Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Alex Colley OAM - a tribute

Alex Colley OAM
Wonderful tributes to Alex from the Colong Foundation, the Sydney Bush Walkers and ABC Radio National are below.

Alex Colley at the Colong Foundation office 2004   

Alex Colley, the cheerful, behind-the-scenes achiever of the NSW conservation movement and tireless worker for wilderness preservation, died on February 10th, 2014 after sixty years of voluntary service to conservation.

Alex Colley Memorial Symposium
was held on the 29th June, 2014 at the Memorial Hall, Hawkesbury Campus, University of Western Sydney 

Keynote Speaker - the Hon Bob Carr '21st Century Wilderness'

also presented was

The Colong Foundation: Alex Colley’s Legacy 

An audio tribute to Alex played on the Radio National Breakfast Show on March 10th, 2014 and is on this link

A video compiled by Caro Ryan of Alex Colley at the SBW 80th Anniversary held at the Manly Dam is on this link 


The Colong Foundation: Alex Colley’s Legacy

by Keith Muir

Adventures in the Blue Mountains began for Alex in 1926 here at Hawkesbury College.  He set out from Richmond to explore the Grose Wilderness camping in caves above the river and then returning via Blackheath several days later. 

He joined the Sydney Bush Walkers Club in 1936 and became a club stalwart.  His experiences as a tiger walker made Alex the wilderness champion he was.  He had a deep knowledge of wilderness, along with scientific and economic insight into the environment.  But it was all those long distance bushwalks that gave the all important spark to his advocacy.

Alex became the first secretary of the Federation of Bush Walking Club’s conservation bureau in 1939, and was conservation secretary of the Sydney Bush Walkers for 36 years. 

Alex was fond of telling the anecdote that he intended to become “the state’s biggest pest” when he retired, meaning he would be a constant thorn in the side of those who did not support wilderness protection.  So in 1974, at the age of 65, Alex became a full-time conservationist for the Colong Committee.

Most of you know this story, but it is worth retelling, as Alex worked for 34 years as our honorary committee secretary, coming into the office four days a week, until he officially retired in April 2008.  Some of you may also know Alex was a major donor to the Colong Foundation.  He really was a legendary figure. 

Most imagine heroic action as self-sacrifice in the heat of a perilous moment.  It is also challenging to volunteer your time and grind away for decades through defeats and victories until you are very old, in fact until you can no longer be of service.  To me that is a heroic endeavour on a different plane, and that was the man Alex was.  He was friendly, kind and gentle, but he was incredibly tough.

The year 1974 also marked a turning point for the Colong Committee as the struggle for the southern Blue Mountains was drawing to a close. 

At that time, the egalitarian bush walking clubs formed in the 1930s spawned a new egalitarian conservation movement under the campaign genius of Milo Dunphy.  Milo brought to the cause a vast toolkit of tactics to save the environment.  Milo more or less invented the NSW environment movement when Chairman of the Colong Committee during the battle for the Colong Caves. 

Under Milo there was media release power, letterbox power, shareholder power, VIP power, people power, actions such as abseils off buildings, lampooning of politicians and independent candidates standing in marginal electorates.  All this came out of the blue at full battalion strength, articulately delivered onto everyone’s TV screen. 

Inside Milo’s political maelstrom sat a conservative Alex Colley.  And what did he do?  Alex was Secretary of the Turramurra Branch of the Liberal Party.  He joined the fight from the other side.  He pushed forward resolutions and prepared Liberal policy papers, wrote articles and pamphlets.  Between the two of them, I feel pity for the politicians of the day.  The political debate became not a question of whether to protect the Blue Mountains, but how?

In 1975 with the Colong Caves and Boyd Plateau saved, Alex and others such as Jim Somerville and Elizabeth Elenius, re-focused on three new campaigns:

  • Saving the State’s rainforests from being logged;
  • Saving wilderness from being logged; and
  • Saving the Greater Blue Mountains from being logged, mined and dammed.

Colong focused on the Border Ranges rainforest where a national park proposal had been developed.  The campaign was beautifully illustrated by Henry Gold’s photographs, with articles and pamphlets generated by Alex Colley and Jim Somerville providing critical economic analysis and identification of alternative timber resources.  Other conservation groups played a major part, particularly the Total Environment Centre and National Parks Association, but Colong was a significant contributor.

The late Premier Neville Wran, who became our second Patron after Myles Dunphy in 1985, famously stated that saving the rainforests may well be regarded by future generations as the crowning achievement of the NSW Labor Party in the 20th century.  These rainforests are so significant that in 1986 they were inscribed on the World Heritage list of properties.  The Central Eastern Rainforests World Heritage Area in NSW now stretches from Barrington Tops to the Queensland border - a very impressive total of 307,000 hectares in NSW, and further additions to it are proposed.

