News - 04 August 2023

Vale Jonathan West

Franklin River. Image: Grant Dixon
Words Geoff Law, World Heritage consultant and former director of the Wilderness Society Lutruwita / Tasmania

It was a shock to hear of the untimely death of Jonathan West on 29 July 2023. Jonathan had recently been diagnosed with a variant of motor neurone disease. He was only 66.

Jonathan served as director of the Wilderness Society from 1986 to 1987 but his contribution to protecting Tasmania’s wild places spanned many decades.

In about August 1983, Jonathan West was appointed as the national lobbyist for the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (TWS). He came from a background in left-wing politics in NSW. He was a keen bushwalker who had rafted the Franklin River and was committed to the cause of protecting Australia’s wilderness.

In September 1983, he visited Hobart to meet fellow campaigners and familiarise himself with the threats to Tasmania’s wild places. The High Court decision that had saved the Franklin River had occurred only two months previously. The World Heritage Area had grossly inadequate boundaries. No management plan for the property was in place. The government of Robin Gray was hell bent on exploiting all the unprotected wilderness areas in the state. New logging roads were penetrating valleys of primeval forest in Tasmania’s west, bringing large-scale clearfelling operations. Many of the trees being cut down were so big that the trucks could manage only one log at a time.

Jonathan flew with me over the Franklin, Frenchmans Cap, the Tyndall Range and the forests on a fine September day that followed a series of snowfalls. The Southwest was at its most spectacular. Back in Hobart, he embarked on an intense round of meetings with relevant players from the conservation and labour movements. He was an early supporter of TWS’s plan for a Western Tasmania National Park that would encompass all the unprotected wild areas adjacent to the World Heritage property.

The biggest focus for TWS in Tasmania at that time was the forthcoming decision by the Commonwealth government on the renewal of woodchip export-licences. Conservationists saw this as a way to bring the Hawke government into the forests debate. Conditions on the export licences could help save forests listed on the Register of the National Estate. These included virtually all of the wild forests whose protection TWS was seeking.

A positive decision from Hawke was by no means guaranteed. While he had acted decisively to protect the Franklin, there were lots of pro-development ministers in his Cabinet. Labor, of course, was highly influenced by unions representing timber workers. The woodchip industry already had a well-resourced lobbying organisation. The extraction of logs for woodchips was an integral part of a very big and decentralised logging industry that wielded enormous clout and had the total support of Tasmanian Labor.

In mid-1985, Jonathan took advantage of an opportunity to work as a senior advisor to then Environment Minister, Barry Cohen. Cohen’s role was to provide environmental advice to another minister, John Kerin, responsible for issuing the woodchip export-licences. In October 1985, that advice was leaked to the media. It was a bombshell. It recommended that huge areas of Tasmania’s National Estate forests be off-limits to forestry operations. The areas subject to the proposed logging ban included the Lemonthyme (overlooked by the Overland Track), the Douglas-Apsley forests, and the forests of the southwest (such as Farmhouse Creek).

The response of the Gray government and industry was apoplectic. The leak also exposed a policy rift between Cohen and Kerin. The split between two Hawke government ministers became a big media story – the first time Tasmania’s forests had hit the national airwaves. Jonathan’s finesse behind the scenes, quietly cajoling the minister and his department, had been instrumental in this breakthrough.

By December 1985, when the Hawke government announced its decision to renew Tasmanian woodchip export-licences, Cohen’s recommendation had been watered down by other government forces. Nevertheless, enough substance remained for Gray’s incursions at Farmhouse Creek and the Lemonthyme to be portrayed as violations of the Hawke Government’s policy on Tasmania’s forests. The ensuing fracas led to an explosive confrontation at Farmhouse Creek and the involvement of Labor power broker, Graham Richardson, on the side of the forests.

In 1986, Jonathan returned to TWS, this time as director, just in time for another episode in what had become a marathon state-federal crisis over the forests. In June 1986, while affirming the renewal of woodchip export-licences, Hawke promised to use all the Commonwealth’s powers to protect Tasmania’s National Estate forests in the event of a dispute with Tasmania. In November, when just such a dispute occurred, Jonathan helped determine the makeup of a government panel assessing logging at Jackeys Marsh and the Lemonthyme. Things didn’t go entirely to plan when the panel found in favour of saving the Lemonthyme but gave the green light to logging at Jackeys Marsh.

