The Battle for the Wet Tropics Rainforests

Mt Windsor Blockade 1981

Mt Windsor Blockade 1981

In 1988 a large section of the Wet Tropics Rainforests were declared a World Heritage Area. A separate piece legislation, the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area Act was created to provide legislative protection of the WHA under the Wet Tropics Plan. CAFNEC was instrumental in getting this, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, protected from the loggers axe.


Despite this protection, the area is still being degraded by a range of threatening processes. A number of conservation groups in the region are working together and with the relevant agencies to ensure this area is given proper management. Sadly both State and Federal governments are failing to provide anywhere near the amount of resourcing required to do the job. Until our political leaders begin to appreciate the environmental, social, cultural, spiritual and economic value of areas such as the Wet Tropics, they will slowly continue to degrade, leaving a diminished legacy for future generations.


The Role of Non-Government Conservation Organisations in the lead up to the 1988 World Heritage listing of the Wet Tropics Rainforests of north eastern Queensland.

Mary Burg

(Due to the size constraints of her research project, the author, Mary Burg, took up the story from 1980 – the year Cairns hosted the World Rainforest Congress.)




The pioneering ethos that had dominated North Queensland society since settlement in the 1860s overshadowed any substantial environmental movement till quite contemporary times. The principles of conservation were seen as of little consequence because of their agrarian conservation genesis. It was not until the 1960s that the ecological significance of the region began to be understood and valued. This resulted in calls from prominent scientists to set aside areas as National Parks for conservation purposes. With a growing interest in the unique flora and fauna of the region, fledgling conservation groups sprang up in the 1970s. Overriding any major ecological wins was Joh Bjelke Petersen, long time incumbent National Party Premier. Joh’s overriding passion for development would be the thorn in the side of conservationists for many years to come. Despite this, the tide was slowly turning with many local citizens, along with prominent national and international scientists, calling for the cessation of logging of all tropical rainforests in North Queensland.


In 1980 Cairns hosted the second World Wilderness Congress. In that same year North Queensland would see its first confrontation between conservationists and loggers. Direct action of this type was unprecedented in the conservative north. This was the beginning of a long campaign to protect the north’s biologically rich rainforests. The pressure was on and the next eight years would see a long drawn out campaign which would eventually culminate in the listing of the Wet Tropics Rainforests on the World Heritage Register in December 1988. During this eight year period the impetus to protect the rainforests generated a springboard for the growth and collaboration of new and existing conservation groups. As in most diverse group dynamics, there were at times differing approaches and strategies. Despite this, the collaborative effort of all the groups merged as one in their mutual goal of preserving the rainforests. This paper will discuss the involvement of these non-government organisations (NGOs) in the lead up to the Listing. The author wishes to highlight how instrumental these groups were, often against great political odds and with little acknowledgment, at managing to secure international protection for a large area of wet tropical rainforests in North Queensland.




Wet Tropics Rainforest - Steve NowakowskiA new decade began in North Queensland with a hint of social and political change in the air. In June 1980 Cairns hosted the 2nd World Wilderness Congress where 500 people gathered to hear 42 formal papers given over 5 days. Twenty three of the speakers were Australian, nineteen from overseas. Over twenty resolutions were recorded including; –


‘A call for the Queensland State Government to create a single, very large National Park to be largely preserved as Wilderness that would encompass the entire coastal, valley and mountain regions from Cooktown to the Daintree River’.


The Congress also called for the Federal and State Governments to devise a scheme to preserve all remaining areas of rainforest on the continent as part of The World Wilderness Heritage. Of particular interest also was the fact that delegates from the Congress urge the Australian Government to give consideration to funding non-government delegates to attend similar international forums.


Bill Sokolich, President on the Cape Tribulation Community Council (CTCC) presented a paper at the Congress lobbying for the creation of a new National Park at Cape Tribulation. The CTCC, made up of a dozen core individuals, was formed in the mid 1970s to lobby for the gazettal of new National Parks along with other relevant issues in the local area. Sokolich recalls how when the group first formed, they decided not to brand their organisation with a ‘radical greenie’ name. Understanding that the north was still very conservative, they choose not to alienate themselves from the local community.


On opening the Congress, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced his Government’s intention to create the new Cape Tribulation National Park. He is on record saying that: –


“The area provides a living museum of plants and animals in what is one of the few remaining examples of undisturbed coastal rainforests in the world. It is a breathtaking example of Nature’s work.”


In his official opening address, the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser paid tribute to the continuing interest of Mr. Bjelke-Petersen in conservation, stating how good progress was being achieved in Queensland (Fig.1). Fraser also highlighted how Bjelke-Petersen’s support was well known and deserved acknowledgment.


