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Not beating about the bush

Whereas some people can’t see the wood for the trees, the Australian Bush Heritage Fund (ABHF) glories in its vision to conserve Australia’s rich biodiversity. CEO Doug Humann says the group’s slogan is, ‘We don’t beat about the bush, we buy it!’

‘The ABHF is a national, independent, non-profit organisation committed to preserving Australia’s biodiversity by protecting the bush, and is Australia’s most widely supported national organisation dedicated to protecting species and habitats through the creation of reserves on private land,’ says Humann. It’s a hell of a mouthful, but then the ABHF is quite an organisation.

Thirteen years on from when Dr Bob Brown founded the ABHF by going into debt for $250,000 to buy two blocks near Liffey, in Tasmania, the much-vaunted organisation now has an annual turnover of more than $3 million, a highly skilled staff of 15 and a multi-talented board of unpaid directors.

ABHF reserves are now protecting some 345,680ha of Australia’s conservation lands, which include examples of 131 vegetation communities, 50 vegetation communities of conservation significance, 64 species of plants of conservation significance and 43 species of birds or animals at risk. However, rather than simply make purchases, the ABHF administers an extensive land-management program that includes ecosystem restoration, feral animal and weed monitoring and control, fuel-reduction burning, maintenance of firebreaks, tracks, fencing, revegetation, flora and fauna surveys, native bird research, vegetation mapping, repairs and improvements to infrastructure, and maintenance of walking tracks and signage. The group is that it is effectively taking over from the state and federal governments in preserving large-scale natural heritage areas of Australia that might not otherwise be protected.

‘The ABHF is a brilliant idea and is being brilliantly executed,’ says patron Phillip Adams. ‘Why spend half a million on a landscape painting when, for a lot less, you can help buy the landscape? And save it from destruction!’ The broadcaster reckons that we should all get behind it and then hang a photo (or painting) of the salvaged landscape on the wall.

‘I hate to think how few of the landscapes painted by Streeton, McCubbin and the rest exist today, in recognisable form,’ he adds. ‘Think about it. Bush Heritage actually saves the bush, not just a dead painter’s impression of it, and that makes it as important as the National Gallery.’

It’s a leviathan task by any measure, and the man at the helm of this dynamic organisation combines a passion for the bush with a stalwart level of professionalism.

Passionate about the bush since he was a child, Doug Humann has spent the greater part of his life working towards its preservation. ‘My family had a long history of going to the bush and camping,’ he recalls.

From 1990–97 Humann was director of Victoria’s largest member-based nature conservation organisation, the Victorian National Parks Association. During that time he worked primarily to improve the public reserve system in Victoria. In 1997 he was named Wild Environmentalist of the Year and is currently a member of the World Conservation Union Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas.

When he left school for university and teaching, Humann volunteered with the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Victorian National Parks. After graduating with honours in geography, he taught for a decade at a Melbourne secondary school. He was working part-time and house-husbanding full-time when an opportunity came up with the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA).

‘The VNPA is a lobby group for state-run parks and reserves and I was their first paid director for seven years,’ he explains. Humann’s role during that time was centred mostly on advocacy, as the VNPA is Victoria’s leading independent member-based conservation organisation. During his time there, Humann helped the independent, non-profit, membership-based group to realise its visions by facilitating strategic campaigns and education programs and developing policies—and through hands-on conservation work.

He was approached early in 1997 to apply for the newly created role as executive officer of ABHF. The ABHF had made the decision to assume a higher national and international profile and to broaden the scope of its work. Recently relocated to Melbourne, it attracts staff, volunteers and supporters who are genuinely motivated by the organisation’s aims.

The organisation’s work is vital, as Australia has not only one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in the world, but also, according to UN figures, one of the world’s highest rates of land clearing—comparable to the worst Asian, African, and South American deforestation rates.

‘Many important areas of native vegetation and wildlife habitat are on private land and are under threat from clearing or degradation, which is endangering the survival of Australia’s unique native species,’ says Humann.

ABHF’s aims resonate with many Australians. According to a recent annual report, it raised more than $5.58 million through donations and bequests, an increase of 131 per cent on the previous year.

