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Brookes, John Dougan (1921–2004)

by Jane Lennon

from Watch (Victorian National Parks Association)

John Dougan Brookes died on 24 August [2004]. He was director of National Parks from 1975 to 1979 and guided the expansion of the parks estate following the passage of the National Parks Act 1975. While retaining traditional national parks, this landmark legislation enabled the Service to manage a range of other parks and reserves — coastal, recreational, educational and historic — in line with the Land Conservation Council recommendations for managing conservation values across a wide range of land types. The 1975 Act also abolished the committees of management which led to direct management of the parks by an expanded National Parks Service. A district structure was created to oversee daily operations under an expanded ranger service and head office supplied the specialist services.

Born on 29 June 1921, John Brookes grew up at Flinthill, Woodend and was educated at Geelong Grammar. He interrupted his university studies and enlisted in the Army in 1941 rising to the rank of Captain in the 57/60th Australian Infantry Battalion and was awarded a Military Cross for his role in the New Guinea campaigns, which had an indelible effect on his life. After the war he obtained a Master of Science in botany with his study of the ecology of Mountain Ash in the Wallaby Creek catchment, north of Melbourne. He then worked with the family company, Australian Paper Mills, for nearly two decades and became technical director.

Fortunately, being a member of the National Parks Advisory Committee from the early 1970s, John knew first hand the problems facing the expanding new National Parks Service. He was a believer in team work and clear lines of command and saw his job as ‘leading the troops’, getting the financial and Public Service resources and arguing constantly at the LCC for more or better representation of conservation reserves to be managed by the NPS. He used his ‘top end of town’ connections and membership of the Melbourne Club to that end. Fire protection and suppression in parks was a big issue with the expanding estate and he developed the NPS fire fighting capability dealing with local Country Fire Authority brigades and having plans signed off by a high level Forests Commission and CFA committee.

While building up an efficient and respected National Park Service, John regailed us with Latin quotes on his return from particularly difficult ‘battles’ with Treasury, the Public Service Board or the Forests Commission and compared himself to Sisyphus with his uphill struggles! He gave Don Saunders, as deputy director, full rein to implement new ideas for planning and interpretation, while he concentrated the newly-won resources on upgrading facilities at Wilsons Promontory – the new Yanakie entrance station and housing complex, Tidal River and its water supply and sewerage, new visitor centre and motor huts – and at Mt Buffalo following the government acquisition of Tatra Inn.  He drove around the State constantly urging on the staff, meeting shire councils and inspecting public lands in advance of LCC tours of inspection. He was a strong believer in the Service running its own assets to achieve environmental standards and reinforced the policy of Conservation Minister, Bill Borthwick: …that buying back a long lease which should never have been granted is just another sharp reminder that conservation policies must be far sighted and well founded. A trickle of ill-judged compromise soon becomes a lake of regret (The Age, 21 May 1975). Prophetic words indeed in these days of public asset sales, which John deplored.

Concerned that only one quarter of parks had management plans, a requirement under the 1975 Act, he instigated a rapid process of IMPS, interim management plans, so that he could answer any politician questioning park directions at a time when he was busy lobbying for the 1978 amendments to the Act, which delivered six new State Parks increasing the park estate to nearly 774,000 hectares. He also secured the staff and resources to manage this fourfold increase with staff numbering 420 when he left to become Director of Conservation during 1979. This position allowed him to continue his ‘campaigns’ with other agency directors on the LCC and positioned the NPS for the addition of the icon parks – the Mallee Parks, the Grampians, and the Alpine National Park under the Cain Labor government in the 1980s.

John was a competitive skier and sailor racing his Adams 10 Athena Prometheus from the Royal Melbourne Yacht Club. From his mother in her cool climate garden at Flinthill, he learnt about plants and further developed his love of gardens with his wife Marian. Family friends, the Ansells gave their garden, Pirianda in the Dandenongs to the National Parks Service during John’s time as director. But John’s great love was fly fishing, an enchantment which captured him in his youth and culminated in his fascinating history of these endeavours, especially in the Tasmanian Great Lakes. This history book, Lifelong Pleasure, was launched just eleven days before his death. He taught his family and friends to fly fish and practised with beginners at Brookwood, his grazing property on the edge of the Heytesbury Forest. John Brookes is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. He will be remembered by all for his striving for excellence.

John Brookes’ legacy was laying the foundations for a solid park system in the 1970s and creating a professional parks service. Following his retirement from the Ministry for Conservation in 1982, John continued to work for conservation behind the scenes as a member of the Ross Trust until 1997. The Trust funded some major additions to the parks system –at Arthurs Seat, Mallacoota and the Otways - and also continued to fund technical training for Melanesian students, an interest of John’s since his Army service in New Guinea and the islands.

Vale to a patrician warrior

Original publication

  • Watch (Victorian National Parks Association), no 219, December 2004, pp 13, 26

Other Obituaries for John Dougan Brookes

Citation details

Jane Lennon, 'Brookes, John Dougan (1921–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/brookes-john-dougan-19125/text30703, accessed 22 November 2017.

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