The sentiments embellished by Bjelke-Petersen and Fraser at the Wilderness Congress were thought by many to be predominantly ‘motherhood’ statements. Whilst such sentiments may have been accepted in anticipation by some, others rejected such rhetoric outright. The North Queensland Land Council organised an alternative conference in the same week directly across the road from the Congress. This gathering, aptly named the ‘Development without Destruction Conference’, deliberately chose not to attend the Wilderness Congress. According to local conservationist Rosemary Hill, there were a number of people who opposed the Congress, mainly due to the fact that it was being sponsored by a development driven agenda (Hill 2000). Sokolich supported their stance, attending both forums. It was at the alternative forum that the idea of setting up a peak conservation group for North Queensland had its genesis. If conservation of the northern rainforests was to be achieved, it was apparent to the N.G.O.s they would have to be the driving force. This decision would lead them along a long and difficult road before their goals of rainforest logging cessation would materialise.




Following on from the Development without Destruction Conference where the idea of a peak conservation group for the north was raised, a public meeting was called to test the acceptability of such a concept. At this meeting a steering committee was appointed to develop a structure and constitution. By January 1981 this first committee called a public meeting at which it presented a formula for an environment centre consisting of a sales outlet, library and office for environmental services. The proposal was accepted in principal and the constitution ratified. The name of the new organisation would be the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC). The inaugural meeting of CAFNEC was held on the 13th March 1981. CAFNEC acquired an office space in Cairns and began the ongoing business of fund raising and education. As an umbrella organisation CAFNEC undertook the role of coordinating the existing non aligned groups which included:


· The Cape Tribulation Community Council · The Tablelands Nature Awareness Society · Wildlife Preservation Society (Cairns branch) · Wildlife Preservation Society ( Innisfail branch) · North Queensland Naturalist Club · Barron River Canoe Club · Society for Growing Australian Plants (Cairns branch) · Cooktown Conservation Committee · North Queensland Land Council · Cairns Underwater Association


When questioning the need for such an organisation in the north, Sokolich argued that North Queensland required a consolidated grass roots movement to reflect the growing disenchantment towards the rapacious resource consuming attitudes of the National Party. According to Hill it was time for a much more pro-active approach to conservation in the north. Many talented and dedicated individuals had been the ‘trail blazers’ of conservation in Queensland and will be remembered as the pioneers of the conservation movement. One outstanding person, prominent poet and environmental campaigner Judith Wright, passed away in June 2000. Ms Wright will be remembered as woman of egalitarian values as well as having strong environmental and social justice principles.


Whilst everyone agreed that the existing groups, ie, the Wildlife Preservation Society and the Naturalists Club did an excellent job of letter writing, field trips etc, they had little effect against the power of Joh and his Government. According to Sokolich you had to have a strong voice and a lot of lobbying power to get the ear of the Government. You couldn’t be ‘nice’, the system in Queensland is that you are dealing with bullyboys, new tactics needed to be adopted. The metamorphosis of a younger, more radical voice was emerging; a new chapter in history had begun.


By this time the concept of a large protected area was taking shape. This so-called ‘Greater Daintree’ would link existing national parks and add as yet unprotected biologically important areas together (Fig. 2). The national conservation body, Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) believed that an unsurpassed opportunity existed to protect and manage the region in a manner which would avoid the overexploitation which the vast majority of the wet tropics had endured. In the Queensland Conservation Council’s (QCC) newsletter in February that year, concern was raised in relation to the expansion of the sugar industry north of the Daintree. The Douglas Shire Council (DSC) had just increased ferry charges across the Daintree River for private vehicles, but reduced charges for carrying timber and sugar cane by 40% . An ominous sign indeed.


Other forces were gathering which could threaten the rainforests, this time from local real estate owner George Quaid. DSC. minutes note how Mr Quaid sought a deputation to Council to reach a ‘compromise’ over the zoning of his land in the Daintree area, from rural general farming to rural residential . It became apparent by March that Mr Quaid had achieved his goal. The next DSC minutes note that Part 5 of the Town Planning By-Laws be amended by deleting all provisions pertaining to ‘Places of Scientific or Historical Interest or Natural Beauty’ and that the ‘Provisions of Utility Services’ be a discretionary power of Council. The motion was carried with only one dissenting voice.


With mounting concern in relation to the future of the northern rainforests, the ‘Rescue the Rainforests’ campaign was launched by the ACF and given the highest national priority. This nation wide campaign would draw together the support of conservation groups and concerned individuals throughout the country. Letters of concern came flooding in from around the country but received little response from either the State or Local Government. In September the Cape Tribulation National Park was finally gazetted. Although welcomed, CAFNEC felt much of the best lowland rainforest remained in freehold tenure or vacant crown land. The ACF and Aila Keto from the Rainforest Conservation Society (RCS) published a paper entitled ‘Critical Review of the Queensland Forestry Department’. In this report they argued that the timber industry was in decline, over subsidised and uneconomical. Not surprisingly the Forestry Department refuted this and no action was forthcoming.


