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Harris, Allan Cuthbert (1904–1996)

The death occurred in Perth on 15 May 1996 of Allan Harris, aged 92 years, former Conservator of Forests of the Forests Department of Western Australia. He was perhaps the last of a very distinguished group of Australian-born and trained foresters who virtually established forestry in this country, along with other luminaries such as Geoff Rodger, Kim Kessell, and Brian Bednall, to name just a few. It was this group, following on from Ednie-Brown and Lane-Poole, both were trained overseas, who virtually established forestry in Australia.

Allan Cuthbert Harris was born in South Australia in 1904, and graduated in Forestry from Adelaide University, and came to WA in 1926. He served at various forest districts in the South West and was the commanding officer of the forestry battalion of the volunteer defence force during the second world war. He left the Department in 1946 to join the Wundowie Charcoal-Iron industry, serving as its General Manager from 1948 until 1953, when he returned to lead it as Conservator of Forests. He had become a world authority on the charcoal iron and wood distillation industries and after retirement in 1969 maintained a keen interest in forestry and charcoal iron matters until well into his eighties. He served in several countries as a consultant for FAO.

Allan was a forceful personality, and not one to suffer fools gladly. His drive and sense of vision enabled him to achieve a great deal in forestry development in Western Australia, breaking through considerable obstacles on the way. He was responsible for the reversing the policy of attempted fire exclusion from WA forests that had been practised for 30 years prior to 1953, and replacing it with fuel reduction by prescribed burning.

In the early years of this change he faced considerable criticism from some foresters who regarded him as something of a heretic. However, the findings of the Royal Commission into the disastrous wildfires in Western Australia in 1961 fully vindicated his policies. He later provided the impetus for the development of aerial ignition for operational prescribed burning in Western Australia, a world first that has subsequently been adopted in other parts of the globe.

He was a strong advocate of multiple use forestry who very clearly saw the forester’s calling as one of stewardship. He promoted the view that forestry was also about conservation before this became fashionable. In his Presidential Address at the 1968 Institute Conference in Perth, he made such a point of this that the Governor of WA, who had opened the Conference, said to Allan “Nice speech, Harris, but weren’t you being a bit sentimental there?”

Within the Forests Department, Harris was known as hard man who ran a very tight ship. To young foresters he was a larger than life character with an acerbic tongue who demanded high standards of performance. But he was also a doughty fighter for forestry against the unending pressure for alienation of forest land for agriculture. Had it not been for his continuous fight against agricultural interests for the dedication of remaining vacant crown land in the South West as State forest, the public forest estate would have been much smaller than it is now.

He was a man of wide interests. In his younger days, he was a keen motorcycle rider and was associated with the Harley Davidson Club for many years. He was also a very good chess player, being State chess champion in 1938 and a Life member of the Perth Chess Club. He had a strong interest in Australian football and was President of the Perth Football Club from 1962 to 1965.

As Conservator of Forests he was a strong supporter of the Institute of Foresters, and made a point of arranging staff meetings on Fridays so that everyone could be together for an Institute meeting that evening. He served as State Chairman and national President 1967–1969. He was made a Fellow of the Institute and was awarded the N.W. Jolly Medal in 1967, the Institute’s highest award for excellence. In April 1990, he was one a group of four foresters from Western Australia recognised for their 50 years of membership of the IFA.

Allan Harris was to many the epitome of the professional ideal put forward by Francis Bacon, namely “I hold every man a debtor to his profession, that as he doth expect to receive countenance and profit therefrom, so ought he endeavour to be a help and ornament thereto.”

He is survived by his wife Joy, and children Greg, Lyn and Jan.

Original publication

  • IFA Newsletter, vol 37, no 3, June 1996, p 35

Additional Resources

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Citation details

'Harris, Allan Cuthbert (1904–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/harris-allan-cuthbert-18448/text30093, accessed 21 November 2017.

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