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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 15 - Conservation and Wilderness

Les Southwell with Tracy Guest*

There has been an enormous change in public appreciation of national parks over the past three decades - and especially of wilderness areas - just as their extent has diminished greatly over that same period. Bushwalkers have been in the forefront of promoting these changes. It was the vision and persistence of the noted Sydney bushwalker Myles Dunphy early this century that resulted in setting up the first national parks in New South Wales - his club even bought a block of land itself for a small park at 'Bluegum', west of Sydney. These initiatives later served as a model for a nationwide park system.

Public opinion has been progressively changed by a series of disputes that were seen as essentially local issues. But 1969 was a political milestone in Victorian conservation. Premier Bolte's government attempted to convert the Little Desert in the fragile Mallee country of northwest Victoria into wheat farms an uneconomic, destructive pork-barrel scheme to placate its Country Party minority partner. Members of several bushwalking clubs (including Ron and Gwynnyth Taylor of MBW) and other groups formed the 'Save Our Bushlands' committee. They campaigned in the by-election to defeat the government candidate, so the scheme was quietly dropped and the government finally began to regard conservation as a valid political concern.

Such disputes then were fought by a few individuals banding together, with bushwalking clubs remaining aloof from the fray. By this time, some disputes were beginning to take on national significance, and were being reported nationally: in particular, the Great Barrier Reef (mining and oil-drilling), Fraser Island (beach-sand mining and logging), and especially over the Southwest Tasmanian wilderness (Lake Pedder and the Franklin). Clubs finally began to realise that they would have to become involved as organisations and not simply as individual walkers.

Protesters' Butler Island Camp, Gordon River, February 1983.
Protesters' Butler Island Camp, Gordon River, February 1983. Protesters bidding farewell to the J.Lee M. ferry to Strahan. Members of the Club played an important part in the protest.
Bill Metzenthen collection

The reaction within the MBW was perhaps typical of most clubs. By 1972 the Lake Pedder dispute had become a major national controversy, and the Club decided at their April meeting to affiliate with the Australian Conservation Foundation - a political act in itself. As conservation issues gathered momentum, more time was devoted to them. Now bushwalkers are a conservative species, and there were 'mutterings from the dim dark recesses of the clubroom' that the committee was paying too much attention to conservation at the 'expense' of traditional issues.

The News of September 1976 solicited members' opinions, which were soon forthcoming. Michael Griffin argued that the conservation voice of MBW should be directed through the 'Federation' (Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs, or FVWC). Jerry Grandage and Dave Oldfield (the then President) argued for this view; after all, wasn't our constitution concerned with assisting the preservation of the wildlife and natural beauty of the country? So the MBW set up a Conservation Group on 20 January 1975 but, by the following year, the group's membership had so dwindled that it was ineffective and its members decided to channel more of their work through the 'Federation' .

The FVWC represents over 50 clubs, and so carries some weight with politicians. It has been a major vehicle through which concerned Club members have been able to focus their efforts on a multitude of conservation issues - especially in the fight for a major alpine national park, and in curbing the excesses of commercial forestry and the Forests Commission.

Nevertheless, some Club members continue to contribute as individuals. Geoff Law emigrated to Tasmania to make a career with the Wilderness Society; others work directly with local conservation groups. Sometimes a collective effort is required for instance, when a letter-writing campaign is mounted on a topical issue (highly effective with politicians, but difficult to get members to actually participate). More visible are the organised street-marches and/or large gatherings with guest speakers.

Such 'demos' can be highly effective, and while they are generally accepted these days, they caused quite a commotion when they were first introduced. Even in 1978 they were somewhat novel, as at the street march in support of an alpine national park on Friday 9 May 1978, which drew many 'respectable citizens', MBW members included. Most of these walkers had never been in a public rally before in their lives. Arthur Francis mentioned to one of his colleagues that he was about to take part in the Bourke Street march to protest against the Land Conservation Council's recommendations. 'So you're one of those PINKO GREENIES are you?' was the good-natured reply. Arthur was surprised though pleased to be so classified.

A tortuous battle-royal between President Graham Wills-Johnson and Gerry McPhee occurred in 1978, each observing strict protocol. In effect, the row was over a point of order, for Gerry wanted to include the ALP's policy on the Alpine National Park in the News, June, for discussion. No, said Graham; that brings the Club into the arena of party politics. If you want to do that, you have to change the constitution.

The first constitutional amendment proposed by Gerry at the June 28 General Meeting was rejected by Graham as unconstitutional. Gerry disagreed; Graham offered to resign, and Gerry withdrew the motion. However, discussions continued and a revised motion was put to the half-yearly General Meeting on 27 September 1978 that 'this meeting recognises that the conservation policies of parliamentarians and government bodies are a fit subject for discussion in the News, provided that these views are clearly identified as being the personal views of a member and not those of the Club' was passed by a large majority. Gerry McPhee did much to further the cause of conservation within the Club in close association with the FWVC.

The moral of this story is that, with rare exceptions, it has been ordinary folks like us bushwalkers, artists, writers and others who love these wild places who have got together to fight for their preservation, rather than the professional politicians and bureaucrats whom we pay supposedly to safeguard our interests.

* I am indebted to Tracy Guest for her research on conservation issues concerning the Club in the seventies. Many of the words in this article are hers.