The Rainforest Action Committee, a new sub-committee of CAFNEC, was set up to work specifically on the rainforest campaign. A Cape Tribulation Rainforest Fund was established for the purpose of purchasing land for preservation. Donations began to arrive but fell short of purchasing any substantial portion of land. Towards the end of the year it became increasingly apparent that direct action may be needed to halt the proposed intensification of logging of rainforest in the Mount Windsor Tableland area on the western side of the Daintree. It is of interest that the group’s initial objective was not to stop all logging on the Mt Windsor Tableland, or in other north Queensland areas, rather to get a firm commitment that further logging intrusions would not be permitted into the remaining virgin rainforests of the north . Another driving force in the campaign, Rupert Russell, spent a lot of time disseminating information through regular newsletters as well as organising the imminent blockade.


This blockade was indeed symbolic, being the first of its type in North Queensland (Fig. 3). The Mt. Windsor direct action, in conjunction with the Terania Creek direct actions occurring in northern NSW were, according to Sokolich, the first recorded blockading of rainforests in the world. Not surprisingly, locals were quite shocked at these acts of resistance, but owing to the fact that the blockade was not prolonged, the action raised little publicity or controversy. Hill remembers fondly how the blockaders and loggers socialised together in the evenings with some loggers even agreeing that the resources were being over exploited. Nineteen eighty one was indeed a very active year for conservationists, the genesis of a peak environmental group brought cohesion to the growing voices of descent in the north. The formation of the ‘Rescue the Rainforest’ campaign created tangible lines of approach on education and lobbying. By the end of the year the conservation movement moved into a new more pro-active approach with the blockade at Mt. Windsor. A new generation of progressive activists were preparing to do battle with the entrenched conservative forces of the north.




A rainforest campaign meeting held in Tully in February 1982 brought together all stakeholders concerned with rainforest conservation in the north. The news reported from the various groups was grim. Mike Berwick from Cape Tribulation reported that George Quaid was proceeding fast on subdivisions behind Cow Bay. Don Brooks from Innisfail reported that logging was close at hand in the Downey Creek area west of Innisfail. Meanwhile logging continued unabated in the Mt. Windsor area (Fig.4). The meeting acknowledged that job losses were the most contentious issues for the logging community. With this in mind, it was decided to allocate the recent grants which had been made to CAFNEC. and CTCC to a ‘Jobs Alternative’ Study of the Timber Industry. Funds would also be spent on the production of the ‘Cape Tribulation Management Plan’ as well as legal advice and educational pamphlets.


The Cairns Wildlife Preservation Society’s (WPSQ) eleventh Annual Report gave full support to the ‘Rescue the Rainforests’ campaign. The Society also gave praise to CAFNEC and indicated that used effectively, this new organisation would be a tremendous aid to conservation in the north. WPSQ held a position on the Board of Management as well as helping ‘staff’ the centre . This proved a very useful merging of the old and new organisations as unity would be very important in the battle ahead. Politically, the conservatives were taking their own arguments to the populace. In a press statement released on the 16th March 1982, Minister for Forests and Lands, Mr. Glasson argued that Queensland was leading other countries in its conservation strategy for rainforests. According to Mr. Glasson the local foresters were more environmentally aware than the so-called conservationists. The Minister also called for large scale resorts along the coast and islands.


The proposed ‘Greater Daintree National Park’ concept was promoted at an international forum in Bali in October when ACF Director Geoff Mosley attended the World National Parks Conference. Mosley also attended the launching of the ‘International Tropical Forests Campaign’ organised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The concerns of the NGOs were finally finding a voice in the international arena. Likewise, the voice of the conservative north was beginning to intensify. Martin Tenni, Local Member for Barron River as well as Minister for the Environment, inflamed the debate in question time in parliament when he stated;


“With so many Aboriginal Reserves and National Parks, if we are not careful there will not be enough land left on which to build a dance-hall. There are enough National Parks now. I am sick and tired of listening to Ms. Hills from Cape Tribulation who says that a road cannot be built through the Cape Tribulation National Park to Cooktown because a few trees will have to be destroyed. She goes overboard on conservation matters”.


News that the Australian Bicentennial Authority might consider funding road works north of the Daintree River, heightened the concerns of the NGOs in relation to the proposed road through the newly gazetted National Park. The successes of 1982 can be attributed to the cohesion of new and existing groups and their ability to coordinate themselves through the peak umbrella organisation, CAFNEC. This appeared to be a much more effective way of working for conservation rather than one group attempting to fight all the issues. The battle lines were being drawn by the DSC over their proposal to build a road through the newly gazetted Cape Tribulation National Park. This would be seen as anathema to the growing forces of conservation in North Queensland.




The proposed actions and strategies for 1983 were discussed at length at a meeting of 30 conservationists held in Townsville in March. Lobbying politicians and educating the public were seen as areas of high priority. A rally was held in Innisfail by the WPSQ protesting Forestry’s intention to log in the Downey Creek catchment. This was an unprecedented event for such a conservative sugar town. There was a concerted push by Quaids Real Estate to sell their newly subdivided land in the Daintree. No irony was lost on the fact it was promoted as a ‘green’ choice (Fig. 5). Meanwhile many volunteers undertook an enormous amount of work to help out with the campaign. This included public meetings, workshops on non violent action in preparation for the possibility of direct action, displays and walks all directed at educating the community of the environmental assets we have and the threats they are under.


