One of Victoria’s most committed environmentalists was recruited to the cause by a real estate agent. Les Smith migrated to Australia from England in 1953 to join his Australian fiancée, Helen. After they married, they looked for a place to settle within reach of her home in Kew. Les remembers, “We would go out and look at land in the Blackburn to Ringwood area, a nice block with trees, and the agent would say to us, ‘We’ll cut down the trees for you free of charge’, or they would already have been removed.”
But Les wanted to protect the bushland, and when he learned of a private owner who would only sell double blocks so that more trees would be preserved, he immediately bought two. He built on one block, and much of the indigenous vegetation on the other remains today.
Local residents were becoming concerned about the loss of trees in their suburb, and the Blackburn Tree Preservation Society was launched in 1959. Les joined in 1960 and has been a committee member since 1967. Among its many activities, the society successfully lobbied the local council to protect all trees above a certain size in several zones of the municipality.
Les also became involved in the fight to save the Little Desert, which was threatened by agricultural subdivision in the late 1960s. The Victorian National Parks Association campaigned against the development along with an alliance of about 100 local environment groups, known as the Save our Bush Action Committee.
“There’d been little interest in conservation, and suddenly there were whole pages of letters in The Age about it from ordinary people, culminating in a massive protest meeting at the St Kilda Palais,” says Les. The campaign was so successful that the committee decided to keep the alliance going and created the Conservation Council of Victoria, which in 1992 became Environment Victoria.
After the victory, members of The Blackburn and District Tree Preservation Society formed the Urimbirra Cooperative Society to buy bush blocks next to the soon to be created Little Desert National Park. They now own 1000 hectares, protected by a conservation covenant agreement with the Trust for Nature. Les has remained a stalwart of the movement and was the secretary of Environment Victoria from 1990 until the early 2000s. He continued volunteering in the Carlton office every Tuesday until well into his 80s.
All of this was recognised on Queen’s Birthday 2017, when Les received a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to our environment. In September of that year, the Blackburn and District Tree Preservation Society also won the Victorian Urban Landcare Award. Asked to nominate a tree that’s special to him, Les said one of the yellow box gums in his garden, which is where it all started.
Les Smith passed away in late 2018. Environment Victoria would like to thank him deeply for his enormous contribution to protecting our environment over many decades. Through his conservation work, he has left an important legacy for future generations.
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