My partner, Jane King, and I came to the Wet Tropics in the mid-seventies as dropouts from a society we thought was headed for environmental collapse and major social and economic upheaval. Our solution was to head for the bush, far away from the big population centres, where we could best survive such crises through self-sufficiency. Together we purchased 180 acres on Cooper Creek in the Daintree lowlands. Our land had a 25 acre clearing, sufficient for growing food, and the most beautiful stream we had ever seen along one boundary. The forest looked reasonably intact with large trees emerging above the canopy. When we moved here around a dozen families were living north of the Daintree and tourism comprised a single bus that visited three days a week. The ferry was out of action for repairs and maintenance for four to six weeks a year. We’d get bogged on the main road in the wet.
Although Jane and I understood the importance of conserving rainforest, we knew little of the particular values of the Daintree forests. We had been taught that the eucalypts and acacias were the ancient species of this continent and the rainforests were recent arrivals from New Guinea. However, the work of Len Webb and Geoff Tracey highlighted that Australian rainforests originated from Gondwana over 100 million years ago and that very similar flowering plants still grew here. The Daintree rainforests were the oldest on the planet.
When we emerged from isolation to become green activists we didn’t know these things. We just knew there was no respect for the conservation of these forests. There wasn’t even a national park at Cape Tribulation until 1981. The entire landscape had only just escaped wood chipping, thanks to Percy Tresize talking Joh Bjelke-Petersen out of it in a plane flight, but the forests were still available for logging, clearing and land releases.
The push for World Heritage listing began with the Daintree. Armed with the science that gave these forests an unbroken link to the Gondwana flowering plants, the case for World Heritage listing was a strong one and it became the opportunity to protect Wet Tropics rainforests covering 9,000km2 stretching between Cooktown and Townsville.
The idea of building a sustainable society that would prosper on its environmental values propelled Jane and I into the media and local politics. Earning a living and educating kids while trying to live simply and sustainably was hard on me, but much tougher for Jane. She jacked up and announced she was going to town to get a job, put our elder daughter in school and leave me at home to look after the younger two. I did my best, as best a male can do.
We worked hard and did well, despite no prior knowledge of papers, publishing or journalism. It was the hardest thing I ever did. After a few years I knew everyone – the business people, the community groups, the sporting bodies and, most of all, the councillors, about whom we reported mercilessly.
Despite being a greenie and being recently arrested, I was elected as Mayor of Douglas Shire in 1991. My years as mayor proved that a green economy could succeed in a shire that is 80 percent protected area. Tourism boomed to the point that we had to constrain growth to preserve the character of the shire, the first place in Australia to really challenge endless growth and do something about it.
Mike has a degree in biological science and a long history of working to conserve the Wet Tropics rainforests, particularly in the Daintree. He was mayor of Douglas Shire from 1991 to 2008 and led the way for local councils in achieving a balance between tourism, industry, agriculture and the environment. In 2008 Mike was awarded the Order of Australia for Service to conservation and the environment through initiatives supporting the preservation of the Daintree rainforest and far north Queensland, to local government, and to the community of Douglas Shire. He won a Cassowary Award for conservation in 2008. He is currently the Chair of Terrain NRM, Queensland’s representative on the National NRM Working Group, Chair of the Cape York Peninsula Regional Advisory Committee and Chair of the Tropical Landscape Joint Venture.
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