Dr Alec Costin, alpine ecologist

Dr Alec CostinDr Alec Costin is an ecologist who has more than fifty years experience in the research and management of ecological environments with particular emphasis on high mountain and high latitude ecosystems. After obtaining his degree he accepted an honours placement to study the Australian Alps. This was an auspicious career choice, as in the mid 1940s very little was known about the ecology of the area. In the early 1950s his research took him interstate and overseas until 1955, when he began a 19 year career at CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. After CSIRO he was a visiting fellow at the Australian National University until 1977.

Interviewed by David Salt in 2006.


From bushland playground to Kosciuszko research

Alec, you were born in 1925 in Roseville, on Sydney's North Shore. What are your memories of your childhood?

Of running wild, I guess. We lived in a Depression street of returned ex-servicemen, very few of whom had jobs, but we had a wonderful time because we were right on the edge of the Castle Cove-Castlecrag bushland and we came to know the bush intimately. I think I recognised every plant, but I never knew the name of anything other than when we wanted a bit of pocket money, especially at Christmas time, when we'd pick the flannel flowers, Christmas bush and Christmas bells which grew there in huge profusion. Not much bush is left in those parts now, though.

Do you think this love of the bush perhaps set your life course toward an understanding of ecology?

Oh, those experiences must have had some effect. I've never felt lost in the bush, even when I'm 'lost'. It's always been part of what's there.

What schools did you go to?

I went to Roseville Public School for my primary education, and later to North Sydney Boys' High School. At that time there were very few high schools in Sydney – a secondary education normally didn't go beyond third year, when most people went into technical courses. North Sydney High School was the only full high school on the whole North Shore, apart from the so-called Great Public Schools.

In 1942 you accepted a cadetship with the recently formed New South Wales Soil Conservation Service. Why did you choose to join that Service?

My main reason was that if I wanted any tertiary education I would have to get some support, and the most attractive support took the form of the very few Public Service cadetships sponsored by some of the main government departments in Sydney – Agriculture, Forestry, Water, Public Works et cetera. I was advised to have a go at one of these cadetships, and I applied for one in forestry.

In a subsequent interview as one of the people that were short listed, I was told that I'd missed out on the forestry cadetship (subsequently I've been very happy about that). However, Clunies Ross, who was Professor of Veterinary Science in Sydney University, offered me a cadetship in vet science. I wasn't interested in vet science, so then Sam Clayton, the Soil Conservation Commissioner, told me there was a cadetship available in agriculture but from the Soil Conservation Service of New South Wales. That's how I started my university course in agricultural science.

What was the aim of the Soil Conservation Service? Was it to help farmers?

It was, but actually it was the brainchild of Sam Clayton, the first Commissioner, who was a senior agronomist at that time with the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. In his opinion there was enough land degradation to justify a big soil conservation component in extension work of the Ag Department, but the department was not interested.

Then Clayton got a scholarship to the United States during the time following the dustbowl/Depression years where conditions were described in The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. He came back all fired up that something had to be done. Again the department was not interested, but because of Clayton's friendship with the Minister for Mines the legislation was enacted in 1938 and the Soil Conservation Service did come into existence – at first with a very small group of people who had a lot of miles on the clock. And from the time I was given the cadetship, at the start of my agricultural course in Sydney University, I was already a fairly senior public servant – not that being senior meant anything to me.

You studied for a Bachelor of Science in agriculture at the University of Sydney.

Do you have any memories of that first degree?

Oh, lots of memories, especially of the introductory lecture that all the prospective first year agriculture students were given by Robert Dickie Watt, the foundation Professor of Agriculture. Essentially, he said, 'Look, agriculture is a service, a profession. If you're here to make money I don't want to see you here tomorrow.' This was during wartime and I think everyone felt a need for some giving, as well as getting, in what you were doing.

Initially I found things very difficult. For most males at that time biology was never part of the high school course – it tended to be science and maths – and so I wrestled with biology for the first couple of years, finding it very hard work. But after a while I started to enjoy it and to get on top of it. The course was, in the end, very fulfilling.

For your honours year you studied the ecology of the Australian Alps, didn't you?

Yes. I did quite well during my four years' pass course, and it was suggested by Noel Beadle, a lecturer in botany who was already a colleague of mine, and by Gordon Hallsworth, a lecturer in soils in the Agriculture Faculty, that I should consider an honours year in agriculture or botany. I really didn't have much idea of what I could or should do, but it had to be in the general framework of the course subjects in the Faculty of Agriculture. Then the Botany Department pointed out that I could have a go at the Australian Alps, where they said very little work had been done and where in particular virtually nothing at all was known about the soils.

That suggestion got the green light from Sam Clayton, who was already deeply concerned about the condition of high mountain catchments in New South Wales and had participated in quite extensive field inspections of Kosciuszko which led to legislation enacted in 1944, setting up the State Park there. And although there was a recreational basis for setting up the park, the primary reason for doing it was catchment protection, so that early legislation was soon followed by the first moves to reform snow lease grazing in the mountains. Clayton, then, was more than happy that I should start an honours year in an area that he himself was concerned with.

Had you had any experience of working in the high country?

None whatsoever. I'd only seen snow once, I think at Katoomba, and I had no idea of what was ahead. But I find that the more you get involved in a subject, the more it sucks you into it, and that was especially so from the soils and vegetation points of view. The country was just magnificent, and because almost everything that one looked at was new – there was so little known, and not much help in the literature – this was a real voyage of discovery. Almost everywhere you looked or anything you did, it was a challenge to follow up and find out a bit more.

It was a good time to be undertaking these studies, in that you weren't following in other people's footsteps but creating your own.

Absolutely. I felt incredibly lucky.

Following your degree, I think, you had to pay back your cadetship with service.

Oh yes, for every gift there's always 'a quart of blood and a pound of flesh'. The Public Service Board, which administered the cadetships, insisted that any cadets should remain in the service of the department that had succoured them for at least as many years as those of the cadetship. In my case it was more than five by the time I had completed an honours year. So I was stuck with the Soil Conservation Service – which didn't worry me at all. My first assignment was to open up the soil conservation station at Cooma, which was to be my base for continuing the survey work that I had started in my honours year.

Cooma would have been a fairly small town at that time, in the late 1940s.

That's correct. It was a small, very stable, very inbred, very interesting place to be.

And I think you had the first bulldozer in the area.

Yes. This was just post-war and there was very little earthmoving equipment in Australia, but the Soil Conservation Service managed to latch on to a couple of bulldozers. One of them was sent down from Goulburn, where there was a main regional office of the Service, to start up a bit of work around Cooma. In particular, there was some very badly eroded land at Bredbo, and what Sam Clayton was very keen to do – and he did it well – was to set up demonstrations in soil conservation on highways et cetera where the public couldn't help noticing them. So a little bit of my work was involved with that, but essentially I was meant to continue the vegetation, soil and land use surveys that I had started.

I believe that despite being regarded as a senior Public Service figure so early in your career, you were not all that good at filling in forms. But you did have a very good use for red tape.

I've never been good at filling in forms, but I used to preserve all my botanical specimens – which became the basis of an herbarium which is still in existence – with many yards of red tape. This was ideal for tying around the bundles of plant specimens. I really got into trouble once when I requisitioned for some 100 yards of red tape, because I was thought to be very insolent to run the Public Service down to that extent. And so I went.

With this capacity to deal with red tape, however, you were destined for senior management, weren't you?

Well, one day my life was interrupted by a call from head office to present myself in Sydney as soon as possible for an interview during which I was told that being very senior in the Soil Conservation Service I had to come to Sydney to accept some administrative responsibilities, because soon I might be sitting in another seat. I said I didn't like the idea of that at all, because I was very involved in my work and it was opening up to the extent that I had to stay with it in order to get the best out of it. As soon as I got back to Cooma I wrote my resignation and proceeded to look for employment that would keep me in that same sort of job.

Sam Clayton, who was head of the Service, rather regarded you as a protégé. It would have been very disappointing to him that you chose to resign.

Whether he regarded me as a protégé or whether, because I was one of the first cadets, he wanted to make sure that he got the best from me, I do think he was a bit upset about it. He certainly didn't do anything – it was perhaps out of his control – to lean on the Public Service Board to go easy on the amount of bond money I had to repay because I left the Service several years before my cadetship terms were up. But eventually he and I did reinstate our relationship.

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Studying overseas mountains and Victorian catchments

In the early 1950s you benefited from a couple of research grants, the Lawrance Pawlett scholarship and the Australian Services Canteens fellowship, to maintain your studies of the high country. What were these about?

I had chosen not to go to that comfortable chair in Sydney because I wanted to finish the work I was doing, and in particular to carry out a huge backlog of soil analyses on soil samples that I'd accumulated. That required some funding, but rather than look for another job, which would have had its own constraints and requirements, I managed to get a couple of scholarships. The first one was the Thomas Lawrence Pawlett fellowship, from the Faculty of Agriculture in Sydney University, and I then worked for a while from the university.

