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Peter Hitchcock: World Heritage trailblazer and environmental peacekeeper dies aged 75

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 24/05/2019 Marian Faa
Peter Hitchcock was the first executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority. © ABC News Peter Hitchcock was the first executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

An Australian environmentalist responsible for protecting millions of hectares of rainforest around the world is being remembered as a man with "wood in his blood", according to his family.

North Queensland man Peter Hitchcock died on Monday at the age of 75.

The son of a carpenter, Mr Hitchcock grew up across the road from a timber mill in northern New South Wales.

He became a renowned environmentalist who oversaw UNESCO World Heritage nominations across the globe and established some of Australia's first rainforest national parks.

His conservation roots took hold when he worked for the Forestry Commission of New South Wales.

Tasked with selecting some of the finest rainforest timber to be showcased in Parliament House, Mr Hitchcock decided the trees he was cutting should be protected for future generations to behold.

He joined the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales and worked closely with then premier Neville Wran to establish some of the state's first national parks.

David Hitchcock said his brother's great skill was having a "photographic memory" of the bush.

"He knows [sic] to take people to a certain location, to see a certain tree and show the grandeur," David Hitchcock said.

"He had this ability to know what he was talking about — he was part of it, he was in tune with the whole thing."

David Hitchcock said a meticulous understanding of forest ecosystems gave his brother the authority to successfully lobby for conservation areas around the world.

He was instrumental in convincing former prime minister Bob Hawke to establish the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Conservation is no walk in the park

A career surrounded by plants and trees might sound serene, but Mr Hitchcock's advocacy landed him in the mud on a few occasions.

As the first executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), Mr Hitchcock was embroiled in controversy over the Daintree forest's World Heritage listing in 1988.

The world's oldest rainforest was seen as valuable logging territory at the time.

"He came into what was enemy territory," said WTMA executive director Scott Buchanan.

"The Queensland minister for environment at the time told Peter in no uncertain terms that no-one wanted him up here and he was going to fail."

Other environmentalists received death threats over the heritage listing.

Mr Buchanan commended Mr Hitchcock for his ability to resolve tensions by reaching out to the far north Queensland community.

"He went out and talked to people that were struggling with the change," Mr Buchanan said.

"He was one of the early pioneers to go out and do community attitude surveys, to actually measure whether he was doing any good."

Through consultation, Mr Hitchcock overturned the narrative that rural residents were fundamentally opposed to the World Heritage listing.

His research uncovered growing local support for conserving the unique old-growth ecosystem.

Wet Tropics Area rainforest near Cow Bay in the Daintree. © ABC News Wet Tropics Area rainforest near Cow Bay in the Daintree.

Drawing on ancient knowledge

Throughout his career, Mr Hitchcock developed close relationships with Aboriginal elders.

Relatives say he had a deep respect for the knowledge held by traditional owners and their connection to country.

"He used a lot of the cultural custodians to build his knowledge and get the information," David Hitchcock said.

Peter Hitchcock went on to serve as a global advisor to UNESCO, reviewing World Heritage nominations in the Middle East, Borneo, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.

Mr Hitchcock was writing a book about his conservation work when he died. © ABC News Mr Hitchcock was writing a book about his conservation work when he died.

A family and community man

Trees were his passion, but Mr Hitchcock was equally devoted to the people around him.

He was engaged in local politics and widely respected by the Cairns and broader far north Queensland community, where he was based.

David Hitchcock described Peter as a "damn good brother". "He always looked out for us ... he was always there to provide advice and assistance," he said.

When he passed away, Mr Hitchcock was in the process of writing a book about his life and conservation work.

His family hopes to publish the manuscript shortly.

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