Vale Peter Hitchcock AM

The recent death of Peter Phillip Hitchcock AM was met with grief among conservationists world-wide. The Sydney Morning Herald obituary summarises his background and national and international achievements in nature conservation. Peter was awarded the Order of Australia and international accolades.

Peter’s work ethic, fountain of knowledge, strategic mind, ability to forge productive work teams, communication skills with politicians, academics and NGOs have rarely been bettered. There are past Ministers, Premiers and Prime Ministers who can look back with great pride on the legacy for which they are remembered as a result of the work of Peter Hitchcock.

A third of today’s NSW protected area system is primarily due to Peter Hitchcock.

When Peter transferred from NSW Forestry to NPWS in 1970, approximately 1% of NSW was in conservation reserves. He accelerated the protection of NSW landscapes. Examples include coastal reserves concurrently resolving the protracted coastal sand-mining controversy and in 1979, the gazettal of the 450,000-hectare wilderness Wollemi National Park on Sydney’s doorstep deflecting a proposed Electricity Commission dam on the Colo River.

Peter’s most personal reservation was Werrikimbe National Park in 1974 in the upper Hastings Valley containing old growth tall eucalypt forest and rainforest: a precursor to decades of struggles to protect NSW forests.

A key to expanding the NSW conservation reserve system was Peter’s employment of graduate experts in botany, zoology, wetlands and geology and secondment of experts in the NPWS districts to conduct new area investigations. Staff travelled throughout NSW conducting biological surveys. He expanded the administrative arrangements and methods for establishing reserves, wilderness areas and off-reserve conservation caveats on private land. In response to the enactment of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, Peter established a team to deal with on and off-reserve environmental impact assessment, including commenting on large environmental impact statements and government inquiries that included the 1984 Western Division Inquiry and forestry logging proposals.

In 1983, Peter instigated Australia’s first jurisdictional-wide Nature Conservation Review. Some 55 reports were compiled by experts on the conservation status of vegetation types by biogeographical regions, threatened plants and fauna, groups of animals, karst and other geological sites of significance and marine ecosystems. The resulting 1986 compilation was never published but influenced conservation priorities for decades, including new laws on threatened species, land clearing and off-reserve protection.

Peter’s photographic memory was tested when we filmed him for three hours in front of a map of NSW describing hundreds of new reserve proposals, most of which are now reserves. An example of his political persuasive skills was when he accompanied a National Party Minister in the NPWS helicopter over what became the 200,000-hectare Goulburn River National Park.

In 1985 Peter instigated a botanical survey of the NSW northern wheatbelt to address the rapid loss of inland woodlands. He would be disappointed that clearing continues with ecosystems lost.

Much has been written about the 1982 NSW Rainforest Conservation decision by the Wran Government: perhaps Peter’s greatest NSW achievement. It made national headlines including in The Bulletin magazine on 13 March 1984. The NSW National Parks Association was among many who played a role.

Saving rainforest involved a combination of biological knowledge and policy. From the mid-1970s, Peter seconded the Forestry Commission’s rainforest botanist Alex Floyd to NPWS to survey rainforest from Queensland to Victoria delivering a qualitative “sub-alliance” classification and distribution maps. Concurrently, in 1979, Peter wrote the NPWS Rain Forest Policy that combined the botanical survey findings with policies to protect different types of rainforest across NSW. The Policy coincided with protest actions at Terania Creek and the Big Scrub so it provided the Wran Government with a way to resolve the conflict. Subsequently, Peter supervised the development of a World Heritage nomination of both NSW and South East Queensland rainforests, inscribed in 1986.

The NSW rainforest conservation decision broke ground for conservation achievements elsewhere in Australia including the Franklin River, Tasmanian forests, Fraser Island, Wet Tropics and reserves in Western Australian Karri and Jarrah forests.

Peter’s minority “Helsham Inquiry” report to the Hawke Federal Government on Tasmanian forests and additional advice in 2012, contributed to the protection of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The conservationist Alec Marr stated at Peter’s funeral that its boundary is Peter’s. Alec Marr also revealed that the Federal Government enlisted Peter to resolve the Jabiluka Uranium mine dispute on the Northern Territory.

In 1991, Peter left the NSW Public Service, moving to Cairns to establish the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) and confronted by no office, no staff and a hostile Queensland Government. He used his remote sensing skills to mark-up the scattered boundaries of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area as the basis of a management plan. As the current head of the WTMA has stated, there would be no WTMA without Peter’s efforts. Today, an arrival at Cairns airport is greeted by displays on tropical rainforest, and associated eco-tourism contributes $450 million annually to the regional economy.  

After leaving the WTMA in 1996, Peter worked as a consultant on UNESCO World Heritage and IUCN environmental assessments – including in Madagascar, Lebanon, Indonesia and New Guinea. Preventing the destruction of rainforest in Borneo and New Guinea was hampered by entrenched corruption.

Peter was a kind and respectful person distributing credit to others for achievements. Battling cancer in his final years he was writing a book on the origin, management and threats to tall eucalypt forests of Australasia. He was concerned about threats to them from clearing, over-burning and overlogging.

We should maintain Peter’s legacy of pursuing a comprehensive conservation reserve system, forest protection and World Heritage listings, based on the best scientific knowledge.

Peter is survived by his wife Liana, brother Dave, sister Pauline and five children. A memorial service is planned to take place in Werrikimbe National Park in late 2019.

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