Also, as I was enlarging my interest in high mountain ecology, it was suggested that I ought to see as much as I could of mountain environments elsewhere, and to work with overseas ecologists who were more familiar with them than I was. In particular, a visiting Swede, Professor Carl Skottsberg (the director of the Rijksmuseum) urged me to get over to Europe as soon as I could and said he'd arrange for me to get experience. I was lucky enough to get one of the well-endowed Australian Services Canteens scholarships that had just been initiated, and I was off.

I had no commitments other than a rucksack and the same suit of clothes that I wore all the time, so I could move wherever I wanted. That was a very enlightening time. Not only did I see what was going on in many of those mountain areas but I was able to work with some of the world's leading ecologists. This was invaluable to me, because ecology was undergoing lots of changes. Australia was still lumbered with the old-fashioned Clementian approach to ecology that was rife in North America for a long time. The ecologists in Europe, by contrast, were far more dynamic.

Also of significance to me, because I had already been trying to work in this direction, was that the ecosystem concept was just emerging – though not yet as a practical entity. Tansley, in Britain, was the first to use it, again more on a theoretical basis.

How did the high country overseas compare with Australia's high country?

That's a big question. As far as ecology is concerned, the overseas mountains were generally much steeper, much younger as the result of more recent uplifts, and also much younger as regards the development of soils et cetera. Mostly the environments that the overseas mountains presented you with had developed since the Ice Age, whereas most of our mountains survived glaciation. Although they were severely periglaciated, much of their periglaciated material still exists for vegetation and soils.

As far as land use was concerned, almost all of those mountains had been used for transhuman grazing for centuries and so many of them had developed a quasi-equilibrium, but almost without exception they were obviously grossly disturbed. Those in the Australian Alps showed very much less disturbance. For instance, most of the British mountains used to be forested but are now covered with heathland. Most of the European Alps used to be forested, and one reason they are so prone to snow slides and avalanches is that most of the timber is gone. So, from the point of view of land use and its effects, the Australian Alps were substantially different from most of those I worked in overseas.

Seeing these things overseas reassured me a little bit. In my reports up till that time, especially in the Monaro ecosystems book, I had trodden very lightly indeed, being very cautious about cause and effect and about the relation between high country grazing and catchment deterioration. I now realised I had been soft-pedalling, and this had a big influence on what I did later – not that I was trying to prove anything, but future work needed to recognise that the controlling factors in what had to be done were human as well as natural.

Back in Australia, your next move was to begin working with the Victorian soils authority, focusing this time on the Victorian high country.

Well, toward the end of my time overseas I was married, so I needed some money and wasn't able to freelance as much as before. I got a job with the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority to run their little research group, but my particular responsibility was catchment areas in Victoria, particularly the high country – essentially an extension of the Kosciuszko Park into the Victorian Alps. Because I had the background from Kosciuszko to work on, it was not very difficult (although a bit physically extending) to do a reconnaissance survey of the whole of the Victorian Alps in the time that I was with the Authority.

These were the same highlands as before, in effect, but you were now part of a different state jurisdiction. Was that of any importance to you?

I was more interested in the basic ecology, which was generally similar to that of Kosciuszko. The major land use difference related to the steeper terrain of the Victorian Alps, apart from the Bogong High Plains, and was reflected in the fact that cattle grazing, rather than sheep grazing, was more prominent in the Victorian Alps than in Kosciuszko. But essentially the associated problems were the same.

From a water catchment point of view, the big problem with all rangeland grazing – whether you start from an alpine area and go right through to a desert area or to a monsoon tropical area – is that the grazing is incredibly selective. In fact, in terms of plants and places that are frequented by livestock, the effective stocking rates can be considerably higher than the actual stocking rates on highly improved pastures where the whole pasture is grazed virtually like a lawn. The selectivity of rangeland grazing plays a major part in the initiation of degradation. And, as those degraded areas continue to be selectively grazed, the degradation grows.

As far as nature conservation is concerned, and national parks set up to protect nature in its natural condition, the selective grazing is unreservedly deleterious because it changes the botanical composition and structure of the very community that is the object of conservation.

So, whilst there were differences between the Kosciuszko environment and the Victorian Alps, in principle the problems were much the same.

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A move to CSIRO, still studying vegetation and water yield

After your Victorian experience, in 1955 you joined CSIRO. How did that come about?

It was rather serendipitous. By about the end of my first year with the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority, two or three years after the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme had started in 1949, construction work for the scheme was under way. So I took leave to pay a flying visit to the Kosciuszko region, especially the Island Bend-Guthega area where the Snowy scheme was actually getting going.

During that time I revisited some of my original sites on the Main Range, where right from the beginning I'd been very careful to keep permanent records – initially photographic records and later transect and quadrat measurements that were repeated over a long period of years. These sites had been taken out of grazing almost as soon as the Kosciuszko legislation was passed, so they were already protected from the main disturbing agent. But I found that in the few years since I first saw them the amount of degradation had increased incredibly, simply reflecting the fact that if environments are near the edge of stability and you just tip them over the edge, their condition will continue to go downhill.

I sent a short report with the photographic evidence on this to the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority. A copy was sent to Sam Clayton, who was very angry that someone from a state Public Service was working over the border, in another state. And a copy went to the Snowy Mountains Authority, which received it quite well despite the inclusion of some criticisms of the Authority's own works at the time. So for some reason – perhaps a feeling of some responsibility – I decided that maybe I should look for another job in the Kosciuszko region.

It is said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Anyway, I presented myself to Clunies Ross, who was by then chairman of CSIRO in Melbourne, and said I thought he should give me a job there. He must have passed this on to the Division of Plant Industry, because I was offered a job in the mountains with quite specific terms of reference to investigate the relations between vegetation and water yield. That was the start of many years of mountain work – some of which is continued today, although by other people.

How heartening to hear that a report you made to the Snowy Mountains Authority was received favourably, and acknowledged, and a national research organisation took up your suggestion that you could offer some value in a specific region. I can't see that happening in either case these days.

I can't either. I guess that, for one thing, the starting up of the Snowy Mountains scheme provided a big crunch because hydro-electricity generation relies on water availability. For another, there was still not much known about the high mountain areas, and even a little additional knowledge was better than none.

And that additional knowledge came mostly from your setting up the study sites. I imagine that at first you may not have realised quite how long they would go for.

That's true, but in CSIRO the main lines of work that I followed (with colleagues such as Dane Wimbush) were still the same: the relationships between water yield and the different vegetation types in the mountains. Water can be regarded as a crop, which like other crops has various components to its yield. The main components of water yield – quality, quantity and distribution in time – were examined in a series of experiments that ran for years.

The quality component of water yield in the mountains is affected essentially by soil erosion, so we investigated the relations between plant cover, infiltration and surface run-off. This was done through a series of experimental plots, with natural and artificial rainfall, and we found that the minimum cover requirements to get maximum infiltration and minimise soil loss in the mountains were roughly 100 per cent ground cover at approximately 10 tonnes per hectare. This concept of cover standards has been taken up all around the country now.

The quantity component of water yield in these mountains had previously attracted interest because this was a snow country environment. Much of the yield in the mountains is from snow, and one of the many things affecting it is simply surface roughness. The rougher and the taller the vegetation, the more down draughts it causes; snowfall comes with it and that snow tends to last longer among the rough vegetation, improving continuity of yield – and therefore distribution in time.

The quantity of water yield is related also to very finely divided rain and cloud, at near freezing point. This brought me into contact with CSIRO's early rainmaking experiments in the mountains, particularly in relation to rime – much cloud comes in as supercooled droplets, and whenever it touches anything under those conditions it ices out. So the vegetation there has quite a big effect in increasing both the amount of water yield and its continuity.

To translate this to catchment condition: generally speaking, a fairly natural vegetation with scattered trees to produce down draughts, turbulence et cetera, with a continuous grass cover underneath at the rate of about 10 tonnes per hectare, is the optimum for water yield. It took quite a long time to develop that.

In contrast to many lower environments, where the tree cover has deeper root systems and so tends to use more water than herbaceous cover, we didn't find there was any 'water penalty' in having trees in the high country. With its deep soils you've got a reasonable amount of soil moisture available to plants for most of the time, and retaining the native cover caused no offsetting greater loss by evapotranspiration.

So that tended to set a standard which might be related to whether land uses involving burning and snow lease grazing would satisfy the water yield requirements.

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The importance of reference areas

Was your CSIRO work in the mountains related entirely to water yield, or to conservation of that environment as well?

