the world's last great wilderness areas - that of Southwest Tasmania. On the other there were those who sought to harness the state's resources to develop its fragile economy. The first major confrontation arose over the proposal to dam the Gordon River for a hydro-electric project and thereby flood Lake Pedder, the only glacial outwash lake in Australia, and the centrepiece of Tasmania's Southwest (Southwell 1983). The project went ahead in the mid 1970s, despite the fact that it encroached upon a national park and was thereby illegal under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1971 (Tas). A group of citizens tried to challenge the project on these grounds. To sue the government required the permission of government, however, and this was denied. Government quickly enacted the Hydro-Electric Commission (Doubts Removal) Act 1972 (Tas) which gave retrospective authority to the project where it might have come into conflict with the law. The lake was then flooded.

In the late 1970s a proposal to construct a dam on the Gordon below Franklin gave rise to one of the more divisive episodes in Australian history. Strongly embraced by the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) and those who saw Tasmania's economic future inextricably linked with hydro-electric power generation, it was tenaciously opposed by those who sought to preserve one of the world's last great wilderness areas.

The public debate over the Gordon below Franklin plan was intense. Supporters and opponents of the proposal took to the streets of Hobart in their thousands. The state Labor premier resigned when his party split on the issue. Non-violent protests by opponents of the dam resulted in over 1,500 arrests.

Interest in the conflict heightened throughout Australia and around the world. In 1983 the federal government intervened on the grounds that its international treaty obligations gave it the constitutional power to protect what had been designated a world heritage area. Many Tasmanians resented what they regarded as the will of a majority of Tasmanians regarding the management of their economy being overridden by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra. Commonwealth-state conflict reached the High Court of Australia. Tensions were further heightened when it became apparent that aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force had been engaged in photo-reconnaissance over the dam site.

On 1 July 1983 the High Court handed down its decision in the case of Commonwealth of Australia v. Tasmania. Construction of the dam would not proceed. Reaction on the part of pro-dam interests ranged from sadness to rage. Anonymous threats were made to a number of federal Labor senators from Tasmania. Both conservationists and HEC workers were warned by police to avoid physical conflict. Concerned about their economic future, some residents of the south-west were more resentful than ever of the conservationists:

People down here, we want to work. We want our jobs, we don't want to bludge like the Wilderness Society (The Examiner 3 July 1983, p. 3).

Some HEC workers expressed defiance, giving notice that they would continue working despite the High Court ruling:

We're going back upriver on Monday and Bob the Slob can send his Flll's over, but we'll stay put mate, just like the greenies did (The Examiner 2 July 1983, p. 1).

It's more than just a job. We take a lot of bloody pride in our work. A number of blokes are prepared to work on without pay to register their protest at what has happened (The Examiner 4 July 1983, p. 1).

On 4 July some 50 to 80 HEC workers boarded a boat at Strahan Wharf Mainland television crews in attendance were the targets of verbal insults. HEC supporters brandished placards reading

Bob You Slob
We Will Finish This Job
(The Examiner 5 July 1983, p. 3)

At the wharf, as the proprietress of the Strahan Wilderness Shop sought to photograph the protest, she was attacked by several women who had turned out to cheer the HEC workers. Two police officers intervened, but not before she sustained a cut over the right eye. The workers returned to Strahan Wharf without proceeding to the HEC camp at Warner's Landing. But officials were still concerned that the rainforest area at Warner's Landing might be vandalised in protest against the High Court decision.

These concerns proved to be well founded. Near Warner's Landing stood a Huon Pine tree some 9 feet in diameter. It was a sufficiently prominent landmark to have acquired a name - the Lea Tree. Three men, all over six feet tall, found that they were unable to link arms around the trunk. The tree was so old that it had been left by the convict cutters of the 1820s as of no use for boat building. Given its size, it was quite likely more than 2,000 years old. On the night of 5 July, the tree was chainsawed, holes were drilled in it, oil was poured in the holes, and the tree was set alight. The fire continued for at least twenty-four hours.

Whilst it has been suggested by some that the tree was burned by conservationists to attract publicity, a more plausible explanation is that the tree was vandalised by pro-dam interests as an act of reprisal. Allegations that HEC personnel were responsible for the incident are supported by photographs of HEC workers holding placards bearing various anti-conservationist messages in front of the charred tree. One photograph shows three workers posed next to the smouldering trunk, on which the words '[Expletive] You Green [Expletive]' were painted (Wilderness News April 1987).

Founded in 1914, the Hydro-Electric Commission has long been one of the most powerful interests in Tasmania. Given the island state's distance from the mainland of Australia, its small population, and its remoteness from raw materials and markets, the challenge of developing and maintaining a viable economy has always been daunting. With the inherent limitations of primary production and the eventual depletion of Tasmania's mineral resources looming, another basis for economic development was sought.

The HEC is an engineering Organisation of considerable size and substantial expertise. Conflict with conservationists was inevitable, for the very raison d'etre of engineering is to conquer and to exploit nature, not to preserve it or submit to it. Reinforcing this fundamental philosophical division are two bureaucratic imperatives: those who manage organisations like them to grow, or at the very least, not to shrink. In addition they seek to maintain the organisation's autonomy - freedom from constraint whether political or economic.

