"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

John B Jack

DipForCres; BScFor; MScFor; Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia.

This article was developed from an obituary written by John’s children - Rob., Nan. and Sal.

John Jack was born in April 1927 in Bendigo. His father died in 1931 from injuries suffered in the First World War. His mother, Mary (Polly), the daughter of D.R. Bilton (a farmer from Cragie near Maryborough), took up teaching night school during the Second World War so John moved to the country to live with his cousins; a start in life which turned out to be most fortunate for him as he grew up amongst forestry luminaries.

Mary’s sisters included:

  • Minnie - who married Karl Victor McDonald Ferguson (M.A., B.Sc.F. Edinburgh) Ferguson was appointed Assistant Master at the Victorian School of Forestry in 1925 and Principal in 1927. He remained with the Forests Commission being appointed Silvicultural Officer (1937), Chief Technical Officer (1955); Chief of the Division of Forest Management (1959) and Acting Chief of the Division of Forestry Education & Research as well as Deputy Commissioner.

  • Florence - who married Edwin James Semmens MBE (M.Sc., B.Sc., F.L.S.), son of an Inspector of Forests in the Lands Department. Semmens was appointed relieving Master at the Victorian School of Forestry in 1927; was Principal between 1928 and 1950 then remained as lecturer until 1964.

  • Elizabeth - who married Alfred James Ewart FRS (Ph.D. Leipzig D.Sc. Ox.) – the first Professor of Botany, University of Melbourne and the Victorian Government Botanist; Chairman of the Forestry Examination Board; author of Handbook of Forest Trees for Victorian Foresters

These were highly-educated, rural-based leaders of their communities who, having travelled extensively, had an unusually worldly outlook. The broad understanding of the planet and its resources acquired in his youth led John to be inquisitive, studious and informed. He always looked for a better, more sustainable way, often as a result of exhaustive analysis of past practices.

John entered the Victorian School of Forestry in 1944 and graduated as Dux in 1946. (His mother, Mary, was Matron of the School at about this time or the following year – the website has a photo of her with the 1947 graduates.)

While still a student, in 1945 (probably during the end-of-year break from school), John was assigned to Powelltown to oversee the harvesting of the 1939 fire-killed Ash, with occasional calls to fire-fighting in Bunyip Creek. This was often done by crews of men walking into the bush with knapsacks and hoes, to locate the source of (lightning strike) fires, which they then managed with back-burns. They camped in the bush until a dozer (if required) made its way in. And in 1946 he was sent to Childers where he and two others were camped in the forest for a three-month audit of remnant Ash stands. Food supplies were dropped out to them weekly, otherwise they were self-contained in two tents with a nearby stream.

In his first year after graduation, John undertook a forest survey by horseback in the Mansfield area with the assistance of a local bushman to navigate the informal bush tracks. Later he was issued an ex-army Willies personnel carrier with which to access those areas where bullock tracks existed. The contrast between this very simple approach to valuing and managing the forests and the current drone/satellite surveying and fire spotting, use of water bombers, massive mechanical harvesters that fell, strip the branches and bark, then load pre-sized logs onto B-doubles, could not have been imagined three generations ago.

Then came a series of brief postings to Creswick, Delatite, Ovens and Mirboo North before he was assigned to Macedon in 1951, after he married Joan. John was promoted to District Forest Officer in 1955 in charge of the Stanley Plantation and became the DFO in charge of the Beechworth District in 1958. In 1964 he was posted to Myrtleford before he took up a position in Melbourne.

This wide experience in the plantations and nurseries underpinned his diligent research, particularly the competition effects of ‘weeds’ on the growth of pine trees, for which he obtained his Master of Science in Forestry in 1970.

Partly out of necessity and probably from an appreciation of timber, John developed impressive cabinetry skills evident in the quality of tables and furniture that he created for his first home in Stanley. The Forests Commission house came with a diesel generator, slow-combustion stove and kerosene fridge. John built the beds and furniture and milked the cow while Joan made the cushions, curtains and clothes and made cream and butter.

The Melbourne-based position John took up in 1964 was as Chief Forest Research Officer in the Forest Research Branch. He then progressed in 1970/71 to Chief of the Division of Forest Education and Research. The combination of John’s quiet but determined style, supported by highly qualified scientists and technicians, continued and enhanced the Forests Commission’s comprehensive research and development programs including silviculture, hydrology, genetics, nutrition, management and mensuration, pathology, entomology, pest and disease control – arguably second-to-none in Australia and well recognized internationally.