Well, although nature conservation in the mountains around Kosciuszko could perhaps be seen to start with the establishment of the State Park in 1944, at that time water and water catchment were all-important. It wasn't until the National Parks and Wildlife Act in New South Wales was passed in the mid-1960s that the emphasis began to change from catchment to nature conservation. And it just so happened that a lot of the work we did on water yield was of direct relevance to nature conservation, particularly because rangeland grazing is so selective in terms of plants – and of plant communities like sphagnum bogs – which are important for nature conservation. So the work had relevance for both water catchment and nature conservation purposes.

It was during this time that we realised the importance of having permanent reference areas and areas that we documented over a long period of time. Sooner or later people will say, 'Oh well, you say it was like that, but prove it. It could easily have been due to this or that.' The long-term vegetation measurements which Dane Wimbush and I started – and which Dane and, later, university people continued after I had left CSIRO – have proved extraordinarily valuable. Their use exemplifies a rather interesting change of emphasis from water conservation to nature conservation. Those long-term measurements have been exceedingly important to national park management, in so far as we have not only documented the changes that have occurred exactly here and there but we have been able to relate them to environmental factors like heavy snow years, light snow years, cold winters, the occasional drought.

Renewed attempts to increase snowfalls by cloud seeding (if they prove effective) could upset these long-term measurements, however, by introducing another variable.

I believe that at those long-term study sites you developed a number of innovative ways of capturing the information, such as by stereophotography.

That's true. To set this in context: the prerequisite to any ecological work in the field is equivalent to the three Rs, Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. You've got to have the basics right. It is essential to know the plant species properly, to know the soils properly, and to know the main components of the environment that you are dealing with. This sort of knowledge accumulates as you go on.

Collecting the information is enormously time consuming and you have to streamline everything you do, in order to handle it. For example, during my time in the Victorian Alps, long-term recording work similar to the work I've been describing was beginning on the Bogong High Plains. But it was incredibly detailed, involving many, many university students, and we realised there was no way that with our very small resources we could handle that sort of thing up in the mountains. So we had to look for different techniques, although the detailed botanical work was still necessary.

In our CSIRO line transect work we developed methods of tape recording in the field and transcribing all the information in the evening, and we had one of the early computer people work with us so that this went onto computer tape. So all this is available now and it will always be available. And we realised that photographic evidence is very important to decision makers so Dane Wimbush, in particular, developed very simple means of stereoscopic photography on permanent quadrants.

Does this stereoscopic measurement give you a three-dimensional view of the area?

Yes. It just involves a frame on which a camera, say with a broad-angle lens a metre or more above the ground, can be moved from position A to position B to give a stereoscopic pair of photos which you then examine through an ordinary stereoscope. If you want to make it really quantitative you can superimpose any kind of detailed grid on what you are looking at, and map the changes in extreme detail.

The resulting reference material has proved absolutely invaluable, because even if people were to say that a particular spot was atypical of anything else, the facts of life could be shown to be that that's what was there, those are the changes that have occurred, and that's where it is at the present time.

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Research spin-offs and a rapprochement with Sam Clayton

Did any further research avenues open up from your mountains work for CSIRO?

Yes. From the initial survey work, the catchment work, the detailed quadrat and transect work, there were all sorts of spin-offs – the paragenesis effect of periglacial activity in soil formation, the Kosciuszko Alpine Flora which a group of us were able to bring out to make our knowledge of the plants more generally available, and many other examples. I think many of my former colleagues would agree with me that this was a very good feature of working in CSIRO at that time. Of course you were expected to do what you were employed to do, but there was plenty of scope and encouragement for taking this avenue, and another one, and another, provided the extra work was vaguely related to the main job.

That is how I got involved in Quaternary ecology and some of the earliest carbon-14 dating that was done in the mountains, which established the general contemporaneity between glacial and post-glacial events in the Australian Alps and in the Northern Hemisphere. That was a pretty remote offshoot from the main work, but it all started with the recognition that some of the soils were deep peats, and some of those peats obviously were pretty old, being on glaciated or periglaciated surfaces. And there were many other cases like that, for instance the role of atmospheric dust coming in from the dry parts of Australia to the mountains. Sometimes the snow is quite red; in drought times out west more comes in than during good times. This is one of the important sources of particulate matter in the mountain soils in the Alps, and people are investigating the possibility of using the amount of these deposits in some of the peats deposited year by year as an index of aridity in drier parts of the continent.

You said that eventually you reinstated yourself with Sam Clayton. How did that come about?

By the time I went to the CSIRO and resumed my work in the mountains, the Snowy Mountains scheme had started, the snow lease controversy was on, and my work became involved in the controversy.

During that time there was one inspection after the other, including several by senior New South Wales public servants and even one by George Enticknap, the Minister for Conservation – who had to decline participation in the horseback part of an inspection because he had only one leg, having lost the other in the First World War.

Sam Clayton kept away from me during all those inspections but one crucial inspection, probably the one that clinched the final removal of grazing from the Kosciuszko National Park, was made by the Catchment Areas Protection Board, of which Clayton was chairman. We spent most of the week in the southern and central parts of the Kosciuszko park, the last part of the inspection being in the north of the park around Rules Point and then Currango Plain. On our way out, I took them over to the Brindabellas – and although that's physiographically very different from the Kosciuszko area, there was a particularly good bog, the Ginini Bog, which we visited.

The contrast between the Ginini Bog and all of the bogs and swamp communities we had seen in the Kosciuszko park was overwhelming, reflecting simply the fact that the Cotter, because of human health considerations related to the water supply, had been taken out of grazing and public occupation ever since Canberra was set up, so the Ginini Bog was in a pristine condition. There was good regeneration of snowgum and other things too.

That inspection decided the day as far as the Catchment Areas Protection Board was concerned. And, humorously, I can still remember that big hand thumping me on the shoulder as Clayton said, 'Alec, you can call me Sam.' So yes, I did reinstate myself.

I think that people like Clayton are extremely important because of what they stand for. In those days many of the state and federal departments – especially those concerned with resources – had permanent heads who were outstanding in their professions. They stuck to their guns; they not only believed in what they were doing but tried to achieve what they wanted done. In a sense they were above politics. You know, for generations we've had a battle between bureaucracy and politics. At that time, I think, the bureaucrats were on the winning side; these days certainly it's the politicians who are winning, because there are very few permanent heads and because department heads often have very little background in the profession they're associated with. Clayton was a good role model, in that he really believed in what he was doing and he tried to have it done.

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From Island Bend to Canberra and broader activities

When you started at CSIRO you headed up the Alpine Ecology Unit, based up at Island Bend.

That's true. It was the central camp that was responsible for the Guthega development, the first development in the Snowy scheme. Island Bend doesn't exist now, though.

Living and working at Island Bend, did you feel isolated from the rest of the world?

That's a very interesting question, which bears on much of what we've been talking about. There had of course been earlier work than mine at Kosciuszko, especially by geologists. Most of it was hit-and-run work where a person is up there for a few days, does a bit of work, and bang, there's a publication on it. This was the way of things for a very long time.

But as soon as someone was working there and could take visitors around, the feedback that occurred was incredible. I had so many visitors I didn't know how to handle them. More and more came, not only from Australia but from overseas, swarms of them. The overseas people, especially, were very interested in coming to a place whose counterparts they were familiar with in the Northern Hemisphere. There is a great paucity of high mountain environments in the Southern Hemisphere in the mid latitudes that the Snowy Mountains occur in, those mid latitudes being mostly ocean, so this very small amount of Australia has attracted a lot of attention. And the mere fact of having someone there that could help them get around resulted in a big spate of scientific work all over the place. It didn't in any way reflect the quality of the Alpine Ecology Unit but simply the fact that it existed. It is a great pity that it no longer exists, but other organisations are now well involved.

Not all of your 19 years with CSIRO were spent at Island Bend. You actually lived in Canberra for most of those years, didn't you?

Oh well, we had six young kids that were still babies, it became unsustainable and I was transferred to Canberra. Dane Wimbush and another offsider continued at Island Bend for quite a long time, and then occupied premises supplied by the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the foot of the mountain.

The Canberra move did me a lot of good. I still commuted to the mountains almost every week and participated in what was going on, but what I hadn't had before then was working in a group of scientists. In particular, the editorial system, the critical review that went into papers prior to publication in Plant Industry, was exceedingly good.

What are some memories of your time at the Black Mountain laboratories in Canberra?

They relate largely to my exposure to other activities in which I participated. One of those was catchment work at Ginninderra, where most of our grazing work was carried out, looking at cover standards in the same way as we did in the mountains. This confirmed generally that, say in the tableland-type environment, the typical grazing environment, you need to have at least 70 per cent ground cover before you've got effective soil protection. And this just stands to reason, because at such cover rates the vegetation is essentially the continuous network and the bare ground is the discontinuous part of the system, and you have a reasonably stable situation. But once the cover is reduced below about 70 per cent, it is then the bare spaces that start to become the continuous parts of the system, and that's when the trouble really sets in. In effect, that's what happened right up on the top of Kosciuszko: once a little bit of bare ground was exposed, the causative processes continued to enlarge it and soon produced a greater expanse of bare ground. Continuous selective grazing has that effect as well.

