Honour due to green belt visionary

Saturday, 4th March, 2017

Lilian Pearce in the regeneration area just off the Silverton road. Ms Pearce is a scientist who is researching “the regen” and she says the city should be proud of its place in world history. PICTURE: Craig Brealey Lilian Pearce in the regeneration area just off the Silverton road. Ms Pearce is a scientist who is researching “the regen” and she says the city should be proud of its place in world history. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

To us it’s just “the regen” but to environmentalists the world over it is among the first and greatest achievements in restoring a blasted landscape to its natural state.

The regeneration area’s only rival to the claim of being the first attempt at large-scale land restoration was in the United States in the 1930s, and that was at the same time that Broken Hill amateur botanist Albert Morris began his work to enclose the city in a protective “green belt” of native flora.

Now, nearly 80 years after his death, Morris is about to be officially honoured in his home town by scientists and environmentalists from all over the nation.

In his time, Broken Hill was almost devoid of greenery. All of the native timber had been used by the mines or to build homes. Everything else had been eaten by sheep and rabbits. There was nothing to hold the shallow soil together and the dust blew into town and formed huge sand drifts, often metres deep against the houses and fences. 

That such conditions are well in the past is due to Morris’ plan being perfect from the start - if it had failed, we would still living in a barren, dust-blown wasteland, or there might be no-one here at all. 

But ecologists and naturalists everywhere know his story, and soon they will be in Broken Hill to honour him with a posthumous award.

This week members of the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators and others have been searching the city’s archives and elsewhere for everything they can find about Morris and the history of the regeneration area.

This is in preparation for the posthumous honour that will be awarded to Albert Morris in the spring. They hope to establish it as a prize for environmental achievements and he will be its first recipient.

Among the visitors this week was Lilian Pearce who is writing a history of environmental restoration for her PhD at the Australian National University.

As the human population grows and the natural world becomes ever more degraded, the world has much to learn about Morris and the city that backed his plan to the hilt, said Ms Pearce who has been to the city several times for her research. 

He did not live to see the results of the work he started in 1936; a brain tumour killed him three years later at the age of 52.

“Although he died early, his work was continued by his wife, Margaret, the Zinc Mine, City Council and volunteers,” Ms Pearce said.

Today the council, the local volunteer-run Landcare group and others keep up the good work and seek to repair the damage done to the regen by some who might not know its history or recognise its worth.

“In arid areas, local ecosystems don’t look like they’re thriving. Because the land is so tough, it hard to appreciate the beauty,” said Ms Pearce.

“Parts of the regeneration are doing really well. It has really evolved in the way the Morrises understood it would.

“But other parts have a very fragile soil crust that can be damaged by vehicles driving through, dirt bikes, invasive species and rubbish being dumped there.

“The message to get across is that we should care for it and feel proud about how special it is, ecologically and historically, to life in Broken Hill today.”

Part of that history is that while Morris’ regeneration idea was being put into practice by the Zinc Mine, an almost identical plan was being tried in America.

“In the 1930s, at the same time in Madison, Wisconsin they were beginning the first large-scale restoration of land in the USA, and for the same reason; dust storms and sand were making life inhospitable.”

Morris’ regeneration trial on a nine-hectare block at the Zinc worked so well that within 18 months all of the other mines had joined it and soon the city was surrounded by a band of land planted with native grasses, shrubs and trees protected by rabbit-proof fencing. 

“The Morrises saw that, under the right conditions and leaving nature to itself, it could heal itself,” said Ms Pearce.

“This is the philosophy underpinning ecological restoration to this day.”