An alarm was raised in August 1983 when it was noticed that a paragraph on the ‘Construction of a 4WD track from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield’ had been included on the works program issued with the DCS Rates Notice. Around this time CAFNEC members felt the need to formalise the structure of the organisation, creating sub-committees for specific campaigns. A Cairns branch of the Rainforest Conservation Society (RCS) was formed in May 1982 adding to the existing branches in Brisbane and Townsville. Weekly meetings of the newly formed RCS followed along with regular stalls at Rusty’s Markets. The group also held educational seminars introducing a variety of speakers with the view of gauging the various attitudes within the community towards rainforest conservation.


The Cape Tribulation Management Plan funded by CAFNEC was produced as a suggested basis for rationalising the conflicts of land use in the Cape Tribulation area. This plan, according to Sokolich, was a great beginning to sustainable planning and a credit to non-government organisations . It was the process of setting up a framework, which may take years to come to fruition, but would be ready and waiting for the opportune time when the political landscape changes. The ‘Greater Daintree National Park’ proposal is refined and the concept relaunched at the National Wilderness Conference in September. The RCS called on the Federal Government to protect the area by using the Federal World Heritage Properties Protection Act, as had been done with the Franklin River Dam issue earlier that year. The argument over the proposed road then took an unexpected and bizarre twist. Tenni’s assertion that the road was necessary to prevent drug trafficking and illegal immigration followed the rumour that the road opening was imminent. The following excerpts from an interview between CAFNEC representatives and the DSC Chairman Tony Mijo sums up the relationship between the two disparate groups:


Coleman – Will you announce when the proposed road is to be constructed? Mijo – No, we don’t have to do that. Coleman – The public has demonstrated its concern by all its letters to the editor over the past 6 weeks. Mijo – Oh, all those letters are just propaganda from you people and do not require any response. A man would be a fool to answer letters like that. Hill. – Will a survey of the road be performed before construction? Mijo – No, that’s not necessary Hill – Will the Council preform an EIS on the road? Who will do it? Mijo – Yes, we’ve already done it. The Shire Engineer did it. Hill – Has he any qualifications in ecology? Mijo – Everybody’s an expert.


Part of CAFNEC’s educational strategy was to hold public meetings in surrounding towns. It was at one such meeting in Mossman in September that the Wilderness Action Group (WAG) was formed. WAG brought together a diverse group of people with a fairly wide range of talents and resources. They would work in well with the CTCC having better infrastructure and access to better lines of communication. In late November while discussions were still taking place, the bulldozers crossed the river. According to WAG it was anger that drove people to the blockade, anger at the secrecy, arrogance and pigheadedness of the DSC, anger at the lack of democracy in this State. WAG members recall how it felt like we were at war, we were going to fight for our country in a non-violent fashion. Local resident Mike Berwick was elected spokesperson for the group. The first arrests came quick and fast. Labor politicians offered support but the Federal Government was hesitant to get into a States right bout with the Bjelke-Petersen Government. The blockaders had a growing outside support base with boats bringing in supplies and moral support. The turnover of protesters was impressive, WAG estimated that between 400-500 people all told physically protested the road over the whole blockade period.


The CAFNEC office in Cairns became the gravational centre for the blockade. It provided the logistical support, a contact for the media and a drop in centre for blockaders coming and going. By this time the green contingency, fresh from the Terania Creek campaign down south, had set up camp at the blockade site. This group, known as the Nomadic Action Group NAG caused a few raised eyebrows from some sectors of the conservation movement. Sokolich explains how these ‘southern greenies’ were more radical in their approach and not so worried about local hostilities. The NAG blockaders caused a few headaches for the organisers in the CAFNEC office in Cairns (Fig.6). Hill reflects back at how on the one hand they were receiving calls from some established groups saying ‘get those bloody filthy blockaders off the television now!’ Conversely, some blockaders were saying that CAFNEC was just a rubber stamp for the Government. This was a difficult time, full of heightened passions with differing ‘factions’ of the movement vying over tactics.


On the 17th December the D.S.C. claimed victory describing the near completion of the 32km track a victory for the Council and an historical event. Conservationists described it as round one in a fight they would eventually win. On the 20th December nearly 100 protesters attended a symbolic ceremony proclaiming a National Park covering the entire Greater Daintree area. Mike Graham of the RCS read the proclamation which said in part, “We ask the citizens of Australia to urge their elected representatives to preserve this area” (Fig. 7). Then, to the jubilation of onlookers and blockaders, Graham declared the roadworks closed and proceeded to move along the road planting over 100 native rainforest trees. The year was drawing to an end, the wet season had begun and the heightened anger at the destruction of the forest would resonate for many years to come.