We also examined the longer-term sustainability (a word which I use rather apologetically) of current improved pastures in the Southern Tablelands environment. We had to measure everything that went in to the experimental area at Ginninderra and everything that came out of it, and because we wanted to make it bigger than on a plot scale we had to instrument a catchment there of several acres, setting up water measuring equipment combined with automatic and manual sampling equipment to measure suspended sediment as well as nutrient losses.

The long and the short of it was that with a fairly good stocking rate of about five dry sheep equivalents to the acre, and given a well-established phalaris/subterranean clover pasture – which is not the most productive pasture but is certainly a sustainable one – that sort of grazing system seemed okay. There were minimal losses of nutrients. The loss that was most serious then, and seems likely to be most serious in future, was simply the losses of phosphorus if superphosphate was applied just before a heavy rain, when it would wash off. And bear in mind that most phosphate in soils is fixed in the surface soil. Any area that is prone to surface erosion is therefore prone to losing a lot of its phosphorus along with the surface soil.

That work had interesting side effects. Work on Scrivener Dam was proceeding and we had queries from the National Capital Development Commission to the effect of, 'Good God, when we've built this dam, is it ever going to be filled with water?' On the basis of some of the catchment results when big rains gave big percentage run-offs we simply said, 'No worries, mate. You'll wake up one morning and the dam will be full.' And that's just how it was.

Another activity in those Canberra days was the development of the Australian rangelands research program, which was meant to be a wonderful research project that brought together not only CSIRO research but research in universities and in the various state departments, like the Queensland Department of Primary Industries – all groups involved in arid zone research. It started fine, with a lot of cooperation, but inevitably the power seeking happened and it went off in the wrong direction. Participants lost interest and although part of the rangeland program continued, it never lived up to its expectations.

One of my other jobs was to reorientate the staff of the Riverina Irrigation Laboratory from irrigation research to dryland research. That was successfully done, despite quite a lot of trauma in the staff, and it resulted in some extremely good work on grazing diet selection. The principles are the same whether you're dealing with arid zone areas or with alpine, but some very good dryland research work came out of that.

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An expanding range of ecological analysis

I think some of your activities at CSIRO have carried over to later years.

That's true. One example was in relation to national parks in New South Wales. Because of my continuing efforts in Kosciuszko, I became a member of the Kosciuszko National Park's advisory committee, and continued with that long after I left CSIRO. Also, in about the mid to late '60s, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service was set up under Tom Lewis, the Minister. Lewis was very effective on the Kosciuszko committee – he knew what he wanted but was always ready to listen to reasons for doing something else. And one of the first things he did was to ask Harry Frith and me, 'How can we best get a representative group of parks set up in New South Wales?' We told him he could do it quite quickly if he had two or three people on it whom we named, but he would have to accept that he was getting an answer that was 90 per cent correct rather than 99 per cent correct. This proceeded like a house on fire, and the meetings we had were very effective indeed – until every Tom, Dick and Harry in terms of interest groups wanted to get on the committee. In no time flat it got so bogged down that no decisions were possible because there was always something else that needed investigating, investigating, investigating.

One of the huge tragedies of that, from a conservation point of view, was the way the woodchip business got off the ground in New South Wales. Geoff Mosley was on that committee too, and Geoff and I had the job of attempting to define the coastal environments in New South Wales that merited coming into the National Parks and Wildlife system. We could do this quite readily from parks we knew, but to be on the safe side we then had to look at all the areas which were still Crown land, and because they were so important in all sorts of ways our recommendation simply was, 'Get the lot. Have all of the still available Crown lands.'

That was the time, however, when the meetings were starting to bog down, and that's when woodchips arrived. Not only state forests but other areas of uncommitted Crown land were brought into the woodchip system. And that's how New South Wales lost much of what could have been a magnificent belt of parkland, right down the coast of New South Wales.

Another important activity which continued to be important after I left CSIRO was an endeavour to look at a relatively undeveloped area, within stone's throw of Canberra, which was of value for water production and still had some degree of flexibility as regards current and future land uses which could conceivably have some effect on water yield – if water yield were given a high priority. The area that more or less selected itself was the upper Shoalhaven catchment, where the Sydney Water Board for donkey's years had been progressively buying up land, adequately compensating farmers, and leasing the land back to them until such time as the dam was built. That dam has now become a no-no. It was to be built in the 1990s but the waters of its tributary zone are now being utilised to supplement Sydney's water supply.

Anyway, it was an ideal area to examine the effects of different land uses under different climatic, soil and slope conditions, in terms of water yield.

Another activity took place at about the time when systems ecology started to take off, when we appointed one of the first systems ecologists outside the CSIRO computing section. We first got a student of Bill Williams, one of the early people in the CSIRO computing system, and subsequently we got Alan Ashton. Using the old-fashioned computing techniques then available, they were able to develop realistic models incorporating all the components of the landscape, climate et cetera, in terms of water yield. And we were able to test this quite well against actual run-off data held by the Sydney Water Board. This was quite a success story.

As in the Snowy days, essentially we examined water as a crop, and one could show quite definitely that, in certain environments, its value as a crop exceeded the value of developing those particular environments for pastures or pine forests. It was better to leave those environments not only in their existing eucalypt conditions, but – this is the interesting thing – with a lot of the semi-cleared land and so on just as it was. The low carrying capacity of its pasture was offset by a relatively low water use and a high water yield. Those recommendations would still stand, because the Water Board was pretty keen on them at the time, but I don't think it will ever come to anything more than an academic exercise, because the economic pressures to develop have been too strong.

That group was, effectively, broken up during changes in the Division of Plant Industry. A lot of the writing up still had to be done, and it's one of the things that I was able to continue with later.

You say the economic pressures to develop made that, in effect, an 'academic' exercise, yet it sounds like an 'economic' one. You were considering opportunity costs of different land uses, which I would have thought were specifically what government would be using for its decisions.

Well, I guess it was an academic exercise in terms of individual farmers, who could always push down a few more trees. That was still a time when the application of superphosphate was cheap because of the superphosphate bounty et cetera. And as long as you can make a quick quid, there's always a case for doing it.

All this sounds like an analysis of ecosystem services, to use the current term.

No-one called it ecosystem services at that time. But I was brought in contact again with Sam Clayton by an ecosystem services sort of issue. It was in the days when Canberra's water supply was getting dirtier and dirtier after heavy rains, and more and more attention was given to whether pine forests in the ACT were contributing to this. Of course, the forestry lobby said, 'No way,' but other people weren't so sure.

Pine forestry in the ACT started essentially as a rabbit control and weed control measure round Uriarra, where there was a lot of eroded land. But its success there led to its progressive extension into the Cotter catchment. Whilst the gentler slopes of the Cotter catchment were being developed everything was okay, but when there were no more of the gentler slopes the development got onto steeper and steeper slopes, such as under Mount Coree, where there was some horrendous erosion. By contrast, I have been told that before the Second World War there was no problem in using water direct from the Cotter for laboratory work, it was just so good.

Anyway, Sam Clayton was called down from Sydney and I went in from CSIRO, and we looked at quite a lot of these areas. I had an MSc student, Don Gilmour, working with me, using the same techniques that we used in the Snowy to measure run-off and soil loss, both with artificial rains and with natural rains, and believe it or not Don Gilmour's data was the only really firm data showing where most of the soil was coming from. In fact, Professor Teakle, the then Professor of Agriculture in Brisbane, used it when he was called down to Canberra by the NCDC as their special consultant to look into Canberra's water supply. And that data has, I think, helped say no to any more pines in the ACT – or at least, if there were to be more pines, to look elsewhere to plant them.

In all, that part of my CSIRO life was satisfying in some ways, because it was somewhere between research and application. You could see that what had been found on a small, experimental scale made sense in the real world, was worth doing.

You left CSIRO in 1974. What lay behind that departure?

I was never a good administrator, and I should not have gone into administrative positions. I think that sums it up. It was also at a time when the Division was in something of a turmoil, in that it was very large and there were quite disparate groups working under the same broad umbrella. It was also a time of extreme competition for positions and resources. A lot of CSIRO's research was being done with industry money, particularly wool money, and people were in permanent positions that depended entirely on industry funds – until wool money started becoming very hard to get and an awful lot of competition for funds and resources developed.

Without in any sense having a chip on my shoulder, I must say that ecology was not then regarded as top-rate science. There were strong pressures all the time within CSIRO to reuse ecology positions and resources, and particularly to close down or at least reduce the extent of field activities, which are usually more expensive than entirely laboratory based ones.

