News | 2nd Sep, 2011

Conservationist left several legacies on the land

Friday, 2 September 2011, The Age
Written by Merle Stewart, a friend of the Johnson family



Reg Johnson, who returned from flying duties in World War II to become the Victorian government’s chief cartographer and draughtsman and then played a leading role as a conservationist and environmentalist, died sharing his vast knowledge with students.

Johnson, who had a pre-existing blood disease, suffered internal bleeding after falling and striking his head while sharing bird data with students on his bush block near Nagambie. He was 90.

He gave his time unstintingly to community work, and obstacles were minor hiccups. Victoria’s bird emblem, the helmeted honeyeater (pictured, above), owes its official status to Johnson, who was the convener and blistered-hands shovel man of a group dedicated to restoring degraded creek land at Silvan in what was a remnant of the bird’s original habitat.

For years, Johnson and his wife, Kathleen, and co-members of the Bird Observers Club of Australia lobbied governments to halt private clearings on public land, and coaxed politicians to see this elusive bird, with its erectile helmet, still nesting in the area. Eventually, government funding meant additional land could be bought along creeks, leading to the establishment of Yellingbo Conservation Reserve. Many of the indigenous eucalypts there today are Johnson’s plantings.

The helmeted honeyeater’s existence and status remain precarious, but no one did more for its chance of survival than Johnson. For him, the protection of public land was a moral obligation. On one well-known occasion in 1969, when Henry Bolte’s government announced its intention to subdivide the Little Desert into farms, Johnson was instrumental in forming a coalition of concerned groups to save its fragile environment with its vulnerable species.

The government’s legally flawed proposal finally succumbed quietly, and Victorians can now enjoy the Little Desert National Park with its unique and startling beauty.

It was Johnson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the environment and his vision of enhancing natural habitats that led to Land for Wildlife. The initial response from officialdom was tepid, but he persistently trod on toes in a gentlemanly fashion until politicians and bureaucrats agreed that wildlife habitat on private land would diversify gene pools. Johnson and the nature writer and amateur ornithologist Ellen McCulloch, OAM, jointly ensured the launch of Land for Wildlife, which is now a national undertaking with thousands of participating properties.

Johnson was born in Ararat, the son of an Anzac veteran who died when Reg was age seven. His mother later remarried, and with her husband and two children moved to the Mallee, where drought, the depression and high unemployment caused extreme hardship.

The young Johnson experienced Mallee dust storms that turned day into night, and the denuded earth made an indelible imprint on his growing awareness of the unforgiving environment. So began a remarkable life of honour, and a belief that the greatest legacy is to awaken people’s love and respect for nature.

Conditions during the 1930s meant the family moved frequently and Johnson attended nine different schools. Astute teachers recognised his potential and his Legacy father taught him the basics of lettering for draughtsmen and engineers.

At age 16 he began work in Melbourne as a trainee draughtsman with the Department of Crown Lands and Survey, a department he was to serve for 37 years, interrupted only by war service. By the time his public service career ended, he was chief cartographer and chief draughtsman.

When World War II began in 1939, Johnson’s work with the department was considered a reserved occupation, but in 1942 he managed to wangle his release to enlist in the RAAF.

He’d expected a role as a navigator, and was pleasantly surprised when selected to train as a pilot. Youthful exuberance surfaced when he said, “I loved handling the large, docile [Lancaster] which had a positive feel to the controls”. He was sent to England, where he was attached to a Royal Air Force unit, and further training followed. He then flew bombing raids over Germany with the RAF’s 218 (Lancaster) Squadron.

On Victory Day in Europe (VE Day), he flew his Lancaster with its bomb bay loaded with food parcels and dropped them over Holland he also picked up released Allied prisoners of war from an airfield in France.

After being demobbed and back home in Melbourne, old routines might have made life dull except that Kathleen Hooppell made the mistake of laughing at his jokes. They were married in 1948, and for the next 63 years they formed a partnership of shared interests that helped him in his many achievements.

In 1974, with “fat cat” status looming in the Lands Department, Johnson took early retirement and accepted the position of executive director of the Conservation Council of Victoria. There was no fanfare when he happily agreed to a subsistence salary of less than a quarter of his former wage.

Ecological issues affecting the wider environment were his focus, and he constantly contributed information on the best use of public land to the Land Conservation Council. And no ministerial taskforce on water management was effective without input based on his extensive knowledge of Victorian rivers and catchments. His 13 years of committee work for the State Rivers Authority led to beneficial changes to river management, such as an end to barrel draining, fencing streams from stock, erosion control, and replanting native vegetation.

The ministerial taskforce on demand management of water led to graded water rationing in droughts, dual-flush toilets, reservoir watch with water levels reported to the press, and the introduction of the user-pays principle.

In 1988, Jackson was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to the environment, and the wider community owes him a debt of gratitude.

He is survived by Kathleen, daughter Anne, son-in-law John, and three grandchildren.