In 1946, a group of conservationists dedicated to appreciating the wilderness areas of south-west Victoria formed the Portland Field Naturalists Club. For nearly thirty years, the club fought to protect the forest surrounding the Glenelg River from encroaching pine plantations. In 1974, their efforts were finally rewarded with the conservation of the Lower Glenelg National Park.
As the club celebrates its sixtieth birthday, founding member Eugene Finck reflects upon his long involvement with the Lower Glenelg River.
“I’ve known the River now since ’46. The Glenelg was the healthiest river you’ve ever come across back then”, Eugene recalls. He says the club began campaigning in full swing to protect the Lower Glenelg River back in 1964, when property developers threatened to subdivide the forest surrounding the river and “pine planting each year had been coming closer to the river.”
Since harvesting native forest for timber was no longer as viable as harvesting softwood, large pine plantations were established throughout south-west Victoria and eastern South Australia. The Portland Field Naturalists played an instrumental role in saving large stretches of forest from becoming pine. “We fought for a buffer zone of half a mile (along the Glenelg River), so that the pines didn’t come down to the water.”
In 1968, the then Minister of Lands, ‘Black Jack’ McDonald, planned to clear and subdivide a large area of the catchment, as well as the Little Desert in north-western Victoria. Eugene describes how the club capitalized upon the momentum gained from the campaign to save the Little Desert and their own successful campaign to establish Mount Richmond National Park.
“Back then, there was a groundswell of people getting concerned about conservation.”
Riding on the back of these two successful conservation campaigns, the club began their push for the conservation of forest surrounding the Lower Glenelg River. They subsequently formed the Western Victoria Conservation Committee, an alliance of conservationists, to fight for protection of the area’s forests.
Eugene says they were determined to succeed. “We never dropped our bundle – we conducted plant and ecological surveys most weekends from the end of the 40’s to the end of the 60’s, to prove it was worth keeping. We were constantly on the job from 1947 to 1974.”
Fortunately, McDonald lost his seat in the 1970 State Election. The Committee continued its fight for the Lower Glenelg forests. “There was no confrontation back then, no direct physical confrontation. We argued the case, they replied and we rebutted.”
McDonald’s successor, Minister Balfour, responded to the public concern about conservation in Victoria by establishing the Land Conservation Council (LCC), an independent body to address conservation issues in Victoria. To the Field Naturalists’ delight, the LCC recommended that the Lower Glenelg National Park be established. After such a long and tedious battle, Eugene recollects that the taste of success was sweet. “We felt justifed that our efforts were not in vain. We were overjoyed in realizing it had finally come to fruition.”
Eugene feels gratified that this forest is conserved for the enjoyment of future generations. “The park is there for the benefit of all Victoria – its appeal is its pristine condition.”
He would like to see more resources and trained personnel dedicated to managing the park. “The park’s in pretty good order, but it needs more management.” Eugene remarks that the abolition of the LCC in 1996 was a sad day for conservationists. “It didn’t meet political ends, so they got rid of it.”
He also points out that the park will never be 100% safe. “Politically, the decision to conserve the park can still be annulled. We’re always riding on a knife’s edge. However, I don’t think any politician today would knock out a national park.”
Eugene says the Glenelg River has suffered from a lack of flushing since the construction of Rocklands Dam, near the river’s headwaters, in 1953. “The last time the river was flushed was in 1946. We had 13 inches of rain – it caused landslides just north of the national park and the river’s banks burst.” “Of course, Rocklands Dam was constructed not long after that.”
A keen naturalist, Eugene describes how he has seen a gradual change in the health of the river. “The freshwater hasn’t come down the river as it used to, the water has become more brackish, water plants are not as prolific and the number of spiny crayfish underneath the jettys seems to have decreased.” Then there is the sand. “Sand is always shifting – but it will get out to sea if there is enough velocity and flow.” He has also seen a change in the amount of fish in the river. “A lot of the big bream have gone, but there is still a lot of little bream. There’s been a big influx of Mulloway into the river lately.”
Eugene believes more water needs to be released from Rocklands Dam to maintain the health of the Glenelg River. ‘We’ve got to get a flow in it again. The new pipe system will possibly save enough water to supply the greater demand, but there is an increasing pull on the water resources up north.”
Eugene has noticed the effects of the growing number of visitors to the area. He would like to see people make an effort to look after the river. “We need to foster an appreciation for the environment.”
“When people come in and stomp about the place, they cause a lot of damage. You’ve got to be respectful. It was the fisherman who actually promoted the river, they really looked after it. They made the tracks in, otherwise no-one would have known it was there.”
“If you could get people conscious of their responsibility, they wouldn’t damage much.”
All of Eugene’s eight children have been taught to appreciate nature from a young age. “I don’t know how it can be achieved, but we’ve got to start with the young, with hands on learning with the kids.”
“We need to make sure the river doesn’t get any worse. It is a unique river, with its gorges and high banks – it really is the jewel of our area.”
Written by Anna Boustead, April 2005