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Unwin, Paul Thorp (1916–2008)

by Evan R. Rolley

Paul Unwin, n.d.

Paul Unwin, n.d.

Paul Unwin lived a disciplined and distinguished life over 92 years. He contributed much to the lives of those who lived and worked around him, particularly in his more than four decades of service to forestry in Tasmania. With Paul’s passing last month the profession can celebrate another passionate post war leader who like the famed American Forester Gifford Pinchot believed we should “eliminate waste and maximise the benefits (to society) of resource use. Natural resources should be used for the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run”.

Born in Redding, England in May 1916, Paul’s family immigrated to Tasmania in 1923 where his father became Headmaster of the widely regarded Friends School. Paul was introduced to the forests of Tasmania as a young student by Professor Giblin. While bush walking in the forests of the South West Professor Giblin observed to Paul that the profession of forestry was just beginning in Australia and if he enjoyed the forests Paul should get in on the ground floor. Paul took up this challenge and took a job for life that he loved and never regretted.

Paul commenced his academic forestry studies at the University of Tasmania in 1934 and completed his tertiary training from the Forestry School in Canberra. He worked as a student in the Mawabana Forest youth camps on the North West coast and gained practical experience like most young foresters in forest survey, firefighting and field assessments. After 6 months studying sawmilling in country Victoria he returned to the Tasmanian Forestry Department and under Conservator Sam Steane began planning work for sustainable forest management that was to be the corner stone of his professional career.

In 1939 Paul was set the task of acquiring degraded farmlands in Northern Tasmania to fulfil the Departments dream of establishing a resource base for an integrated softwood processing industry to meet the growing local and national timber market needs. The large scale purchase of run down farms and adjacent bush blocks continued as a major thrust until the late 1940’s and provided the scale of planted land base for the future development of the softwood industries in Tasmania today.

The 1940’s and 1950’s were difficult times for forestry practice in Tasmania with very limited funds and small numbers of trained officers. Improving forest access, particularly for fire management and forest regeneration was a critical focus. Training staff and notably technical staff became a high priority for Paul Unwin. Paul’s commitment in this area of training underpinned the successes in forest regeneration and fire protection over successive decades in both the public and private sector in Tasmania.

Paul understood the vital importance of fire in the ecology of eucalypt forests and worked hard to change the prevailing private landowner’s view that “getting the red steer into the bush” was the best way to husband the land. Changing public attitudes to fire use remains a challenge to this day.

In all the Australian States at the time the post war priority was to meet the timber needs of the expanding economy. However the improved aerial survey work, ground assessments and modelling of sustained yield was suggesting that harvest levels for hardwood sawlogs had to be restrained and lowered. Paul Unwin took on this challenge through the variety of professional roles in the Forestry Commission and then most influentially as Chief Commissioner for Forests in Tasmania from 1971 to 1981. This work continues as the changing forest resource makeup and industry requirements for markets vary.

Paul Unwin as a leader for the profession In Tasmania understood that along with the sound technical practice and commitment to improved staffing resources was the need for good relations at the political level. Paul skilfully cultivated the necessary political attention needed for an effective public forestry agency. This has been vital to the prosperity and employment of thousands of workers in the timber industries and Paul was deservedly proud of this achievement. Paul promoted his forestry team and built a “forestry family” in Tasmania which has underpinned much of the subsequent success of forestry despite decades of unrelenting and often misguided public attacks.

Paul Unwin was from an era that saw the value of forests for the public good, particularly for meeting the needs of society for sustainable timber supplies. His total commitment to this view led him to apply his strong will and sharp mind to managing both the politics, the people and the forests for these socio-economic benefits. While this can be criticised by some it is also true that this provided the State with strong regional economic growth, opportunities for subsequent expanded parks and reserves that today exceed international benchmarks, 1 million hectares of oldgrowth forests for nature conservation, thousands of hectares of natural regrowth forest and the opportunities to use dedicated State Forest areas in subsequent decades for a range of multiple uses.

Following Paul Unwin’s retirement in the 1980’s he moved to Queensland with his wife Mary and continued his strong interests in the profession which included regular letters, phone calls and visits to Tasmania to remind his successors to “stay the distance” and work to expand the forest resource and the forest industry. Paul is remembered fondly by all of us who worked with him as part of the forestry team. The legacy of well managed and protected regrowth forests, a consolidated plantation base and an integrated timber processing sector is a fine tribute to his memory.

Original publication

  • Forester, vol 51, no 4, 2008, pp 25-26

Additional Resources

Citation details

Evan R. Rolley, 'Unwin, Paul Thorp (1916–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/unwin-paul-thorp-19010/text30613, accessed 25 September 2017.

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