Every region in Australia needs protecting by an environment centre. This is especially true for the Sutherland Shire – one of the most remarkable local government regions in Australia. It is home to a host of natural features: the two great bays, Port Hacking and Botany Bay; three of Sydney’s six rivers, four national parks including the oldest in the world; many of Sydney’s best beaches; and the place where Aboriginal and European cultures first met.
For over 60,000 years before Cook’s arrival, Aboriginal people lived a deep connection with Australia’s unique natural environment. They cared for and continue to care for country. Dharawal people are reported by the First Fleet diarists to have assembled muttering, shouting and making obscene gestures when Phillip’s sailors indiscriminately chopped down trees on Kurnell. We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this Land, the Dharawal and Gandangara peoples, and recognise that Aboriginal Sovereignty has never been ceded.
Sutherland Shire Environment Centre was born following a Writing for the Environment course, held in Sutherland in 1991 by local historian, publisher and environmental activist, Bob Walshe (1923-2018). A few inspired participants banded together, intending to put the lessons from the course to good use.
After the launch of the Environment Centre on the 22 July, 1991 it wasn’t long before its founding members were hard at work on their first campaign. It was to be the first of many successes. Through the intervening years, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre volunteers have been in the forefront of many campaigns on behalf of environmental protection in and around Sutherland Shire:
- the expansion of Lucas Heights Waste Depot as Sydney’s ‘Megatip’, 1992
- a Helensburgh expansion that would have polluted the Royal National Park, 1994
- the Metromix proposal to mine huge quantities of sand off-shore from Botany Bay, Cronulla and the Royal National Park, 1994
- siting of Sydney’s second airport at Holsworthy, 1997
- a co-generation plant at Kurnell that would have damaged Botany Bay, 1998
- construction of the M6 which would split the Shire in two
- development of 3000 homes in West Menai
Bob Walshe passed away on 6 March, 2018. A tribute to Bob, “An Activist for all Seasons”, by Rowan Cahill, gives a heartfelt overview of his life, “his modesty, his kindness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence”:
Few knew the full extent of his activism and impacts, because the thing about Bob was he was not a walking CV; his activism was not ego-driven in the modern ‘selfie’ sort of way. Rather he helped others to become the people they could become, and let them take the credit warranted. Writing in 2002, Alan Barcan described Bob as “a model activist”, while Terry Irving and I writing in 2016 attempted to capture him and his activism by describing him as “the most famous person you do not know”.
Sutherland Shire Library has a wonderful oral history interview with Bob Walshe from 2006. He talks about his early life, his work as a local teacher, then an author, publisher, historian and environmental advocate.
The Leader tribute to Bob notes he was twice named Sutherland Shire Citizen of the Year, and the role he played in establishing the Total Environment Centre in 1972.
Bob Walshe and Barry Collier OAM, Sutherland Shire councillor, and former State Miranda MP (1999-2011, and then 2013-15), had quite different perspectives on a number of issues over the years. But in a tribute to Bob at a Sutherland Shire Council meeting in 2018 following Bob’s passing, Councillor Collier wrote:
An incredibly gifted, and yet humble man of genuine caring and compassion, Bob Walsh OAM understood, perhaps better than most, the importance of preserving, restoring and protecting our precious environment for the present and future generations of Australians…. Few of us here in the Shire have not been touched in some way by Bob’s work – and all of us in the Shire, I know, will benefit from his legacy. This extraordinary person; this outstanding Shire citizen of vision and achievement – Bob Walshe – walked softly across this land of the Dharawal people, and he left it a better place than he found it.
Bob was extraordinary, but the aim is to keep his vision and commitment alive. Sutherland Shire Environment Centre is a legacy that reflects his care for the Shire, his support of local community and community organisations in their efforts to protect and improve their local, natural environments.
Sutherland Shire Environment Centre’s campaigns are all run by volunteers. Recently we’ve focused on raising awareness of the risks of climate change, threats to our water supply from coal mining, wildlife corridors, protecting koala habitat, helping Sutherland Shire stay plastic free. Please see our campaigns page for more details.
Our website has a number of older webpages with information about different areas in Shire, the Hacking River Catchment, Kurnell Peninsula, and Towra Point. Some of these pages were written at a time when the internet was new. Updating them is an ongoing project. But they are still valuable, and detail some of the issues Bob and other members of the Centre focused on in previous years.
Barry Collier OAM recently wrote a beautiful tribute poem about climate change from Bob’s perspective. He highlights the environmental changes and damage he has also seen and felt in the Shire over the years, wondering what Bob Walshe would say if he was with us today. What would Bob say about climate change?
A message from Bob…
That’s right! It’s Bob Walshe here
in the Shire, again raising a stink
with my message for you sceptics
the earth we know is on the brink.
It’s time you all stopped listening
to those crazy shock-jock blokes:
they’re all lying when they tell you
that climate change is just a hoax.
Time to think now for yourselves,
of the changes you’ve seen in life:
since you started out in primary,
until now, today as man and wife.
What happened to the winter frosts
always blanketing your front lawn?
Why aren’t there so many Magpies
calling to you just before the dawn?
Now where have all the frogs gone?
Blue tongues left the backyard too!
The spiders, flies and all the insects
seem to have vanished with the dew.
Wattle blooms early every year now,
gone are the weeks of soaking rain,
slugs and snails just can’t be found
and birds aren’t nesting once again.
The droughts are now lasting longer,
the temperature is rising every year,
our cyclones are now much stronger,
our bushfires becoming more severe.
Have a good look around the globe:
the glaciers are now melting quick,
the mountain air’s no longer fresh:
our world is continuing to get sick!
Rich nations all have a solemn duty:
getting their carbon footprints down
and stopping sea levels rising higher
before the tiny island nations drown.
Don’t say it can’t matter in Australia,
that we don’t contribute much at all;
we add greenhouse gasses of our own:
we too must heed nature’s frantic call!
To those who strive to clear our land,
it’s high time each of you understood:
the trees which now stand in your way
provide us all with more than firewood.
Our koalas have made it to the shortlist
their few habitats are now declining fast:
the way our Aussie natives are all going
they’ll join those Tassie Tigers of the past.
And along our once great Murray-Darling
you’ll find townsfolk still climate denying-
despite the drought and the algae blooms,
and those puddles with fish slowly dying.
It’s time to stop and listen to all the kids-
you hold their very future in your hands:
the environment you’ll soon leave behind
must be first amongst your current plans.
Come on, you State and Federal pollies,
speak up, united with the loudest voice;
the climate debate’s well and truly over,
our earth has now left you with no choice.
Get together now, all you world leaders:
bring the power each of you commands,
put aside your differences, speak as one:
our survival is now firmly in your hands!
* * * *
Walk softly as you cross this timeless land
thankful; with grace and wonder as you do
taking care to leave the Shire a better place
for those who will one day, walk it after you.
© Barry Collier, 2021