By Tim Allard, Chief Executive Officer
This year, senior ecologist Peter Stanton celebrated 20 years of working with AWC. There is little that can be written that will come close to the contribution Peter has made, not only to AWC, but to conservation in general – particularly in North Queensland.
He has been, and continues to be, a mentor to many, an advisor without equal, and a champion of landscape conservation. In further recognition of his contribution to conservation, Peter has this year been acknowledged by the awarding of an honorary Doctorate by James Cook University:
This award is in recognition for the “outstanding achievement in the field of plant and forest ecology and conservation planning in northern Australia and throughout Queensland, which has contributed to the conservation of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and the exceptional service you have rendered to James Cook University”.
Peter’s career began in the Queensland Forestry Department. In 1963 he was appointed Assistant District Forester in Mackay. It was there he watched as, in the space of just five years, bulldozers with chains strung between them turned 1.5 million hectares of Brigalow Forest into open plains. The same time period saw the disappearance of most of the lowland swamps and forests of the state’s Wet Tropics.
As a then-forester within the Queensland Forestry Department his concern about the rapid rate of land development was noted by the Department. At that time, national parks in Queensland were created and managed under the Forestry Act. In 1967 he was transferred to the National Parks Branch of the Department and allowed to pursue a statewide project to identify areas that would be representative of the state’s biodiversity and protect its most outstanding landscapes. As a direct result of that work, a network of significant national parks was created throughout the state. In 1975 a National Parks and Wildlife Service was created and he joined it in 1977.
Leaving the service 20 years later, and while working with the Queensland Wet Tropics Management Authority, he became increasingly focused on finding ways to lift the standard of management of parks and, just as importantly, to ensure survival of greater areas of high-quality habitat outside them. While he could find no potential solution, unbeknownst to him, that solution had already evolved in the mind of Martin Copley, who was using his private funds to buy land to secure the future of the landscapes and wildlife that he had fallen in love with.
When Peter joined AWC in March 2003, the early part of AWC’s journey had been Western Australia-focused. Expansion into northern Australia was largely a result of Peter’s advice and knowledge of areas that needed protection – along with the need to establish standards of land management that would stand as a model for other land managers, both government and private.
He also offered skills in aerial photograph interpretation and vegetation mapping, knowledge in the sciences of botany and geology, and 40 years of hands-on experience in fire management and ecology, a topic with which he has held an almost lifelong fascination.
Peter spent his early childhood in an outer suburb of Brisbane at a time when bush surrounded the city, and summer fires regularly meandered across the landscape, evoking little concern in the population. However, over the years, attitudes changed and fire exclusion became the dominant aim of land managers. Peter believes the stark lesson from the 2019–20 fires is that the greatest disasters that can befall a forest are wildfires under conditions of extreme weather and heavy fuel, and long-term fire exclusion.
In northern Australia, organisations, and particularly Aboriginal communities and corporations, are demonstrating the value of a return to traditional fire practices, in a contemporary context. With Peter’s help, AWC is part of that movement. It is his hope that AWC can play a leading role in convincing Australians that fire is not to be feared; rather, it is a natural part of the Australian environment, and essential to the ecological health of the woodlands and forests of which it has always been a part.
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