“Our Rarest Human Asset”

Photo: Rob Blakers

First published in Tasmania 40 South, No. 83


In October 2016, a full day symposium was held at the University of Tasmania to celebrate the achievements of Distinguished Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick. He has been awarded the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research and an Order of Australia for service to forest and world heritage conservation, but his influence is so much greater than his awards.

The geographer and conservation ecologist “measures his success by the new things he discovers that allow us to better protect the natural world, and by how much they are used to do so.” The event was also a celebration of Jamie’s 70 years on the planet, over 40 of which he has worked for the University of Tasmania in a number of roles, including Head of School.

According to Jamie, if human beings had not started burning fossil fuels, and destroying the forests of the world, the earth would be sliding into yet another glacial period. The warmth, wetness and acidity we have created through this clearance and combustion is one of the many ways we threaten the natural world, and impact is still increasing.

How can we ensure that ecological systems and natural diversity outlast fossil fuels to enrich the future? This question has become his life’s work.

12 years ago, I was still a student of that School and now I am wandering anew through the sliding glass doors and into the building again, this time to interview Professor Kirkpatrick. The Geography and Environmental Studies School seems not to have changed since I left. What a relief! Of my studies in many buildings across two different universities, this was by far the best place to be. The atmosphere, purpose, debate and solidarity within it was unlike any other I experienced. There is a sound I still recall clearly from my time in this building all those years ago – the sudden rapturous laugh of Jamie Kirkpatrick.

I recall too, being a student on an eight day field trip led by Jamie to study, and learn how to study ecology. How does one study diversity and abundance of different species and monitor change? What are all these hundreds of species? The pipe-smoking professor, with ‘that laugh’ seemed to know the answers – the students revered him.


His science rolls through the moorland;

the clues decoded


Jamie was brought up in Moorabin, Victoria. The local quarry was the most exciting place to play, but his parents loved taking him to natural places on the weekends. “My parents were the kiss of death – they took me to all these beautiful places and it was as if they were immediately followed by packs of developers who went in and destroyed them.”

He became fascinated by the bush and interested in maps – making plant geography a perfect fit. In the early Seventies, Jamie was tutoring at the University of Melbourne and finalising his PhD in the genecology and ecology of Eucalyptus globulus when he applied for a job at the University of Tasmania. Having been to Tasmania for his PhD, he was extremely pleased to be offered a job on an island of such “wonderful, helpful people.”

In 1983, Jamie wrote a pioneering paper on a method for optimising areas for reservation. The paper earned him an international profile in conservation planning. Since then, he has advised government and non-government organisations on policies and strategies that have contributed to improving reserve systems, managing protected areas and species conservation.

Reservation for the protection of biodiversity and ecological processes is complex. “To plan a reserve system, we have to identify the areas that are important today, the areas that will be important in the future, and the ways to manage these reserves to maintain their systems.”

Jamie is not only interested in conservation of natural areas, but in maintaining nature in our farms, production forests and urban areas as well. His research spans ecology, pedology, geomorphology, climatology, political geography, social geography and cultural geography.

His scholarly publications number in the hundreds, which are in addition to reports, chapters, maps and coffee table books. He has supervised and mentored hundreds of students, including over 50 PhD candidates and over 100 honours and masters students.

“Some of my students have now retired!” He laughs proudly.

The knowledge and enthusiasm imparted to so many students has travelled far and wide, with the sum of his influence on so many people undoubtedly forming a huge contribution towards greater human harmony with the natural world.

The School of Geography and Environmental Studies was not only a great environment to learn, but thanks to Jamie and many other passionate people over the years, it has also been a major influence on public debate in Tasmania, and a major contributor to the ‘bank of useful knowledge.’ Jamie claims students of the School were critical to stopping genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being grown in Tasmania (now supported by all major parties in the State) and laughs about the fact that whole sections of some of the Tasmanian bureaucracy are former students of the School.

“Most departments are reductionist, looking at little parts of things, whereas we have always been more about issues of social, political and environmental value at a real world level. People and whole landscapes. There has also been an enthusiasm for improving the world in this School.”

This has also attracted dedicated students and staff from far and wide to study, teach and research within the School. There is a growing global interest in wilderness and environmental studies, and Tasmania has global credibility in the field. “We don’t get much research money though, because our research is seditious! Ha ha ha.” There goes that laugh again.

So, what makes Tasmanian ecology special?

