Thursday, October 20, 2011

John Douglas and forestry conservation in Queensland in the 1870s

One of the minor contributions John Douglas, the member for Maryborough, made during the 1875 Queensland parliamentary session is worth examining; because he championed a cause that later generations would see as one worthy of support - forest conservation.

Throughout the 1860s, the Acclimatisation Society of Queensland became increasingly concerned at the loss of forest cover in southeast Queensland, the possible effects of deforestation on the climate, and the requirement for some sort of conservation measures.  In 1873, the society convened a conference to highlight the need for forest conservancy.[1]

At this conference, John Jardine, a colleague of Douglas from his Rockhampton days and now the gold fields commissioner for that district, read a paper eloquently capturing the mood:

The indiscriminate destruction of the forest trees of Queensland has long been a cause of regret … a process of extermination has been adopted, alike destructive of the beauty and comfort of the umbrageous landscape, the fertility of the soil, and the natural source of wealth wherewith Queensland has been so largely favoured.[2]

Douglas, as a member representing a timber constituency, acted on this and related concerns, including those voiced by the head of the Queensland Botanic Gardens, Walter Lumley Hill.[3]  He proposed and then chaired a select committee charged to “consider and report upon the best means to be adopted in order to preserve and promote the growth of timber trees, and to conserve forests for useful purposes.”[4]

Douglas, in a passionate parliamentary speech, referred to “a shameful waste of valuable timber [and] that this waste is still going on.”[5]  The select committee made seven recommendations, including that export of timber be prevented, except on “conditions much more favourable to this colony;” increasing the portion of crown lands as forest reserves, managed in perpetuity; imposing cutting girth limits; prohibiting ringbarking; appointing forest rangers; and establishing a forest conservancy board.[6]

These recommendations, particularly the one stating that forest reserves should be for long-term management and not merely for government supply purposes, demonstrated Douglas’s love of nature and his recognition that if Queensland forests were to survive it would only be through ongoing government intervention and management. 

Some recommendations were heeded and incorporated into legislation the following year, but there were competing priorities. For example, Douglas, by now the premier was urged to conserve the colony’s timber resources by imposing an export duty levy on log cedar.  Despite this being a measure he himself had advocated some three years earlier, Douglas informed the deputation that the government was too busy to respond to this issue and suggested that if he initiated a private members Bill, then the government would support it.[7]

As Judith Powell ruefully observed, by 1881 it was clear that the “land had won over forests and the present over the future.”[8]

[1] Judith Powell.  People and Trees:  a Thematic History of South East Queensland with Particular Reference to Forested Areas, 1823-1997.  Canberra, Forests Taskforce, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 1998, p. 24
[2] John Jardine.  “Conservation of Forests.”  Paper presented to the Queensland Acclimatisation Society, 8 May 1873.  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1875, p. 1212
[3] Judith Powell, p. 24
[4] Ibid.  For the full report of the select committee, which sat from 17 June to 31 August 1875 see, “Forest Conservancy.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1875, pp. 1207-88
[5]  Forest Conservancy.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1875, p. 1224
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Deputations to the Premier.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 March 1878, p. 4
[8] Judith Powell, pp. 26-27