The Committee’s second campaign sought to enhance protection of the Greater Blue Mountains.  When the rainforest campaign wound down in 1984, Alex decided to seek World Heritage listing for the Mountains.  He more or less funded a book on the subject, authored by Dr Geoff Mosley in 1989, which was launched by Bob Carr, then Opposition Leader.

Under Alex’s guidance, the Colong Foundation worked to fulfil Myles Dunphy’s wilderness vision of a Greater Blue Mountains National Park, securing the Nattai National Park in 1991 and the Gardens of Stone National Park in 1994.  Ultimately the Greater Blue Mountains were inscribed onto the World Heritage list of properties in 2000, a campaign which Alex worked on for fourteen years.

Our third major campaign after 1974 was wilderness protection.  In 1976 the Colong Committee secured a National Estate grant for a report Wilderness in Australia that was prepared by the University of New England.  This report defined many iconic wilderness areas in NSW, such as Wollemi, Deua, Barrington and Washpool. 

The Colong Committee became a Wilderness Foundation in 1986 and in that year gained support for wilderness legislation from newly appointed NSW Minister for Environment and Planning, Bob Carr.  Initially it was thought that the Wilderness Act would be a ‘paper tiger’ but over time wilderness proposals accumulated and public support along with them, so that Nattai became the first wilderness protected in NSW in December 1991. 

By March 1995 the Coalition Government had protected 650,000 hectares of wilderness, about a third of the current wilderness estate.

Each of the 51 wilderness areas now protected in NSW has been the subject of several major campaign efforts each supported by thousands of people.  But, many beautiful and environmentally highly significant wilderness areas remain unprotected, such as the Timbara Wilderness, the Pilliga Wilderness on the north-west slopes, the Deua Valley on the South Coast, and Mount Tabletop and the Main Range in the Snowy Mountains.

Most of these areas contain 4WD tracks and bridle trails arising from past use.  Such past use is also unfortunately a good indicator of future damage.  Adequate wilderness management can only be achieved when governments and park agencies resist pressures to open these areas up to exploitation.

Nature-focused wilderness management of national parks ensures accessibility and can attract visitors to appreciate pristine areas, without the need to favour more damaging activities.  Visitors come to see our parks without the hunting, cattle grazing, logging and commercial facilities that are creeping into them.

The Colong Foundation is voluntarily funded and, except for myself as a paid Director,  entirely dependent upon its volunteers and supporters for thousands of hours work every year to keep our campaigns going.  There certainly would not be as much wilderness in NSW today if it were not for Alex Colley, and without the Colong Foundation there may be less wilderness in the future.  Our wilderness campaigns work to keep these rare and remnant areas safe from development and misuse.

The defence of wilderness is an endless and necessary task.

We are currently working to stop the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall, which will divert dam waters upstream, covering 7,500 hectares of World Heritage listed parks with sediment.

In association with the Blue Mountains Conservation Society and Lithgow Environment Group, we are campaigning to save the Gardens of Stone region in the western Blue Mountains

Over the past three years, the NSW Government has made small additions to the protected area system, significantly extending the Nattai Wilderness. However, the rate of national park establishment has collapsed and dramatic new threats to all protected areas have emerged: fishing in marine sanctuaries, and hunting, grazing and logging in national parks. These terrible precedents will modify and transform our parks for profit.

We need new parks and wilderness areas.  We need a park establishment plan that incorporates wilderness and doesn’t just pursue conservation of highly fragmented and degraded ecosystems to the detriment of large intact natural areas.

We need to manage wilderness to maintain and restore its ecological integrity by excluding damaging facilities and high impact recreational uses such as horse riding.  We need to re-establish a Wilderness Unit in the NPWS and a Wilderness Working Group to re-examine NSW wild rivers, and to establish a Western Division wilderness reservation program.

Most of all we need your help!  Supporting the Colong Foundation will ensure that wilderness thrives in the 21st century.

This year marks the centenary of a bush walk by Myles Dunphy and Bert Gallop that inspired the formation of the Mountain Trails Club, the first real overnight bushwalking club in NSW and a precursor to the NSW environment movement.  In many ways their walk ‘started’ our great conservation adventure. We invite you to attend its launch at 10.00 am on Friday September 26th, at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba.  Our young director, Alex Allchin, will be leading this adventure and he will be bringing this wilderness experience to the World Parks Congress in Sydney in November this year.

Make a donation to the Colong Foundation.