Dr Leonard J Webb

Obituary

October 28, 1920 November 25, 2008

Len Webb was widely acknowledged by his peers as the pioneer of Australian rainforest science.

By generations of conservationists and greenies, Len has been hailed for his determined commitment and contribution towards the preservation of Australian rainforests. He is well known and remembered in the local area because of his involvement in the Terania Creek rainforest logging dispute. To his family and many friends he was held in great esteem as a humanist, a humorist and a visionary.

A man of great capacity and humanity, Len Webb began his eventful life as the son of a drover and station cook. Born in Rockhampton, Len spent his earliest childhood years on a sheep station in Longreach, where both his parents were employed. He began his schooling through correspondence and completed it in 1956 with a PhD from the University in Queensland. His thesis focused on environmental studies in Australian rainforests.

This growing interest in rainforests stemmed from phytochemical survey work in the far northern tropics that Len had undertaken for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (a forerunner of the CSIRO) during WWII. These surveys were an attempt to find plant sources of drugs that were in short supply during the war years. This exposure to the tropical rainforest opened up a whole new world to Lens inquiring mind, and this quickly became a profound passion that would last for the whole of his life.

Len successfully lobbied the CSIRO to set up a Rainforest Ecology Research Unit, initially with him as the sole researcher. Later the unit was extended to include botanist Geoff Tracey. By this point in time, Len had turned his mind to the problems of rainforest vegetation classification and in 1959 he published the first physiognomic classification of Australian rainforests in the Journal of Ecology. Together, Len and Geoff went on to do some of the most important work in rainforest ecology and floristic sampling ever undertaken on this continent.

When Len first started his work in the rainforest many Australians were not even aware that rainforests occurred in Australia. Up to the 1960s rainforests were seen as not especially authentic or indigenous compared to eucalypt forests, and clearing them was seen as justified as well as profitable because they often occurred on good soils. Even in scientific circles the Australian rainforests were regarded as a recent and invasive element of the Southeast Asian flora. It was his work that showed Australian rainforests were not just a spill over from Malaysian forests, but indigenous and more ancient than the sclerophyll Australian flora. As a consequence, Lens work provided some of the most important and enduring insights into Australias bio-geographic history and the evolution of its flora and fauna.

His connection with the conservation movement dates back to the early sixties. Len played a key role in the development of community conservation activism. His advocacy and networking resulted in the formation and interaction of community conservation groups, and he was a critical source of support and information. Len was the key expert witness in several judicial enquiries, including the one for Terania Creek. These political and judicial processes occurred as a consequence of direct community action and led to the first of many substantial forest conservation outcomes in Australia.

He was the recipient of many awards. In 1983 he was awarded the first Gold Medal of the Ecological Society of Australia for his contribution to ecological research. In the same year, he received the 1983 ANZAAS Mueller Medal for conservation.

In 1984 he won the prestigious BHP Pursuit of Excellence Award for environment. The citation noted that Dr.Webb, regarded as the pioneer of rainforest ecology in Australia in modern times, has for long been seen as a consciousness raiser, an articulate communicator and a lucid interpreter of the rainforest.

He was awarded an AO (Order of Australia) in 1987.

Over the past four decades the politics and community perception of rainforests in Australia has been turned around. Len Webb was the single most important person in accomplishing this transformation.

We, and our local forests, offer him our profound thanks and our acclaim.

He is survived by his wife Doris, their two children, four grandchildren and three great grand children.

By Robert Kooyman and Madeleine Faught


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