“It’s an incredibly special place. We’ve got palaeoendemics that date back to the Cretaceous period in the alpine and sub alpine regions; a system of marsupial carnivores that don’t exist elsewhere; an amazing array of mid-sized marsupials that are still keeping the weeds out of our bush and digging up over 4% per annum creating very interesting niches; a high level of local endemism in our marine flora…”

Some of these ancient cretaceous species, such as Tasmania’s celebrated fagus, King Billy pine and pencil pine were what Jamie and many others feared losing last summer when unprecedented bushfires threatened their remaining strongholds. “Burning of eucalypt forest and even myrtle rainforest is not irreversible, they do come back. But pencil pines and the alpine stuff doesn’t really.”

“Those pines virtually live forever because they put out root suckers (you’ll see a big one then a smaller one nearby and then a smaller one again further away). These are basically the same plant, so they’re effectively immortal once they are established. But they are very fire sensitive, which is why they only survive generally on the edges of lakes and rivers.”

It’s another reason why Tasmania is so ecologically interesting, because on the other hand we have the button grass plains and moorlands that can be eliminated by a lack of fire.


He knows more, I say, of this island, it’s ticking pulse,

than any living soul.

He is – I thingify him now – 

our rarest human asset.


I asked Jamie why conservation is important. “Conservation constitutes the wise use of resources in the long term. Wise use depends on opinion of course, but in my opinion the central part of wise use is maintaining the diversity of life and geo-heritage on the planet we live on.”

He believes that National Parks and World Heritage Area are critically important. “If you live in a society like ours in which the prevailing point of view (though I am not sure if it’s shared by most of the people or just most politicians) is that the only thing that is really important is economic growth, then reserves are essential. If economic growth is your main goal, that requires knocking things down, digging them up, and so on. Unless you set a few things aside where this is not the prime goal, then every piece of nature will be destroyed. Basically, reserves are an attempt to ensure something can survive into the future.”

He tells me we have reached the stage where there should be no more clearing of previously uncleared land, we should simply be intensifying the use of areas we have already cleared. But we do clear more land, “because we do not compensate people for protection and nor do we appropriately tax windfalls generated from destruction.”

“Of course, now developers see these reserves as an opportunity and it is a challenge for government to say ‘no these places are for the plants, animals, land forms – inherent values – and not for you. And the economists say ‘there has to be a compromise’ – isn’t this already a pretty big compromise?”

The Tarkine, in Tasmania’s North-west, is a great example. It holds a large area of land that hasn’t been significantly modified since the European invasion of Tasmania. It contains large tracts of rainforest with natural brackish rivers, unique and threatened coastal species and of course, incredible archaeology. It is internationally important. Jamie believes there shouldn’t really be such conflict regarding World Heritage status for much of the area, because for over 80 per cent of the region there is no direct conflict between conservation and other uses.

“All the talk is about jobs and growth, jobs and growth, when what we should be talking about is de-growth and defining jobs that are meaningful into existence. If we want to have a planet and a reasonable life in future we’ve got to do that.”

“It’s pretty hard to see how our present society is going to survive, it’s just not possible. We need to go into a de-growth stage. We need to recognise that jobs are social fantasies, they’re not real things. We need to reduce our economic activity as much as we can to those activities – like square dancing – that don’t use any resources.” And there’s that roar of laughter again.

After such comments, I ask Jamie if he can imagine a future in which conservation is second nature in our society, and as such there will be no need for reserves and environmental groups and campaigns. Is he optimistic?

“Yes, it’s well and truly possible. I am very optimistic we will develop a sustainable and respectful society. When I think back over the years, we’ve come a long way already. Most individuals are inherently conservation-minded, but somehow as a society we excuse anything. But society is also capable of rapid change. We need to build up peoples’ understanding, so they can see we are part of, and dependent on, natural processes. And that there is nothing sacred about ‘the economy’.”


little needles of knowing push up

to probe of opacity of policy.

Science is a story among stories, oh yes,

but it is a tale with weight.

Below the mountain the scurriers after policy

are busy and urgent settling fates.

They nurture their unknowing with care

against the consequences.

The scientist pushes his needles

at bare opaque ground.

He works on.




Excerpts of poetry taken from:

Knowing the mountain moorland 

(For Jamie Kirkpatrick)

By Pete Hay, taken from his 2005 book of poetry Silently on the Tide.