In early January a national meeting of all major conservation groups held in Brisbane resolved to pursue World Heritage Listing for the wet tropical rainforests of North Queensland and to focus on the Greater Daintree as a priority. The emphasis of the whole campaign was moving rapidly onto a national focus, becoming the priority issue for all national conservation bodies such as the ACF and the Wilderness Society (TWS). Differences in strategies appeared. Some group’s felt that the emphasis should stay on the Daintree with the next blockade due to begin after the wet season. Others felt disappointed that rainforest areas further south, ie Downey Creek, were being left out of the equation. The Wilderness Society’s Haydn Washington, still fresh from the win on the Franklin River in Tasmania, strongly advocated that the ‘Greater Daintree National Park’ proposal should be the first nominated for World Heritage. Washington’s argument centred on his belief that ‘in all probability the entire Wet Tropical rainforests would not be conserved even though that should not stop us from trying’. Aila Keto from the RCS in Brisbane believed that lobbying politicians would have a better outcome than blockading. Science, she argued, could win the day, not confrontation. Despite these differences, planning continued unabated with an enormous amount of work being undertaken by all groups. Slide shows, leaflets, banner making and videos were produced. Regular phone link ups between the disparate groups managed to keep cohesion and ideas flowing. The R.C.S. obtained some funding from the Australian Heritage Commission to produce a report to establish the World Heritage potential of the Wet Tropical Forests. At last a comprehensive scientific assessment was to be compiled on all the biological values of the rainforests. In February a Commonwealth Conference on rainforest conservation was held in Cairns, initiated by Barry Cohen Minister of Home Affairs and the environment. The meeting was fiery but conservationists came away enthusiastic that some progress may have been made. In June the Cairns branch of the Rainforest Conservation Society changed its name to the ‘Tropical Rainforest Society’. This, according to Hill, came about due to differences between Brisbane and Cairns RCS. Keto had become very active and was asserting strong control over what RCS branches did. This wasn’t seen as feasible what with the distances involved and voluntary nature of the workers. After a public spat in the Courier Mail it was decided that Cairns would go it alone, starting with a new name. Hill argues that this was not a major issue and that both groups went on to work successfully over the years. The blockade continued after the wet season with more protesters being arrested. Frustration is echoed in Greg McIntyre’s president’s report in CAFNEC’s newsletter ECOTONE, where the strains of being at the ‘centre’ of the action are beginning to wear thin. Yvonne Cunningham from WPSQ Innisfail and Aila Keto continued to voice concern over the Daintree emphasis, feeling that the southern end of the Wet Tropics could remain unprotected due to political expediency.


Meanwhile the blockade had taken on a life of its own, new events were unfolding with the media full of graphic images of the more ‘radical’ southern greenies. The August blockade was generally felt to be less effective that the December blockade due to logistical difficulties between the blockade site and the office in Cairns, escalating fines, police brutality, image problems and overloading of CAFNEC’s facilities. Eventually it was decided to end the blockade and Rosemary Hill and Mike Graham were given the unenviable task of reporting this to the blockaders. The morale after the blockade dissipated was understandably low, although Sokolich argued that the blockade had to happen no matter what and the game wasn’t over in a long shot.


The road was officially opened in October with more than 50 vehicles reported to be bogged after heavy rain fell in the prior 24 hours. As reported in the Townsville Bulletin the DSC official party including the Chairman Tony Mijo, were among those stranded. Conservationists managed to find humour in the situation but ultimately knew that the rainforest and the reef would be the losers in the whole fiasco. The benchmark report commissioned by the RCS for the Australian Heritage Commission resulted in the Federal Government admitting that the Wet Tropics of Queensland was worthy of World Heritage Listing. The report concluded:


From the information compiled in this study, we conclude that the Wet Tropics region of North-East Queensland is one of the most significant regional ecosystems in the world. It is of outstanding scientific importance and natural beauty and adequately fulfils all four of the criteria defined by the World Heritage Convention for inclusion in the “World Heritage List”.


International scientists endorsed the scientific integrity of the report. Despite this outstanding confirmation, the Federal Government remained firm believing they could not act without the support of the Queensland State Government. The end of the year signalled mixed emotions in many quarters. On one hand the issue of the Daintree road had escalated the campaign onto the national and international arena. On the other hand, the battle had been lost to stop the road through to Bloomfield. Group dynamics between the NGOs had at times been volatile, while all agreed that the issue was Australia’s number one campaign and cohesion would have to be paramount. The scientific information indicated that the area was worthy of World Heritage. Intransigent politicians would be the next hurdle.




Media saturation followed the blockade. The local papers were overflowing with letters to the editor voicing a plethora of opinions on the ongoing debate. Never before had an environmental issue raised such passion and interest in North Queensland. There was a strong belief that 1985 would be a turning point in the campaign and that the nomination of the rainforests was imminent. Wet Tropics ‘Strategy Meetings’ were set up with the intention of drawing up strategies for the coming year. World Heritage listing of all the Wet Tropics rainforests was being called for along with the co-operation of the Commonwealth/State Governments in management arrangements. It was stressed that more educational forums were needed, rallies, street marches and international speaking tours were suggested. The importance of economic alternatives was seen as paramount along with lobbying the Labor Government to support the concept of World Heritage Listing.


