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Beggs, Bruce James (1928–2013)

by John Clarke

Foresters, family, friends, politicians and colleagues gathered in Perth on April 27th to pay tribute at the passing of Bruce Beggs, one of Australia’s greatest foresters.

Born at Dwellingup in 1928, the son of a forester, Bruce grew up in the heart of the jarrah forest and steeped in the forestry culture. He assumed responsibilities early, becoming head of the family at the age of 14 when his father died. Jimmy Beggs had been gassed in the trenches in WWI.

Bruce went on to study forestry at UWA and the AFS, graduating in 1950 and starting his career in the karri forest at Pemberton as an ADFO—the bottom rung of the professional staff of the Forests Department. Only twenty-two years later in 1972 he was appointed to the highest rung, as Western Australia’s Conservator of Forests.

During those intervening years he had served as DFO at Dwellingup, as a regional Superintendent and Chief of the Division of Forest Protection. A milestone was his generalship in the field during the Dwellingup Fires in January 1961. He showed supreme courage in leading the fight against insuperable odds, and then tireless strategic skills in organising the evacuation of towns and farms on the great blow-up day. The burning of three towns in one night without the loss of a single life earned Bruce hero status.

He never forgot the lessons he learned in 1961. As Chief of Protection and Conservator he championed the fuel reduction burning program, the development of aerial burning and aerial fire detection and he supported investment in fire research. The culmination of all of this was that WA forests went to the forefront of bushfire management internationally.

Bruce Beggs was Conservator of Forests for ten years, a decade now looked back upon as the zenith of forestry in Western Australia. He took the department to a sound financial position, with an enlarged professional staff supported by a magnificent cadre of well-trained field officers and technical support. The research division blossomed, and there were numerous innovations in dieback management, health and safety, plantations, silviculture, recreation and community relations. He expanded regional operations to the Pilbara, the Kimberley and the south coast. The Forests Department became one of the strongest and most effective agencies in the public service, and its boss one of the most outstanding and respected public servants. Little wonder that when a new Premier came to office in 1982, one of his first appointments was Bruce Beggs as Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

In later years, after his retirement in 1985, Bruce retained his strong interests in forestry and in bushfire management. He was the Chair of the Lands and Forests Commission for several years, oversaw the sandalwood industry and sat on a number of boards and committees. He was a member and then Patron of the Bushfire Front to which he provided wise political advice and guidance. Although at times he despaired over the stark decline in forest and bushfire management in WA in recent years, he never lost his positive outlook. “The pendulum will swing” he used to say. Eventually he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, but although this affected his physical capacity, his mind remained sharp and active to the end, including his miraculous memory for facts, faces and names. Amongst his many honours were membership of the Imperial Service Order, and the Institute of Forester’s N. W. Jolly Medal. At his well-attended funeral service, Roger Underwood spoke on behalf of the forestry profession and Bruce’s staff in the Forests Department—

To us he was, simply, The Boss. A man
universally respected and admired, and who
we trusted to guide us and to look out for us.
Whatever the challenge, we knew he would
support us. We were his departmental family.

Beyond his leadership, and his demand that
we do our jobs to the highest professional
standards, Bruce was also seen by us as a
loyal and generous friend. Like all good
friends, he would share our tears as well as
our laughter.

Many people love the forest. Bruce Beggs’
unique contribution was that he not only
loved the forest, but that he had a vision
for its conservation and protection plus the
capacity to implement that vision.

He also loved forest people. It didn’t matter
whether they were the highest ranking forest
scientist, or the most humble forest workman.
His oft-repeated motto became our dictum:
“Forestry is not about trees, it is about
people”.

Bruce is known today as “The Last
Conservator”. In the view of his fellow-
foresters and his many associates in
government, industry, bushfire management
and the public service, he was also ... “The
Best Conservator”.

Bruce is survived by his wife Betty, daughters Anne, Lee and Kaye, nine grandchildren and a great granddaughter.

Original publication

  • Forester, vol 56, no 2, June 2013, pp 29-30

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Clarke, 'Beggs, Bruce James (1928–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/beggs-bruce-james-18194/text29765, accessed 25 September 2017.

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