Wilderness pioneer: II

By GEOFF LAW | Leo Luckman was one of Jessie’s companions on many early bushwalks. He was a Hobart stonemason who in 1943 became Jessie’s husband. Leo did not join the army — Jessie did. Ironically, given his bushwalking prowess, Leo was deemed unfit because of varicose veins. Jessie, however became of member of the Education Unit of the Australian Women’s Army Service, presenting classical music to the troops, often making long hot trips to remote army camps in a specially built truck with a grand piano in the back.

Back in Hobart in 1946 Jessie resumed her double life of bushwalking and music. However, a major event loomed. It was proposed to hand over the Florentine forests of the Mt Field National Park to a paper-making company. Access to the park’s trees would not only provide additional resources for the new Australian Newsprint Mills but would also facilitate the development of roads and the logging of the rest of the heavily forested Florentine valley.

Jessie and her friends did what they could, but to no avail. Some in the government said off the record that “too much money had changed hands” to reverse the decision. But her instincts told her it was wrong and all Australian conservationists owe her a vote of thanks for the stand she took.

On the destruction of forests that continues to this day, her reply is unambiguous: “I am appalled.”

Wilderness to explore — or fight for

By 1948 there was still plenty of wilderness to explore. Jessie and others in the HWC had assisted a professor of geology in establishing the Tasmanian Caverneering Club, first caving club in Australia. After some basic lessons in abseiling, Jessie and others helped produce the first major survey of Hastings Caves, south-west of Hobart.

There were early efforts to climb Federation Peak in the heart of the south-west wilderness — Leo pioneered the route up the northern end of the Eastern Arthurs that bears his name today. Another epic trip was the 1953-54 re-enactment of the journey by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin across south-west Tasmania, the Hobart Walking Club’s contribution to Tasmania’s celebration of 150 years of white settlement. Read Jessie trip notes here.

In the 1950s Jessie was involved in a brief but successful effort to prevent the resumption of sealing at Macquarie island. She bought shares in companies like Australian Paper Mills and CRA so she could find out about their activities and pressure them to improve their environmental performance.

Then in the late 1960s came the biggest conservation issue in Tasmania’s history — the battle to stop the damming of Lake Pedder. It was like the battle of the Florentine tall trees all over again but on a much bigger scale. Prime Minister Robert Menzies kick-started the scheme with a grant of six million pounds to the Hydro-Electric Commission to build a road from Maydena to the dam sites.

The bulldozers roughly followed the route walked by Jessie and her fellow bushwalkers on their 11-day return trek to Mt Anne all those years before.

But the lost fight to save the Pedder had the twin legacy of the establishment of the South-West National Park — a sort of consolation prize from a guilt-pricked government — and the national awareness of Tasmania’s wilderness that was an essential ingredient in the campaign to save the Franklin River.

Today Jessie regards the protection of the Franklin in a World heritage Area in 1983 as one of the great highlights of her long interest in conservation.

It was tough for Jessie at a personal level. A cattle farm bought by she and Leo was burnt out in the 1967 bushfires. In 1976 Leo died of a heart attack and Jessie carried on his stonemasonry business for a while — during which time the company completed restoration work on St David’s Cathedral and the Ross Bridge.

Retiring from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and stonemasonry by 1980, Jessie stayed busy with voluntary conservation work. In 1996 she received an Order of Australia medal.

Asked how she feels about the introduction of rules and regulations to govern bushwalking in the areas where she enjoyed so much freedom, Jessie replies with characteristic emphasis: “It’s essential. The place is being over-loved.”

For instance, she successfully argued for one of the first restrictions on bushwalkers’ behaviour in the south-west — the ban on air drops because of the litter problem they created. “I think you’re all getting soft,” she mischievously told her male walking club colleagues at a crucial part of the debate. A roar of laughter went up, and the restriction was accepted.

Jessie Luckman saw the wilderness of western Tasmania in its pristine state; she appreciated its importance to an increasingly sedentary and alienated population, and she acted to save that wilderness well before it was fashionable to do so.

“I was one of so many people just doing their part to preserve the bush for other people to enjoy — and just for the bush itself. And enjoying myself in the process!” ¶


Wilderness pioneer: Part I • Wilderness pioneer: Part II • Jessie's tracknotes

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