The HEC enjoyed considerable freedom indeed. It was constituted as an autonomous statutory body, not responsible to any minister. More often than not it was the provider rather than the recipient of policy guidance, an economic planning agency in its own right. It forged a coalition of industrialists and trade unionists which made it a formidable political force in Tasmania.

By virtue of its status as one of the state's largest employers, the HEC wielded additional power. Thousands of Tasmanians were dependent upon the Hydro for their livelihood, whether directly - as employees or contractors and their families - or indirectly - as those in line to benefit from the spending power of those on the HEC payroll.

Indeed, the HEC has not been loath to remind its employees of their interests. During state elections in 1972-73 at the height of the Lake Pedder controversy, electoral notices were placed in employees' pay packets warning them that they could lose their jobs if candidates opposing the Gordon River Dam were successful in the forthcoming elections.

HEC officials are often outspokenly critical of environmentalists. At one point the Commissioner of the HEC was quoted as referring to opponents of the Organisation as 'communists or subversives' (quoted in Southwell 1983, p. 18).

A number of Tasmania's political leaders from both sides of politics, have spoken contemptuously of the natural environment. Former Labor Premier, Eric Reece, an ex-trade union leader whose enthusiasm for hydro-industrialisation earned him the name 'Electric Eric', was quoted as having said of the Tasmanian Tiger, that the state would be better off

if it was extinct and joins such departed species as dinosaurs, moa-birds, and Kiwis (quoted in Southwell 1983, p. 14).

Electric Eric could perhaps be excused for failing to note that the Kiwi is alive and thriving in New Zealand.

More recently, Liberal Premier Robin Gray sought to minimise the environmental significance of the Franklin River by referring to it as 'a brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people'. His public appearance while wearing boxing gloves contributed to the defiance of pro-dam supporters.

It is thus easy to understand how workers who perceived themselves to be economically dependent upon an Organisation which exists to conquer nature, might respond, when thwarted, with an act of vandalism against a mere tree. They no doubt regarded the burning as a fairly mild act of protest.

The burning of the Lea Tree was not reported in the public media, in part because security procedures then in place excluded non-HEC personnel from the area. The HEC refused a television crew permission to land a helicopter at Warner's Landing, and announced that access to the area would remain restricted until it reverted back to a national park by act of parliament. State Police announced that they would continue to arrest trespassers at their discretion. No criminal charges arose from the burning of the Lea Tree, however.

The matter became the subject of jokes by government members in state parliament. The tree's burning was described by the Attorney-General of Tasmania as 'a set-up by the "greenies" to discredit the Hydro workers' (Tasmania, House of Assembly 1983, pp. 1415 and 1417).

The Premier of Tasmania said in Parliament that 'quite frankly the Hydro-Electric Commission and the police have better things to do with their time . . .' (Tasmania, House of Assembly 1983, p. 1418). Nearly four years later, when the photograph described above was sent to the Premier, he replied:

Apart from showing three unidentified men in front of a tree trunk doubed with graffiti, the photograph proves little of substance. If you have sustainable evidence of any breaches of the law, it could be examined by the appropriate authorities (Gray, R. 1987, pers. comm. to Dr R. Brown, MHA, 27 May).

Life in Tasmania goes on. Before the High Court decision, the Commonwealth government had assured the Tasmanian government that were the project not to proceed, a compensation package would be negotiated to ensure that no jobs would be lost, and alternative construction schemes introduced to provide continuity of employment.

Another area of natural beauty in Tasmania, the Lemonthyme Forest, soon became the focus of conflict. Here tensions between conservationists and the timber industry were reinforced by the traditional struggle between federal and state governments.

Back in Southwest Tasmania, the Huon Pine which still stand continue their slow growth. They remain under threat from future dam construction, from pollution by mine tailings, and from fire, to which they and their rainforest ecosystem are extremely vulnerable. Indeed, the risk of fire has been heightened by the increased accessibility of rainforest areas. Todays' seedlings, should they survive predatory man, will reach maturity around the time of the 700th anniversary of European settlement of Australia. Meanwhile, tourists who ply the lower Gordon in large sightseeing boats can view what is left of the tree, and afterwards buy a small effigy of the state of Tasmania, or perhaps an ashtray, carved from Huon Pine.


  • The Examiner 2 July 1983, p. 3.
  • ibid. 3 July 1983, p. 1.
  • ibid. 4 July 1983, p. 1.
  • ibid. 5 July 1983, p. 3.
  • Long, C. 1983,'Tasmania's Wild Western Rivers', This Australia, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 33-40.
  • Millington, Robert J. 1982, 'Woodman, Spare that Tree' Geo : Australia's Geographic Magazine, vol. 4 (June/Aug), pp. 124-31.
  • Southwell, L. 1983, The Mountains of Paradise: The Wildemess of South-West Tasmania, Les Southwell Pty Ltd, Camberwell, Vic.
  • Tasmania, House of Assembly 1983, Debates, 6 Sept., pp. 1415, 1417 and 1418.
  • Wilderness News 1987, vol. 8, no. 3, April.
  • Woolley, B. 1987, 'The Huon Pine', Sunday, Nine Network, 26 April.
Last updated
3 November 2017