It was certainly that competitive atmosphere, and the realisation that ecological work was going down the drain, that led to some illnesses that I had. And so, when the medical officer said I'd be better out of it than in, I left CSIRO.

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A time at ANU gathering up the publication threads

For the next few years you were a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. I believe this was a time of consolidation and restoration.

What put me on my feet again, both physically and mentally, was the fact that my late wife and I took on a 1500 acre farm in the upper Shoalhaven catchment, near where our group had done the systems work in conjunction with the Water Board. The extremely hard physical yakka that that involved, together with the fact that when a problem arose I couldn't find someone else to fix it but had to do it myself, was of great benefit to me.

Something else occurred which was very satisfying and helped restore my faith in myself a little. In taking on the property, I developed it according to the accepted prescription of entire farm planning that had been pushed for a long time by the Soil Conservation Service, but with the additional constraint of superimposing water conservation, and especially wildlife and shelter conservation, needs upon the soil conservation that up till that time had been the priority consideration.

The simple, effective way of doing that is still the McHarg overlay technique, where you have a map showing the soil and slope resources of the farm and you superimpose a map showing the areas best suitable for agriculture, then superimpose one for pasture, and so on. It's simply a restatement of the land use capability approach that's been around for a long time, except that instead of only one possible land use, agriculture, having top priority, every land use has top priority if it is most suited to the particular site.

This is really the way we approached national parks, beginning with a zoning plan at Kosciuszko. We had to incorporate hydro power and also certain tourist development, but it was possible to stratify the whole area in terms of those uses for which it was not only most suitable but often the only site that was suitable. So this is in a nutshell what I tried to do on the upper Shoalhaven. And it seemed to work.

This is where the shot in the arm came. I suddenly found, to my complete surprise, that I'd been awarded the prestigious McKell Medal for outstanding work in land and water conservation in Australia. That bucked me up quite a lot.

So it was a time of physical reclamation and restoration, and I was soon again dealing with much of the carry-on work from Kosciuszko. I was able to do quite a lot of work finalising Kosciuszko Alpine Flora.

At first it was Donald Walker, in the ANU Research School of Pacific Studies, who gave me a room to do that. I'd be in for a couple of days a week and up at the farm for the rest of it. Frank Fenner later enabled me to work in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, CRES.

So I was able to finalise quite a lot of the work that I'd started at Kosciuszko. If it weren't for that break, I don't think any of the long-term transect work with Dane Wimbush would have ever seen the light of day, because Dane by that time had been transferred to Canberra and pulled onto other stuff. So it was a bit of luck, actually.

It is the writing up that really makes it of worth, isn't it?

Absolutely. A very interesting outcome while I was at CRES arose because at that time the late Colin Williams, a wonderful bloke, was the soil chemist in Plant Industry and one of his main interests was phosphorus. Most phosphorus is fixed in the surface soil, and increasing intensification of agriculture and pasture causes more and more of the goodies to become increasingly concentrated in the topsoil, which is the vulnerable part of any soil erosion that might occur.

So Colin and I brought out Phosphorus in Australia, which was essentially a book of specialists in different branches of phosphorus – natural occurrence, mining et cetera. If there is one resource that is very limited in nature but which we are using very fast, extravagantly and probably irreplaceably, it's phosphorus. In fact, a book by a colleague of mine entitled Feed or Feedback takes phosphorus as something that might stymie world agriculture in the future.

Also, I have mentioned the Shoalhaven work which was discontinued before it had been finally written up. I was able to incorporate that, using a fellowship from the Reserve Bank which I took out at CRES, to produce a publication on the Shoalhaven with the title Harvesting Water from Land.

Another important outcome at that time, although the first part of it had been done when I was still in Plant Industry, was a very good book by a group of us simply called Conservation. It was based on a series of TV productions outlining the situation with respect to soil, water, national parks, wildlife et cetera – the main natural resources in Australia. The series went off very well and the book was widely used in schools. A second edition was brought out when I was with Frank Fenner in CRES, and we were lucky enough to have a chapter in it by Nugget Coombs, who looked at conservation from the social aspects as well as the more particularly scientific aspects that we had looked at it from.

That time at the ANU was great. Even though it was only a stone's throw from where I used to be in Plant Industry, I wasn't cluttered up, and I enjoyed that enormously. In fact, I had to make a big decision about whether to stay on at CRES after Frank Fenner retired as Director and a new Director, Stuart Harris, the economist, took over. I was tempted very much to stay on, although my interest in the farm was the thing that was pulling me. By that time I'd had to sell the farm at Braidwood and I'd moved down to where we are now at the coast, at Bodalla.

The thing that would have kept me, because I tried very hard to get it off the ground – and a couple of years ago I tried again – was one of my dreams in ecology. The object was to have a group of senior ecologists that knew a bit about every one of Australia's main land use environments. We were building a small but pretty good group of specialists. Len Webb was the Australian expert on rainforests; I knew a bit about the high country, Richard Groves about grassland, and Edmund Gill about forests; John Leigh had come in from Deniliquin on the semi-arid and arid zone; we had Ted Moore on temperate woodlands, and Ted Coaldrake on coasts. By means of a series of seminars that would probably go on for about 10 years, each specialist in his field would organise appropriate symposia, the outcome of which would be, 'That's the way it is, and that's what the best scientific, considered opinion thinks we ought to be doing about it.' It would have provided a consolidated picture of land use in Australia.

Well, the group split up and it didn't come to anything, but if it had come to something I would have liked to stay on. There was a lot of support for it, but not in the right places. I think it's an objective that is even more necessary now than it was then, because more and more irreversible steps are being taken in resource use every day now.

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Associations with Frank Fenner and Nugget Coombs

Frank Fenner was head of CRES when you were there. But I believe your association with Frank went back well before that time at ANU. Can you tell us a bit about it?

It went back a long time, perhaps even a bit earlier than my first acquaintance with Frank, because when I arrived at Island Bend, soon followed by my wife and four babies and another two shortly to arrive, there was a very kind visit by wives of CSIRO and ANU people including, I think, Bobbie Fenner. But very soon after that I first made my contact with Frank – on the rabbit issue, of course. Frank and others working in his group considered rabbits that had never been exposed to the myxoma virus to be necessary for further experiments, but pretty well all the rabbits that you could catch anywhere had been exposed to the myxoma virus somewhere or other. There was a possibility, however, that as the main vector, mosquitoes, petered out with altitude, if you could find populations of rabbits high up above the mosquito level you might get the virgin rabbits that had never been exposed to the virus. And that's how my first association with Frank started.

When snow fell in the high country, rabbits tended to go up the roads and tracks and establish, but big snow would wipe them out. A huge snow in 1956 – I don't think there's been a bigger one since – covered the ground with deep snow, but on this occasion a couple of warrens had managed to dig themselves out and the rabbits were still there. I was able to identify these with Frank, and so he came up with his blokes to catch a few. It was one of the amusing nights of my life when big fellows with butterfly nets and torches kept disappearing down wombat holes, trying to chase rabbits to take back to Canberra. But it was a successful time, Frank got his rabbits.

Almost right from the beginning, then, Frank was at least in the wings with regard to land use problems in the mountains, and he always kept very close to that issue so indirectly I was associated with him.

The next main association was just before CRES was set up in the ANU. Fred Morley and I – he was, like me, an assistant chief in Plant Industry, but more on the agronomic side – had a phone call from Margaret Mahoney, Frank's secretary in those John Curtin School days, to come over for lunch with Frank. Our very interesting conversation with him concerned the university's idea that it might set up a school of agricultural sciences, cashing in on the availability of a large amount of good research work in the CSIRO laboratories at Black Mountain and at Wildlife. Frank said, 'Well, the university's considering this, but what do you think about a school of natural resources instead of the school of agricultural sciences?' Fred was quite a good conservation thinker and we both said that sounded terrific.

I came closer to Frank because of my involvement in some early Academy of Science reports, but it wasn't until I'd left CSIRO, gone to Ballalaba on the Shoalhaven and then started to get my work going again that I really got to know him. That was when he invited me to go over to CRES and to make use of its facilities, at first to finalise the Kosciuszko Alpine Flora, but also to do all the work on the Shoalhaven, because that's where the Reserve Bank fellowship was to be held.

One reason why CRES was so good for that work was that one of its early appointees was Peter Young, a wizard in systems ecology, and he left behind a couple of very good people who were there when I came. But I then had some of the most intellectually difficult moments of my life; I just couldn't get into the Shoalhaven work. I remember saying to Nugget Coombs, 'Look, I'm just not going to handle this, I can't seem to break it. I ought to give the money back to the Reserve Bank, because they're not going to get anything out of this.' He said, 'Oh no, stay with it. It'll be all right. And anyway, the computing side is starting to come out.'