Reflecting the impetus of the issue nationally, the Australian Conservation Foundation employed two project officers to work solely on the Wet Tropics campaign. One officer was situated in Cairns and the other in Brisbane. These positions were invaluable in disseminating information to all groups as well as lobbying and organising political tours. On the local political scene, WPSQ President Dr. Leslie Clarke topped the poll in the State seat of Barron River, held by the National Party since 1974. Clague, long time member of WPSQ argued that such a successful win highlighted that conservation could influence election results. In the Douglas Shire, three members of WAG threw their hats in the ring. Mike Berwick door knocked 3,200 voters of the Douglas Shire and reported how many people were interested in discussing the ‘road’ (Fig. 8). Whilst none of the three WAG members were successful, analysis of the election results incite confidence they would have a better chance in the next local Government election.


With education being seen as a prominent plank of the campaign, a beautiful pictorial coffee table book was produced by Greg Borschmann and published by the ACF titled; ‘Greater Daintree – World Heritage Tropical Rainforests at Risk’. At the books official launch, President of the ACF the Hon J.H. Wootten Q.C. affirmed that the conservation movement of Australia was united in its determination that the Wet Tropics would be saved from the greed, short-sightedness and obstinacy which threatened them., stating:


“Perhaps a few decades hence some of our grandchildren will read about this issue. Will they see it as a reminder of the wisdom and sensitivity of this generation whose foresight had enriched their lives? Or will they see it as an indictment of the vandalism that degraded their world and denied them the opportunity of rare physical, intellectual and spiritual experiences?”


The State Government dismisses any talk of World Heritage Listing as overseas control of our forests, anathema to parochial politicians. Meanwhile Downey Creek continued to be logged with further calls from all conservation groups for a cessation to all rainforest logging in the Wet Tropics.


It was made patently clear to Barry Cohen, Federal Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment, on a visit to Cairns that the Federal Government had an international obligation as a signatory to the World Heritage Treaty to find, list and protect areas of World Heritage status in Australia. The Australian Heritage Commission Report had shown beyond doubt, that the Wet Tropics Rainforests were worthy of such protection. In reply, Cohen justified his Government’s stance by arguing that there was as yet insufficient support by the Australian public and that co-operation with the Queensland Government was paramount.


Despite these sentiments by the Federal Government, a motion was adopted by the State ALP Council meeting in September, calling on the Commonwealth to nominate, by December 31st 1985, the Wet Tropical Rainforests as a World Heritage Area. This motion was carried without opposition. Sokolich saw this move by the State Labor Party as positive, believing that something good could come out of it. Conversely, Gawler, the ALP Member for Leichhardt, still did not support the nomination believing that the Queensland Government would win any High Court challenge and that there would be an electoral backlash in his electorate.


Many gains were made in 1985, the conservationists felt that by the end of the year their ultimate goal of nominating the rainforests for World Heritage Listing would have been attained. It was now acknowledged that the area well and truly fitted all the criteria for listing. Conservation groups commissioned an opinion poll on the issues employing Spectrum Research P/L to carry out the survey. The poll carried out in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane resulted in an average 82% in favour of the Federal Government taking urgent action to protect the rainforests. The Hawke Government could act to save the forests if they had the political will. The political stalemate continued with another year slipping away while the chainsaws and bulldozers reigned.




Little of the rhetoric generated from the World Wilderness Congress eight years earlier had materialised into any tangible outcomes. The fact that the Queensland Government refused to co-operate with the Federal Government was predictable but nevertheless disheartening. Despite these continuing frustration’s, determination amongst the NGOs to obtain their goals remained high as shown in Figure 9. It was no longer necessary to prove the scientific significance of the north’s biologically rich ecosystems. They indisputably met the criteria for listing. Also public opinion in the local area was changing as reflected by a television poll on the streets of Cairns conducted by FNQ 10. The poll found an overwhelming majority of locals wanted an end to logging. This change in community attitudes over the previous eight years reflected clearly in the attitudes highlighted in the major capital cities poll last year. State elections were due that year and the consensus view reflected the need to bring sufficient pressure to bear on the State Government. Intensified lobbying of the Queensland Cabinet would be needed along with harnessing the mounting opposition to rainforest logging worldwide. A co-operative effort by all conservation groups involved was necessary to marshal this support in the months ahead. On a strategic level it became increasingly critical that the campaign not become fragmented into competing claims for National Park status.


As reported by Keto, Barry Cohen had made a submission to Cabinet to allocate $10 million per year for 3 years to allow the implementation of the Commonwealths Rainforest Conservation Program. It was understood that Cabinet had discussed the issue of rainforest protection in North Queensland on a few occasions, but no decision had been made. Cohen did not have the numbers, all so crucial in the machinations of power play in Canberra.