In 1974, with his family, he took a 6-month overseas sabbatical to explore the forestry techniques of the United Kingdom, Europe, Scandinavia, USSR and Japan. Of this his daughter, Sal., wrote: “What a gift of cultural immersion and education he gave us. We were welcomed into the families of Foresters all over the world. Including when Dad and I travelled deep into the Bavarian Black Forest to meet a Forester’s family in their Schwarzwaldhaus - a forest chalet. So immersed were they, in their academic exchange, Dad departed in the family’s VW Beetle, leaving me behind to play with the German only speaking children. No doubt he thought it would expand my communication skills! It was some hours later he returned to collect me; no doubt due to Mum’s admonishing.”

In 1976 John transferred to The Department of Premier and Cabinet as a Senior Planner and Advisor and deputy secretary to Premier Rupert James ‘Dick’ Hamer (later Sir Rupert). He travelled extensively with Hamer, mixing with world leaders and studying best practice in increasingly diverse fields of endeavour. He was appointed the inaugural chairman of the Victorian Garden State Committee which was established by Hamer in 1976. In this role John coordinated the development of ‘self-help’ gardening activities which aimed to improve ‘the community health outlook’, through the restoration of tree cover to degraded urban road reserves and parklands.

John subsequently worked with the Law Department, then the Technical and Further Education Board, before finishing in a role that probably best satisfied his passion for sustainable silviculture and farming – he convinced the Ian Potter Foundation to support what became known as the Potter Farmland Plan.

John had a great understanding of the impacts of geography, geology, hydrology and seasonal and long-term climatic influences on efficient forestry and farming practices. In 1987 he drew on his extensive agroforestry experience to develop a course on farm planning to be run by Melbourne University under the sponsorship of the Potter Foundation. The course was the culmination of work he and Peter Mathews had done with groups of farmers in the Green Triangle Region of Victoria and South Australia. Here they worked with local farmers to establish demonstration properties that applied the farm planning principles. He undertook training courses and field days that assisted the farmers to identify the natural attributes and constraints of their properties. Then introduced them to holistic land management practices, which optimised crop and livestock yields. This was achieved through extensive tree-planting, appropriate crop selection and rotation, use of wind breaks, relocation of fence lines, stabilisation of water courses, and management of soil erosion and salinity. Over the following decade, the Potter Plan was extended to farms as far afield as the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Between 1989 and 2001 John worked with Dr Ranil Senanayake and Peter Mathews to develop a comprehensive Analogue Forestry Database, populated from audits of farm trials undertaken in locations as diverse as Sri Lanka, Norway, Finland, Russia, Japan, United States and Canada. They developed training programs for the teams responsible for the implementation of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 1992, they developed an Analogue Forestry course for graduate Forestry students. The idea behind Analogue Forestry is that in order to most efficiently and lastingly reforest a plot of land, one must observe the plant and tree species that grew there naturally and replant those species in a way analogous to the original growth.

John chaired an Environmental Management Unit at Monash University that sought to link the Departments of Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Geography and Environmental Science with projects undertaken by CSIRO and Potter Whole Farm Planners.

He spent three weeks in the Simpson Desert with the Australian and New Zealand Explorer’s Association recording the ecological status of the region, with a view to applying Analogue Forestry principles to cultivation and stock management in Arid zones. The Analogue Forestry team also sought input to their program from the Traditional Owners from northern Australia.

In his later years he and Joan travelled to Europe, Asia, the States as well as several stints as Citizen Scientists monitoring flora and fauna in the Australian desert. Joan died in 2007.

John was particularly well equipped to advise on the need for scientifically-based forest management, policy and practice to meet increasing public awareness of environmental protection. In ‘retirement’ John continued to communicate with friends and colleagues on these subjects and, his care and monitoring of younger generations will endure.

He was an avid reader of The Economist and made numerous approaches to government officials and Premiers on issues as varied as “the need for a more scientific basis for fuel reduction burns” to planning for “light rail connected urban hubs”. He never stopped advocating for the protection of the environment and promotion of better planned and resourced ‘community hubs’. As a resident of Mingarra Retirement Village he lobbied the Village management and local council for the retention of a significant stand of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) trees, threatened by the proposed expansion of the facility. He exhaustively generated ideas and concept solutions to address global warming, the extinction of flora and fauna and the regeneration of biodiversity.

His service to the Institute of Foresters of Australia as Chair of the Victorian Division, his support to a successful cross-border group – north-eastern Victoria and NSW – and significant contribution to the many facets of forestry was recognized by the Institute, by making him a Fellow – an enduring legacy.

John married Maureen Tattersall in 2009 and both were valued Life Members of the Forests Commission Retired Personnel Association. He died in March 2022.