So I stayed for another couple of years, and because I was pretty well established then I enjoyed it. I was able to do other things as well, including the Phosphorus in Australia. And I got to know Frank a lot.

You have mentioned Nugget Coombs a couple of times. What did you think of him?

One reason I value that time at ANU is that it brought me in contact with Nugget Coombs, who was a great bloke. We had a joint secretary who ruled us both, and she was absolutely marvellous. Nugget has helped me a lot in my life, particularly in my scientific life, because he once said to me that his guiding principle when he was Governor of the Reserve Bank was, 'Do I turn left or do I turn right?' He said, 'I'm not worried about the peripherals and the ins and outs. I know that if I am generally pointing in the right direction, I'll be able to home in anywhere I like within an angle of 180°. But if I go in the opposite direction, there's no way on Earth I'll ever be able to turn 360° and start again.'

For me that's an important principle in science, particularly in ecology, because it is a broad picture. There is so much detail in ecology that you can get flummoxed with, yet much of the ecological work now is done with detail and the detail becomes important. You proceed both by refining the detail and by enlarging the picture – it's not that one is mutually exclusive to the other – but the essential thing is to get that broad picture right and to know generally the direction in which you're heading.

One of the little papers I was involved in is simply called 'Replaceable and irreplaceable resources and land use', and tends to prioritise the resource that you're dealing with in terms of whether there's plenty of it so to all intents and purposes it's inexhaustible; whether there is a limited amount of it and once you've used it you've used it; or whether there's a limited amount of it but you can keep recycling it and using it. To look at resources in those basic terms helps in deciding on those steps which can be taken with safety and those steps which can't. It certainly reinforces the precautionary principle in all resource use: if you're in doubt, don't, until you really know what you're talking about.

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Francis Ratcliffe and the Australian Conservation Foundation

A key scientist in the original myxomatosis work with Frank Fenner was Francis Ratcliffe, head of the Wildlife Survey Section at CSIRO. I believe he was a very good friend of yours as well, and you both had a lot to do with the establishment of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Yes. Francis was a very good friend before the embryonic days of the Australian Conservation Foundation. As with Frank Fenner, it was really the rabbit business that brought Francis and myself into contact. Francis was overwhelmed by the spread of myxomatosis, which strained all the resources he had in the Wildlife Survey Section when he just wanted to be working on Australian native fauna. So occasionally he would come up to the mountains, more often than not with Lindsay Pryor, who was then superintendent of parks and gardens and became Professor of Forestry at the ANU. Lindsay would come to look for hybrid eucalypts, and Francis just to get away from rabbits. So I first got to know Francis more or less in his escape role, getting away from the responsibilities of rabbits and into work that he liked doing.

Soon after I came to Canberra, Harry Frith took over the Wildlife Survey Section and Francis came back to his old haunts, having been originally within the Division of Entomology. He was given a tin shed midway between the Entomology building and Plant Industry, and we often used to meet there to have lunch and Francis would talk about his hoped-for popular movement of conservation in Australia. He was very much guided, I suppose, by the achievements of the American Conservation Foundation, and he spent his retirement in that tin shed trying to work out ways and means of getting this off the ground in Australia. I think Francis needed someone to talk to, and quite frankly there weren't many other people around for me to talk to either, because there weren't many people professedly in conservation at that time.

It developed that perhaps the American model was the way to go, and a planning meeting in Sydney was arranged with the head of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia plus quite a few wealthy VIPs; I think Garfield Barwick was there early in the piece; and we had Geoff Downes, who was one of the few people really into soil conservation, and Dunbavin Butcher, from Victoria. The intent was to raise money, but shortly afterward the Commonwealth Bank man died and without his initiative the thing lapsed.

Francis, however, kept going at it. His first assistant to help him with his writings and what have you was a retired major – an Army man, an adventurer and great in the Outward Bound movement, but offering no real intellectual contact with Francis. So that didn't work at all. Later though, Geoff Mosley (who had recently completed his PhD on wilderness in Tassie) came in to give Francis a hand.

With considerable difficulty the ACF did get going, with funding from the federal government for several years until such time as the Foundation, through its subscription membership, was able to develop its own revenue. At first it had no accumulated work on resource issues to make a good impact on the public. So Francis' idea was to take known success stories of resource issues and publish them as 'viewpoints' to get through to the public. The first viewpoint concerned the Cape Barren goose – the way cray fishermen used it for bait et cetera, and the success story that, if there is a reserve where the habitat is looked after, the habitat will look after the species. A bit later Geoff Mosley and I did a viewpoint on the Australian Alps. So this was using information that was already available.

But the ACF didn't really prosper. It moved from Canberra to Melbourne but was still not regarded as a popular organisation and didn't make much of a public impact. The first director, Dick Piesse, had considerable experience in tourism but never hit it off with Francis.

In Canberra I was asked by Fred White to have lunch with some people from CSIRO head office to discuss the ACF. A group of very senior public servants were also there, including one from Treasury who said bluntly that the ACF had had its money and from now on had to stand on its own feet. Fred White asked me to sum up what I knew about the ACF and whether I thought it should be continued, and how. I said, 'It's obviously trying to do a job that has to be done in Australia. It's something that the federal government should be looking at. And to look at it right now it would cost the government far more than the value of the grants that go into the ACF.' The government did then give the money for them to continue, which the subscriptions and the expired grant hadn't provided.

At the next annual general meeting, in the Academy building in Canberra, Garfield Barwick was in the chair and when the time came to elect the next director, he said in his usual autocratic way, 'There'll be no other nominations. Mr Piesse will be director again.' But Geoff Mosely – who was already assisting Francis and working with Dick Piesse as well – was nominated on the spot and then elected virtually unanimously. I think people realised that he knew about conservation and was one of the leaders in wilderness issues who could really do some good.

From that time on, Geoff threw himself into the ACF and made a huge difference to it. I'm still closely in touch with him. We both tried repeatedly to get the Australian Alps listed as World Heritage, and eventually it started to become a popular thing and did get off the ground.

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Leadership roles of the Academy of Science and CSIRO

You were made a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1980. The Academy is our body of elder science statesmen, the Brains Trust for Australia. Could it fulfil the role of the expert group you wanted to form?

I don't think it has enough ecology in it. It has a marvellous array of specialists, an incredible strength of specialists, but I don't think ecology has been a particular highlight of Academy activities in recent times. In retrospect rather disappointedly I think I was able to do more before I joined the Academy, in terms of those activities that the Academy took on, than after. I think one of the reasons is that in the early days the Academy took up issues as issues rather than issues in terms of specialities.

An example arose while I was working with the CSIRO at Island Bend. One of the early conservation activities of the Academy of Science was a report by an Academy committee on snow lease grazing in the Victorian and Australian Alps, including Kosciuszko, and on the interests of the Snowy Mountains Authority and the possible effects of the Snowy scheme on catchment and national park values.

A group of us soon followed up one of the report's suggestions, that the completion of the Guthega project should be closely re-examined because indisputably it would cause quite severe, irreparable damage to some of the above-treeline parts of the park. This was opposed by the Snowy Mountains Authority, but Otto Frankel as chief of the Division at the time, and Fred White as chairman of CSIRO, didn't give me the sack because of it. And behind the scenes they supported a person's right to speak out on what they believed in.

By the way, I believe this was another outstanding feature of working with CSIRO at the time. If a person had something worth while to say and they had the evidence to back it up, okay, they could have a go at it.

While I was with CSIRO in Canberra the Academy of Science took an important role in the International Biological Program with respect to identifying the main plant communities in Australia, as a basis for their conservation. Ray Specht was the convenor of that, but I was convenor of the New South Wales group. That operation of the Academy I think was very successful.

You have referred to leadership roles being played by scientists who know about natural resources, ecology and ecosystems. What role should scientists and organisations like the Australian Academy of Science and CSIRO have when it comes to Australia appropriately managing its natural resources?

They should have a very important role. And I think Australian science is doing its duty in that role when it comes to some of the global issues of natural resources, like global warming. Many of the most important issues in natural resources concern almost the day-to-day decisions that are made in their use, but there is an irreversibility principle that once something is done, theoretically you can undo it but practically you're committed and you've got to go with it. I think there is an absence in Australia of extremely well-informed groups of scientists that at short notice can speak out publicly, without necessarily being asked as the Prime Minister's Chief Scientist seems to be. There is a big need for select groups of senior scientists to be on tap, their prime role being to respond to day-to-day issues; if they don't have the information themselves, they have the contacts to get it immediately – even if they have to look all around the world.