A National Rainforest Strategy Meeting held in Townsville in July brought together all key NGO’s involved in rainforest conservation North Queensland. These groups were:


Queensland Conservation Council Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland – Cairns – Innisfail – Tully -Hinchinbrook – Townsville – Brisbane North Queensland Conservation Council Cape Tribulation Community Council The Wilderness Society Rainforest Conservation Society of Queensland Rainforest Information Centre Tropical Rainforest Society Cairns & Far North Environment Centre


This meeting re-affirmed the goals of World Heritage Listing. It also endorsed the formalisation of a network ‘alliance’ of groups to be known as the ‘Rainforest Action and Information Network’ (RAIN) with the central focus being in Brisbane. A full time North Queensland Project Officer would be employed based in Cairns. The meeting also resolved that individual groups would not put up proposals for National Parks in isolation, not even as an interim measure. It was now agreed that no lines be drawn on maps to define isolated National Park proposals other than the whole ‘Wet Tropical Forests, it was all or nothing.


After lots of negotiations the meeting managed to agree on their goals and now needed electoral support. The alliance would support any Government which abided by their goal, with hopes that the Labor Party would overturn the Bjelke-Petersen State Government. To the dismay of many conservationists, the National Party was returned to power and life goes on in Queensland. These results meant that those involved in conservation would need renewed energy to keep up the spirit and enthusiasm in 1987 if their goals of rainforest conservation would ever be achieved.




The premier screening of the movie “Earth First” held at the Civic Centre in March proved an overwhelming success and a morale boost for many conservationists in the north (Fig. 10). Six hundred people attended the premier which presented a profoundly moving account of the conservation movement’s fight to save the rainforests from Tasmania to North Queensland. Jack Thompson, narrator of the film, felt elated at the response claiming it lampooned the suggestion that those who cared about the environment were a ”small minority group – a ratbag fringe of society’ rather than the obvious cross-section who attended. However, the event which would overwhelm all others in 1987, came on World Environment Day, June 5th with the announcement by the Prime Minister Bob Hawke that his Government intended to nominate the Wet Tropics for World Heritage Listing. This announcement, on the eve of the Federal election, finally vindicated the calls of conservationists and scientists of the biological importance of the Wet Tropics. The re-election of the Hawke Government in July and the appointment of Graham Richardson as the new Minister for the Environment would set the course for bitter confrontation between the Federal and State Governments, the loggers and conservationists. Misinformation in relation to the listing was being fuelled by the logging industry and conservation groups were kept busy disseminating information, preparing submissions and attending meetings and rallies to press the positive outcomes of World Heritage Listing.


An incredible amount of work had previously been put into drawing up the proposed boundaries for the whole Wet Tropics by the TRS and RCS. Hill explained how vital this information was when it was put forward to the Australian Heritage Commission and published in their report, it finished up being the one that went to public consultation. When the Government announcement came in June 1987, it was the only proposed boundary .This proved incredibly fortuitous for when it came time for the Government bureaucrats to demand a boundary, there it was.


The original boundary was eventually changed during the public discussion period. According to Hill, all the Cape Tribulation lowlands were inside the original boundary but Aila Keto from the RCS agreed with the bureaucrats to put the Tablelands forests in instead. This led to much acrimony between Keto and Mike Graham who had put in an incredible amount of work on the original boundaries. According to Hill, if these changes had not been made, we would be in a much better position now to protect some of the most important areas in the Wet Tropics.


Senator Richardson flew to Cairns in August to announce the boundaries. He was welcomed by a human-sized white lemuroid possum being CAFNEC’s latest envoy and media magnet (Fig.11). Whilst visiting the CAFNEC office, co-ordinator Lyn Wallace presented Senator Richardson with over 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for the cessation of logging. On his visit to the logging town of Ravenshoe to explain the likely effects of the listing, Richardson was attacked by a group of timber workers who feared the loss of their jobs. According to the editor of the Australian, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s support of the loggers violent behaviour was even more disturbing. This type of action, argued the editor, should have no place in the political life of Australia.


That same week Rosemary Hill was abused and threatened by timber workers at a rally in Cairns (Fig. 12). Hill explained that TRS had always believed there should not be a human cost for a particular section of society, those effected should be compensated. Regardless of these sentiments, Joh incited more violence when he announced at the rally that “all these greenies should be tarred and feathered and run out of town”. This resulted in more abuse with the conservationists at the rally feeling very threatened.


Great progress had been made towards rainforest conservation in 1987. Public opinion was increasingly supporting World Heritage Listing. At last the Federal Government were making moves to protect the Wet Tropics. Whether this was genuine concern for the environment or political opportunism is open to conjecture. In the interim the area was still being logged. The battle was not over yet.




The declaration on 19th January 1988 under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act making commercial forestry operations illegal was met with jubilation from all conservation groups in Australia. According to the TRS this declaration was the most significant conservation event of the last ten years in North Queensland but warned its members not to become complacent just yet. World Heritage was not yet assured. The Queensland State Government intensified its lobbying of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the principle body facilitating World Heritage. A media statement released by the RCS in February, reflects how the State Government’s stance failed in its first round of attempts to block the nomination at an International conservation meeting in Costa Rica. Dr. Keto, who represented NGOs at the meeting, reported how the Queensland Government’s delegation tried to change the evaluation process and criteria for World Heritage nominations. Feedback from other delegates generally indicated overwhelming support for the Australian rainforest nomination.