The number of donors increased by 31 per cent on the previous year, and more than 12,000 people have now supported Bush Heritage. Its patrons include broadcaster Phillip Adams, musician Roger Woodward, country singer John Williamson, designer Jenny Kee, peace activist Jo Vallentine and Dr Bob Brown. The Australian Greens’ Senator for Tasmania who founded the ABHF in 1990, was its president from 1990–96 and a board member until 1997. 

So why is the ABHF so popular? ‘Generally people are looking for alternative and practical and efficient ways of conserving biodiversity,’ says Humann. ‘We feel that, in general, people have been discouraged with what the Government is doing, and what we have demonstrated through mass media and word of mouth is that we can very radically affect outcomes by buying back the bush.

‘We have a set of processes to be able to identify, assess, then acquire, and people see that the land is ensured a long-term survival of the species. People respond to the practical aspects and there is considerable respect for the organisation’s ability to manage these properties as they should be.’

Humann says the ABHF currently has 18 reserves in five states, ranging from small pockets of just four hectares to one vast spread of more than 200,000ha, but all contain highly sensitive species and habitats.
‘Our newest property is the 344ha Judith Eardley Reserve located in north-central Victoria from the foothills to the summit of Mt Kerang,’ he says with enthusiasm. The reserve was the result of a generous gift from the Judith Eardley Save Wildlife Association and hosts an array of threatened species that now have a much brighter future.

‘These grassy woodlands are one of the most threatened plant communities in Victoria, and home to an array of woodland birds such as hooded robins, brown treecreepers, diamond firetails and black-chinned honeyeaters.’

As well as purchasing larger properties such as Ethabuka, a reserve of 213,000ha on the northern edge of the Simpson Desert National Park in western Queensland, ABHF also looks to acquiring smaller areas.
‘We have bought some smaller-scale reserves of less than 1000ha in strategic habitats,’ says Humann.
‘We seek to obtain areas with high conservation values that the government either can’t or won’t act on to preserve.’

However, the ABHF does relinquish some land. The Deal and Erith islands, in Bass Strait, which were both lease-purchased, were later relinquished to the Tasmanian government to facilitate the declaration of the Kent Group National Park, which manages these areas.

‘It’s a conundrum when you have a private organisation acting in this way,’ Humann agrees. But he believes that it’s the only way to achieve adequate nature conservation between private and public organisations.
‘It’s always a concern that we are taking away responsibility from government.’ Humann admits, although he acknowledges that the government does not have the resources and ability to do it all. ‘The national conservation reserve system still needs to be enhanced because if we were not active, then important natural values would be lost.’

Humann stresses that the ABHF seeks to build and maintain positive relationships with state governments to deliver good conservation management across different areas.

‘It’s not about one part of society taking ultimate responsibility, it’s all about everyone taking a joint responsibility,’ he says. ‘It’s vital to avoid the “us and them” paradigm. Therefore we work with other partners when we can to share information and knowledge to create better natural landscapes.’

Humann agrees that other conservation organisations provide valuable work and are considered allies rather than competitors. ‘We all need to work collectively to ensure our different skills are used in the most effective manner,’ he says.

As well as the hands-on work, ABHF has established dialogue with many interested parties. During 2003, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indigenous Land Corporation to establish a framework for the two groups to work together to conserve and enhance the natural environment and indigenous heritage sites of significance on ILC and ABHF properties.

ABHF welcomes volunteers in the field and maintains a register for those interested in participating in events on its reserves such as weed control, seed collection, revegetation and planting projects. It is a not-for-profit organisation, and people can make a tax-deductible donation. There are also a number of other ways to get involved.

All these years later, Bob Brown is as ardent as ever about ABHF’s mission:

These hundreds of thousands of hectares across Australia are rich in rare fauna and flora: frogs, orchids, ferns, beetles, kangaroos and platypuses. Each reserve is part of a rapidly disappearing Australia which is under threat from land clearing, urban sprawl, global warming and introduced pests and diseases, and the ABHF properties are strongholds for the nation’s wildlife, managed by a remarkably lively and dedicated staff who obviously enjoy their work.  

Alison Aprhys is a freelance writer and photojournalist whose last article for Eureka Street, ‘Page Turner’, appeared in the October 2004 issue. For more information, visit www1.bushheritage.asn.au



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