My colleague Robert Carrick (long since dead) called what he visualised for CSIRO and the Academy a 'phantom Division': a small group of very good people, the prime purpose of which is to give scientific information at that stage of knowledge, not pretending that's the last word but saying, 'This is the state of knowledge about this right now,' without having to set up committees that go for years before getting anywhere.

I think that's a role that even the Academy, with all its specialist scientists, could well consider. It's got the infrastructure, it's got a big secretariat, and this phantom group would not necessarily consist of the same people all the time. People could almost nominate or the Academy could second them, or, when a particular issue comes up, the Academy could go to two or three people and, for that issue, say, 'We want an answer in the next week. What's the best you can do?' I feel there is a big need for the expression of scientific opinion on day-to-day issues as well as the more remote global ones.

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Contributions to natural resource management

What do you see as your greatest contribution in your life's work? Is it those long-term data sets that you established, or perhaps the synthesis afterwards?

That's hard to say, because people have different opinions. I'm struck by my sheer good luck that when, almost by default, I went into ecological work in the Australian high country, virtually nothing else had been done. It was an open field. Later it attracted interest simply because some work was being done and someone was there. There is now a remarkable increase in the amount of effort that goes into getting information. So I suppose having had some role in achieving that is good.

Something came right out of the blue concerning that original book of mine on the ecosystems of the Monaro, which has all sorts of things wrong with it – not so much in the content except that that is obviously grossly incomplete in many places, but in the quality of production as an early Government Printer Sydney job, with photographs that were taken with a little Box Brownie camera and leave much to be desired. Not much more than a year ago a group of my colleagues got together and, quite unknown to me, had this book republished, just a limited edition of about 50 or 100 copies. It was a shot in the arm for me, that people would think that worth doing.

Oh, I have been lucky, despite a lot of heartache in it, that I happened to arrive in the conservation scene when it was just coming into its own. A lot had happened before that, for instance in parks: we had early parks that were there because of their scenery. Most of the earlier work on plants and animals was based on the conservation of individual species, with all sorts of regulations against picking wildflowers as a protected plant, and animals et cetera. But it really wasn't until during and after the Second World War that ecosystem ecology started to emerge, and almost whatever natural resource you're dealing with now, you have to look at it in an ecosystem context.

To that extent I've enjoyed my involvement in work that might appear to be primarily for water, or for soil conservation, or for nature conservation, because it is really part of the whole system. And you need to see it in that context, not in order to get it right to the last little angle but at least to start off getting it 180° right. Having gone in that right direction, you can home in, change direction. It's a good position to be in.

Are we, as a nation, going in the right direction in natural resource management?

No. Take soil conservation. Maybe 30 years ago, and then 20, the Standing Committee on Soil Conservation in Australia brought out two reports documenting the extent of soil degradation at each of those times. That was a powerful document saying how much needed spending on it and where. No action. Now we don't even have Soil Conservation Services. They have been amalgamated with these rather amorphous departments of natural resources, where the identity of the profession is lost. On the one hand, I think more for bureaucratic and political reasons, we seem to be more aware of the whole natural resource system, because we do have departments of environment and of natural resources. But I do believe that increasingly they have been emasculated and deprofessionalised, in terms of the key groups in them.

You can say this about water. In New South Wales, just as we used to have Soil Conservation Service, so we used to have a Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission. Okay, it was primarily an engineering thing, but it knew a lot about water. Some of those people still exist, as do some of the soil conservation people, but not as professionals in their own profession. What we're seeing happening in water right across Australia – and this is the key answer to your question, I think – is the privatisation of natural resources. In my opinion, without being communist or socialist or anything like that, these are resources of which we have to take incredible care; we have to be incredibly careful not to make irreversible steps. We have the principle of irreversibility in public affairs, just as in ecological affairs. If you go too far, theoretically you can get back but you have got Buckley's chance.

Water is one of the best examples of what we are doing in our key natural resources. We have virtually given water away, we have privatised it. Irrigators now have huge amounts of water as rights. Snowy Hydro has huge amounts of water as rights. Corporatisation of Snowy Hydro must mean that water is increasingly used for what appears to be at most value at the present time. Environmental flows are right at the bottom. To achieve them while water is a public resource is really a political decision, and hopefully it should be based on the best technical information that politicians can get. But the only way that we can get such water in the future is to buy it back from the people we've given it to, and this is going to make environmental water management more and more difficult because it is going to be increasingly expensive.

In effect we've done the same thing with our forests. New South Wales Forests, like ACT Forests, has effectively been privatised. Inevitably its emphasis is on money rather than maintenance or improvement. We forget that the worldwide role of forestry 100 years ago, say, was not so much of timber production but of watershed protection, amenity, multiple purposes. It's difficult to see us getting back to that.

I think we are tending to privatise national parks. We are permitting big commercial developments in national parks – admittedly within a 'development zone', but without doing anything much to prevent the edge and spillover effects of those big developments.

So one of the disappointing things is that whilst there appears to be a much greater interest in conservation, this greater interest seems to have been accompanied by a loss in professionalism in the management of our resources, and a loss of the sort of people in top places that can ensure future interest.

That's a commentary on existing trends. Maybe a comment now about the future. What do you think the prospects of the high country are, with the coming climate change that everyone has been talking about?

I think you've really got to divide that question up into a number of questions, looking at the broad picture of the Australian Alps and the scenario we are confronted with: slightly increasing temperature which may reflect itself in all sorts of ways.

Because of an interest in historical ecology – what's happened there, what's happened over the last few thousand years, what's happened over the last few tens of thousands of years – one is impressed by the fact that the environment always sorts itself out. And one is impressed that the time scale available to environments to do this is much more forgiving than the time scale we think is important to us.

Looking at the Australian Alps from a vegetation point of view, I feel pretty sure that one way or another the plant communities, and particularly the species in them, will sort themselves out. One of the things we forget as far as so-called global warming is concerned is that wherever you have a diverse environment – and it's magnified in steep places like the mountains, where there may be several degrees latitude and several degrees of mean annual temperature difference between an exposed, sunny slope and a protected, shady slope right next to each other – the elasticity that is available just in the sheer physical diversity of the environment will enable at least most of the species to take care of themselves. This doesn't mean to say that some species might not be knocked out of some communities and have to move into others.

One also has to realise – for example regarding Kosciuszko alpine flora, with 200-odd species, 20 per cent endemics, a high degree of endemicism – that stress is often what stimulates speciation. Take the genus Ranunculus, of which there are several endemic species at Kosciuszko all growing near each other: this one in this site, this one in another site, all within a few metres of each other. So any stress situation may in fact stimulate speciation as well as act against it.

Climate is another aspect. The Australian Alps are marginal in terms of semi-permanent snow cover. But bear in mind that the area has very high precipitation, even by world standards; a lot of moisture comes down there. And, in contrast to so many of the world's mountains, where the accumulation of snow is the result of small additive increments of small snowfalls one after the other, under low temperatures, gradually building up a snow pack, the characteristic of our snowfalls is that they come in big dumps. A big snow year might mean only three or four big dumps. You might get innumerable small snowfalls but that doesn't make much of a snow season. It's not really a matter only of temperature. It's when one of those lows happens to come up that's just right, and bang. So I'm undecided about that one.

From the land use point of view, the combined effect of land use pressures and climatic change pressures could certainly produce undesirable effects. For example, progressive light snow years are likely to do more harm to the vegetation than heavier ones, because under light snowfall conditions plants and soils are exposed to freezing temperatures, whereas with a protective snow cover they are insulated. So this again is a time scale thing. Those things may well happen.

But there is another side to the equations. It's interesting to look at the controlling factors in, say, the distribution of many species in Australia. Take the eucalypts. Most of the eucalypts in south-eastern Australia are limited by rainfall, by this, by that, but more often than not their limiting factor seems to be low temperature. In other words, if it got a bit warmer, they would do better. So I think much of the vegetation would handle that all right. And if things got a little bit warmer in other parts of the world, huge parts of what is now tundra in Alaskan North America, Russia, Mongolia, Iceland, would become productive as far as economic land use is concerned. By and large there are some parts of the world that would benefit from it and other parts of the world that wouldn't.

To come back to your question: I think the mountains will handle climate change all right, although it might be uncomfortable for us.

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Collegiate contacts on mountain resources

You've been on this farm at Bodalla for the last 20 years, I believe. Have you maintained contact with your scientific colleagues in the highlands over that time?

Oh yes. For example, I have mentioned Dane Wimbush several times today. He started off at CSIRO as a university student during his long summer vacations. There was no way that, even with our speedier methods of vegetation recording, one or two people could do it so we had to pull in two or three university students. Dane was one of the first to come, and he stayed on. He lives at Bermagui now and we're still in close contact. There are also other high country contacts that I've developed through contacts down here.

What's the nature of that contact? Have you been involved in consulting, or advocating certain views, or is it more of a social interaction?

