Australia environmentalists 'win'

Australian conservationists last week won their most important victory ever by persuading the government of the island state of Tasmania not go ahead with its plan to build a major hydroelectric power project.

The conservationists wanted to preserve a vast wilderness area along 30 miles of wild river in the southwest of the island. The Tasmanian Hydroelectric Commission (HEC), responsible for providing the state's electricity, wanted to dam the river and install a huge power-generating system that would have met area needs for the next 30 to 40 years.

The dam was to be located on the lower Gordon River. It would have flooded most of a wilderness area, which is also a tourist spot for people bush-walking along or rafting down the Gordon and an intersecting river, the Franklin.

The dispute was finally resolved by the governing Labor Party at a recent four-day meeting. The decision: a compromise, involving the construction of a dam further up the river.

This would involve some damage to wilderness area, but the lower Gordon and Franklin rivers region would be saved and made part of a new "wild rivers national park."

Also involved in the government's decision was a comprehensive energy package of hydro development, energy conservation, and incentives for industry to switch from oil and electricity to coal.

The conservationists have been gearing up for seven years. They lost their first battle -- preservation of an important wilderness area at Lake Pedder, Further up the Gordon River.

This time they rallied support throughout Australia and staged a demonstration of 10,000 people in the state capital, Hobart, a month ago. It was the largest demonstration ever in the city, which has a population of 160, 000.

The leader of the conservation movement, Dr. Bob Brown, called the decision a victory for public opinion and said the provision to set up a national park "means that for the first time an area earnmarked for development has been set aside for preservation."

Tasmanian premier Doug Lowe said the compromise package would meet Tasmania's energy needs into the century when alternatives such as a Bass Strait power-sharing cable with Victoria and a southeast Australia grid may be feasible. But the government is firmly committed to hydroelectric power development. "It is essential that the state take advantage of hydro power, its cheapest form of providing electricity," he said.

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