Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Jim Somerville A.M. - a tribute

by Jill Wran

Jim and I were correspondents over 40 odd years.  This is my last letter to him.

Dearest Jim

I was in England in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, Munstead Wood,  when Lindsay rang to give me the news.  I was so surprised.  I suppose I ought not to have been given your extraordinary longevity but only days before you had written me the best letter ever about my loss of Neville. And not long before that you had been on the warpath remonstrating in print about the fact that the tough fight for our national parks is already almost forgotten.

I’m so very sad to think that you won’t reply to this. It’s the end of a great era – an era when a few wise men and women, sadly only a few still with us today, went to war, not to destroy but to save – to save forests and oceans and wilderness and thereby our future and our souls! It was a time when the very concept of World Heritage was first promulgated and then realised, when people worked long into the night making hard choices and as a result Australia seemed to lead the world in conservation of the natural environment.

Just as it is inconceivable you are not here to keep fighting, it is inconceivable that Australian governments can summarily decide to log the very forests you worked so valiantly to save and which the rest of the world latently realises are so precious; that an Australian government can take a decision that will destroy the Barrier Reef whilst another allows not only grazing but shooting, for heavens sake, in national parks. It makes me want to turn right around and go back overseas, turn one’s back on a breed of people who can think and vote this way.

But Jim that’s no good.  We’ve all got to fight on in your honour and in your name.

Of course your legacy goes beyond the parks and the forests and has I might add, used a few trees! That is in chronicling the saving of the forests. Thank heavens you were blessed with exceptional verbal skills alongside the numeracy that gave you a great career in accounting and finance. Thank heavens we have your 2005 book as a record of what was most certainly the most important achievement of the Wran Government.

 I certainly agree with something you said to me a good few years ago:  “ You know Jill, saving 1500 hectares at Gradys Creek from logging and seeing it with World Heritage Listing beats anything I ever did keeping Qantas honest!

On the other hand you sure did a great job for Qantas, especially representing the company’s interests in the key international organisations of ICAO and IATA.  

Thinking back over the Qantas years, I honestly can’t remember how we met. It was certainly in my first years in management and your last ones in Chifley Square.  I must have been asking you questions I think about pricing and route economics.  I wish I could ask you many more questions now Jim and I know you would answer truthfully, with characteristic modesty and an inherent faith in man’s capacity ultimately to see Green!

Dear Jim, I can see you now coming down the corridor on the sixth floor of Qantas House, that brisk walk, head on one side smiling mischievously, a soft satchel of ‘green’ papers under one arm, mild mannered and gentle but with a ready wit and easy, unforced charm. It was always a joy to see you and to hear the latest regarding the issues at stake.  The talk was not confined to parks and wilderness. We were each brought up by strict Methodists and both great advocates for Aboriginal Land Rights among other social causes.  In fact,  weren’t you involved somehow in Aboriginal Education??   

One thing I do want you to be clear about Jim is that it was YOU, and yes Milo Dunphy, but mostly you who saved the Rainforests of the Border Ranges and ultimately brought about the dedication of some 118,000 hectares of State Forests in NSW as National parks. Not Neville or Jill Wran. Yes I wanted this too, very badly, but it was you who guided and informed my deepseated passion regarding the natural world, you who encouraged me to join the fight with the conservation movement in every way open to me, you who did more to bring Neville around to the cause than any other single individual. And it took ten years. Ten long years. We are inclined to forget, as you say just how powerful the Forestry Commission was at that time, not to mention the sawmill industry. And Neville had a very conservative Cabinet with two northern NSW members Lyn Gordon ad Don Day both in marginal seats and determined supporters of logging. 

There will be a World Park Congress in Sydney in November and one of your last wishes was that at this time we should honour the work done by Milo Dunphy, the old Colong Committee, the Total Environment Centre and their many supporters in the 1960s and 70s, and the political actions of Neville in the 1980’s and Bob Carr in the 1990’s.   I will do all I can to see that the article you wrote along these lines earlier this year is published in the way that you had in mind.

Meanwhile it’s great news that your persistence has won out again and the walking track around Narrabeen Lagoon will open later this year. I do hope there is a bridge named after you as has been mooted because no one was better at building them! During the Border ranges Campaign I know you worked tirelessly to bring on side groups like the National Estate, the National Trust and all the other conservation societies. And I seem to recall that straight after the resolution of the Terania Creek rainforest dispute in 1982 you beetled right around to the Forestry Commissioners to mend fences and  hopefully dampen down future confrontations on rainforest issues. “ But Jill there are still some logs at 99 York Street you said, not yet harvested!”

What a great citizen you have been Jim, of Warringah -  and the world. I well remember you writing to tell me in the mid 1980s that you were hoping to work through UN agencies to shame the Japanese into being more responsible in their rainforest logging in South east Asia.  There was just no end to your energy and reformist zeal.

In the progression of life one meets only a handful of truly genuine and generous natured people.  This little missive, above all, is simply to say how very glad I am that we have been friends.  When we met my life was forever changed in unaccountably good ways and I will always regard it as a privilege to have been nourished by Jim Somerville’s unique store of knowledge, human decency, good humour and that rare, old-fashioned quality, humility.  

With love and abiding admiration