Well, there's certainly some social interaction. But it's more to do now with the land use problems associated with the use of mountain resources. More demands are being made on one and the same resource. One example is sustainable tourism. Quite a lot of the projects are supported by tourism money, so they are to examine whether such and such a thing is okay. I have got my tongue in my cheek with a lot of those, because the more basic issue of whether such activities should be occurring there at all is not being looked at.

But one of the most absorbing problems now is the huge and growing one of so-called hazard reduction burning, which I believe has taken over as the major dominating activity in most of our forest lands in eastern Australia, even including the more sparsely forested ones in the marginal snow country. That problem is one on which I'm having a lot of contact with colleagues at the present time.

There is also an ongoing debate about the role that grazing might have in managing or reducing fire risk in certain areas.

Yes, this is rearing its head again, despite the absolutely overwhelming evidence that rangeland grazing, particularly together with fire – which accentuates the pressure of high grazing selectivity – has no part in our higher mountain catchments, and no part whatsoever in any of these areas which are national park, because the effects of selectivity on change away from natural are enormous.

So, if there is such a thing as a primary truth, those important truths are still there. Yet there will always be people trying to get back in. It is said that the price of peace is eternal vigilance, lest sooner or later something slips in and gets you. Of the threats we have been discussing, the hazard reduction burning is by far the most important.

Incidentally, the hazard reduction burning ignores one of the most fundamental resource equations that exist with respect to our natural and near-natural lands: fuel = catchment protection = habitat. We are now so dominant with respect to reduction of fuel, some of which is quite unjustified anyway, that inevitably we are drastically reducing catchment protection and drastically reducing habitat. Here again, if we had the good professionals around in those resources that we are talking about – soil and water, wildlife et cetera – we would not see such nonsense.

Don't let me go on record, even by inference, as saying that I don't believe there should be any hazard reduction burning. I'm not saying that at all. But a great deal of hazard reduction burning – which used to be called protective burning, and before that control burning – is absolutely inappropriate in most of our back country.

Firstly, it never achieves what it is supposed to achieve, the reduced occurrence of devastating wildfires such as we've had. They are absolutely under the control of prevailing meteorological conditions combined with a preceding year or more of incredibly dry weather. If any fire starts under those conditions, let alone fires that are started by 20 or 30 or 50 almost simultaneous lightning strikes, there is no chance of doing anything with it until either it burns itself out – in other words, there is no more to burn – or there is a change in weather conditions. This has been the history of wildfires in Australia and it will continue. So some of these areas are going to get burnt anyway, but at nowhere near the frequency with which they are being burnt at the present time.

A lot of the ecological communities that we are seeing now are communities that need 100 or 150 years' protection from fire. If you look at the demography of communities in the forests, say in snowgum woodland, you will find that possibly less than 5 per cent of the entire community is old growth forest. The rest of it is succession forest in different stages – some burnt a few years ago, some from 1926 fires, '39 fires and so on. But the occurrence of old growth stands is diminishing. Simply, that is not because we're not having big wildfires. We are having a few of them, but if the area is big enough then the statistics are on your side. If you put fires through again and again and again, the statistics are not on your side. So we are losing the very naturalness which is one of the primary objectives in all our national park legislation.

To come back to sustainability: in trying to define sustainability – and this is why I think national parks and what's in them are so important – you look for communities that have been able to sustain themselves. Why are they there, why have they been able to persist, and what lessons can we learn from them?

Well, they've been able to persist because they haven't been disturbed for a long time, although we might not think that's a very good criterion. But also they have been able to exist because they are largely living on their interest, not on their capital. Once they get to that stage, it's mostly leaf fall et cetera that is maintaining the community with respect to nutrients and so on. By contrast, in most of our more economic uses we're living on capital, not on interest. As well, old growth things are great conservers and they're very possessive. There's a huge biomass tied up in that big tree we can see from here, and in the absence of something like a wildfire that destroys most of it, it's not going to let go. Its foliage, its trunk and its roots are great reservoirs of carbon and nutrients, from which the old growth communities draw only interest.

So, when we are talking about sustainability in our natural systems, we have to give special attention to the old growth components, and the processes and properties which enable them to be there. That's another reason why I think our hazard reduction burning is very ill advised.

Nevertheless, around buildings, around townships and so on there will always be a need for more localised protection. Some of my colleagues and I, increasingly and very strongly, advocate for a change away from widespread hazard reduction burning to sacrificing areas in frequent hazard reduction burning around settlements et cetera, combined with intense fire hygiene around every township and community. Even with the Canberra fires one is aware of houses which survived, the next one went, the next one survived. The story has been told in earlier inquiries too, as in Hobart years ago, as in the '39 fires, that there are always places which escaped. Intense fire hygiene is a very important component of how we should proceed with the work of burning.

On your way here today you would have seen a lot of smoke arising. That burning is being done to protect a big extension of the Bodalla township into the Bodalla Park Estate, an extension into forest land right next to a state forest. Where you have this situation, what alternative do you have? But that doesn't mean that all the back country, miles back in the mountains, should be subject to the same process.

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Pathways and priorities in ecosystem services

You have spoken of old growth forest. You yourself are part, I suppose, of our scientific old growth, having found lifelong sustenance in understanding the ecosystems around you, particularly the high country. Would you advocate that those beginning a scientific career in ecology, ecosystem services, should follow a career path of seeking knowledge from the ground up, as you did?

I think there's now more and more interest in the term 'services', as in ecosystem services, and that's an exceedingly important area to get into. It's combined with the so-called footprint now: the size or weight of a footprint on a resource. I mean, how many hectares of the Cotter catchment does each Canberra resident need to provide the service of water, to provide the service of local recreation et cetera? Whatever the career path, the three Rs of ecology – to know the plant species properly, to know the soils properly, and to know the main components of the environment that you are dealing with – are all-important. A good basic education in resources is a prerequisite for being able to look at any part of the whole system in context.

As just one example of what I have seen happen, I think forestry in Australia is still suffering from the fact that much tertiary forestry education in this country has been dominated by commercial forestry, and therefore the timber aspects of forestry are still dominant. And when the Parks and Wildlife Service was set up in New South Wales, it suddenly became big and there were not enough dedicated and trained parks people to fill the positions; there was naturally a career movement of public servants from other departments, including Forestry. I feel that the Parks and Wildlife Service is still getting over that.

I do think there is a big career path in ecosystem services, but there is something else that is also important. I have found in life and still do, every single day – like the way that apostle birds, white-winged choughs, have turned up here today for the first time, probably because of the fires just over the way – that with a soundly based ecosystem education you can always relate to something. It's part and parcel of being able to enjoy the world that you're in, no matter what part of it you are in. It wouldn't matter if I was in South America, I'd recognise Nothofagus and I'd relate to it. And I remember in the '50s attending a little kindergarten school in Denmark where all the kids were being taught real 'nature study' – a term which we now deride as old-fashioned but which in effect says what the ecosystem business is all about. It's a return to nature study but by defining the components of the nature that you are studying, understanding the processes, how they fit together.

Are you optimistic about the world and our chances as a race?

No, I don't think I am. I feel mankind's main problems are still almost Malthusian ones of overpopulation and therefore the inevitable pressures on resources. That's the key to everything. Even if nuclear technology and the availability of cheap fuel and the ability to get fertiliser out of seawater were ever to come off, overpopulation would still be the number one problem. The results of overpopulation are increasing demands on natural resources, particularly on land and water resources, with respect to soil erosion and water. So it's population, soil and water which to my mind are still top priorities, and until you start solving those problems – of which population is the essential one – it's a bit hard to see a big future for saving the world.

Let's come back to the theme that it is so incredibly important: to retain, wherever we can, examples of largely unspoiled nature, because they are the only permanent reference points we have of what can be done. That old tree in the paddock is a big tree at 30 metres, 100 feet. The tallest trees in the world now are only 300 feet. In von Mueller's time, in the mid 1800s, Gippsland trees were 550 feet. Unless we have big enough reserves to preserve those examples, we lose sight of what's possible. When mankind does get on the right track – if it ever does – these possible achievements are no longer possible because they are beyond the personal experience of anyone.

I believe that in the context of Australia, unlike so many other countries, we still have the chance to preserve such examples. This is the IBP thing that the Academy took on years ago, and we have done very well with the reservation system of largely natural environments throughout Australia. We are not doing at all well with management, however, except in places like south-west Tasmania, where we have been able to achieve World Heritage status so they now have international protection as well as state and federal protection. Groups of us have been trying for years to achieve World Heritage protection for the Australian Alps, but there is so much opposition from vested interests.

It's good that we do have parks to start with. At the present time I feel that unless we can get those existing parks recognised as international icons, like World Heritage, we've still a long way to go in our state and federal system before we're really protecting them.

Thanks for your time today and for sharing your views on the world.

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