The Federal Government flagged their intention of setting up a rainforest management authority similar to the one which protects the Great Barrier Reef. Within a few months Senator Richardson confirmed that the World Heritage Bureau had officially recommended the Wet Tropics for inscription, qualifying on all four criteria for listing. A nomination need only qualify on one of these four criteria, indicating the uniqueness of the Wet Tropics. Senator Richardson lambasted the Queensland State Government on its unprecedented campaign over the previous twelve months to unravel the Listing process. The announcement of International support was a momentous occasion according to Richardson and a victory that future generations would long celebrate.


As conservationists watch the World Heritage Listing coming closer to reality, many who have been at the ‘coal face’ for over eight years look to new chapters of their lives and hand over the helm to new faces in the organisation. One such person, Rosemary Hill, reflects in her final TRS President’s Report how the demanding role she undertook all those years ago caused her much heartache but also a great sense of satisfaction. The campaign dominated a large part of her life and it was often difficult to see any results. The inevitable personality clashes were difficult but the friendships and support prevailed. In conclusion, Rosemary states ‘it’s damned hard to hang in there sometimes’, but hang in she did, and her contributions to rainforest conservation in North Queensland are inspiring.


The Queensland Government continued to attempt to block the listing and in November an Anti-Heritage alliance was formalised in Brisbane. The alliance consisted of the State Government along with the Federal Liberal Leader John Howard and the Nationals Ian Sinclair. Together they planned an anti-delegation to attend Brasilia in December as ammunition for its case against the Federal nomination of the Listing. Despite the rhetoric and vitriol of the conservatives, the ultimate success was achieved on December 7th when the main advisory body for World Heritage recommended the Listing of the Wet Tropics. The Wet Tropical Rainforests of North Queensland were finally acknowledged for their outstanding ecological significance. This was an historical moment.


Individual groups had small celebratory get togethers, (Fig. 13), but there was never a unified celebration or acknowledgment of all the NGOs who battled long and hard to achieve such a monumental result. Hill remembers cracking a bottle of champagne in the office, but it wasn’t until Bob Hawke came to Cairns to make the official announcement that the reality sunk in and she became quite emotional. On asking Sokolich if they celebrated, he responded that as the issue had consumed so many people’s lives for so long that their first response was to finally relax. It was time to get one’s life back to normal and concentrate on family.


In 1998 the Wet Tropics Management Authority organised the ten year anniversary of the Listing of the Wet Tropics. The vast majority of the NGOs who drove the campaign from the very beginning were not acknowledged. Upon questioning the Authority as to why this occurred, the author was told that the anniversary was not meant to be retrospective and that it was now time to look ahead. There is a very real concern that the people who fought valiantly for ‘their country’, could be whitewashed out of history as has happened time immemorial. When Sokolich was asked whether there would be a Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest in North Queensland without input from the NGOs, he emphatically responded “no way at all”. The next chapter of the Wet Tropics involved the creation of a statutory authority to oversee the management of the area. Many vexed questions remained, such as Aboriginal involvement and managing a burgeoning tourist industry. Some NGOs would be involved in this chapter but the reigns are firmly taken over by the growing bureaucracy.




Under Australia’s constitution, the responsibility for the conservation of lands has traditionally been held by the various state Governments. Queensland, being the long standing bastion of political conservatism with its strong pioneering frontier ethos, has historically undervalued its natural resources in the name of agrarian progress and utilitarian need. With the growing public understanding of the environmental, social and economic significance of wilderness areas came increased demands for the preservation of areas in perpetuity. The dynamic relationship between ecological and socio-economic forces would come to the fore during the 1980s in North Queensland.


As in many environmental debates in Queensland, the focus often shifts from a regional to a national and at times global sphere, where the Commonwealth becomes involved in the decision making process. This paper highlighted the heroic efforts of the N.G.O.’s, whose passion, diligence and sense of conviction successfully pressured the Commonwealth Government to use its foreign affairs powers to protect the biologically rich northern rainforests. The campaign demonstrated the capability of conservationists to organise themselves into a politically potent force and to change public attitudes towards preserving the natural environment. The ‘campaign’ covered a diversity of strategies over more than ten years from lobbying, direct action, mass mobilisation and political endorsements. The ability of all disparate groups to network towards a mutual goal, whilst being entwined in the dynamics of State versus Federal rights, is commendable.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls – Steve Nowakowski

As we forge into the future it is imperative that we look back and examine the historical context within which the protection of wilderness has taken place. The legends and myths that surround our ‘diggers’ as cultural icons shaping the Australian psyche, are equally applicable to those who fought for their country domestically. It is implicit that all those who enjoy the wonders of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, whether aesthetically, ecologically, spiritually or economically, take into account the visionary conservationists who secured this majestic environment for future generations.