In early 1987, forestry operations – and protests – resumed at Farmhouse Creek. In March, Jonathan and I decided to visit the TWS protest camp, which was cut off by a police checkpoint 20 km back along the road. We walked all night in the rain, dodging police cars as we went. We spent the following day and night with the bedraggled protest crew at their miserable, sodden little camp next to the Picton River while the rain came relentlessly down. We had hoped to make contact with tree-sitters Alec Marr and Ted Mead, but this had not been possible due to the heavy police presence at the base of their trees.

We had planned to raft back out to civilisation in my inflatable rubber raft, but decided to leave the raft at the camp to enable safe river-crossings, so we trudged through a felled forest back up to the Picton Road. We were trespassing, but Jonathan managed to persuade some passing police to give us a lift out, pretending that we were just bushwalkers returning from Federation Peak. On finding an ABC TV crew at the locked gate, Jonathan promptly dropped the pretence and gave an interview as TWS director in which he spoke of the ‘great morale’ at the camp, to which we had just delivered ‘a whole lot of new supplies’.

Meanwhile, the negotiations with Hawke and Richardson had reached a very delicate phase. Their government was grappling with the problem of how to stop logging while minimising impacts on employment in Tasmania’s logging industry. Together with Bob Brown and the ACF’s Phillip Toyne, Jonathan maintained a cool head, pushing all the while for Hawke to use the government’s World Heritage powers. The 1987-88 Helsham inquiry was the outcome. It was tasked with identifying forests of World Heritage quality and recommending ways in which the industry could be reformed. The conservation movement welcomed the inquiry and the associated moratorium on logging in 283,000 hectares of forest, expecting formal vindication of our proposals to extend Tasmania’s World Heritage property.

Again, things didn’t turn out as planned. In May 1988, the majority report of Justice Helsham (whom conservationists had recommended for the job) found that less than 10% of the forests examined would qualify for World Heritage listing. It was back to the barricades. An enormous campaign partially turned things around. A half-way proposal by Richardson got through Cabinet on 4 August 1988. In November, a new World Heritage nomination was forwarded to UNESCO. And in 1989, under the Labor-Green Accord, many other areas were added. In December 1989, UNESCO inscribed an extended Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that was 78% bigger than previously.

In the meantime, Jonathan had moved on, resigning from his position as TWS director in late 1987.

In 2011, after two and a half decades in the journalistic, corporate and academic worlds, Jonathan returned to the seemingly intractable Tasmanian forests debate. He was appointed chair of the independent verification group, tasked by the federal and state governments with assessing the values of Tasmania’s contentious forests. It was a role eerily similar to that of the ill-fated Helsham inquiry of 1987-88. However, this time, under Jonathan’s guidance, the process found in favour of a World Heritage extension for forests in Tasmania’s southwest, Great Western Tiers and takayna / Tarkine. An extension to the World Heritage property occurred in 2013, protecting places over which grim battles had been fought since the 1980s, including the upper Florentine, much of the Styx, the Counsel River, Mother Cummings Peak and most of the lower Weld valley. (The cause of saving takayna /Tarkine, despite its verified World Heritage attributes, has yet to be taken up by any government.)

Jonathan West played a critical role in the long-running endeavour to give Tasmania’s western wilderness areas the protection they deserve. In 1985, he adroitly manoeuvred the Hawke Government into taking on the difficult Tasmanian forests conflict. In early 1987, during a messy imbroglio when the Hawke government was in danger of walking away from the issue, Jonathan held his nerve, talked the government through the options, and helped get the ball rolling for a greatly expanded World Heritage area. In 2013, following government adoption of Jonathan’s verification reports, the World Heritage Committee unanimously endorsed an extension of the Tasmanian Wilderness to include a suite of majestic forests, wild rivers, intricate caves, Aboriginal heritage, glacial landscapes and primeval life forms.

Jonathan brought a seemingly effortless diplomacy to his work for TWS. As far back as the early 1980s, he was a master of political nuance at a time when most of us saw things in black and white. He brought a cool clarity to his view of the Wilderness Society’s objectives, encouraging us to keep the focus on threatened wilderness, rather than getting distracted by everything else that was going on. His essential contribution to protecting significant parts of one of the world’s great temperate wilderness areas will not be forgotten.

My heartfelt condolences go to Jonathan’s wife, Susan, and to Erik.