October 4, 2008

Conservationist Active to the End

By SKINNER, Marina

Bill Milne, community conservationist: B March 3, 1926; d May 14, 2008, aged 82.


BILL MILNE never had much time for possums. When he was recovering from tuberculosis in Wellington Hospital after World War II they would climb on to the veranda railing beside his bed to steal fruit brought by visitors. Being confined to bed didn't stop him taking to the pests with a piece of wood.

Mr Milne appreciated that possums did even more harm to native bush and birds. From the early 1980s he was a committed possum trapper and baiter, all in the interests of restoring Wellington wilderness areas.

He was one of the first volunteers of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society's project to return Matiu/Somes Island to its bushy origins in 1981, and he moved on to work on the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Pauatahanui wetland, Belmont Regional Park and the Rimutaka Forest Park, where kiwi were reintroduced in 2006.

Mr Milne spent his first 10 years in rural Ohura in the King Country till he moved with his parents and six siblings to Wellington.

He joined the navy during World War II but was invalided out when he caught tuberculosis. He left Wellington Hospital after three years with one lung permanently collapsed and minus seven and a half ribs, which were removed in surgery.

His recovery was helped by a nurse, Elaine Tynan, who had been a childhood neighbour and whom he married in 1951. Re-establishing his country ties, he became a wool classer, studying in Palmerston North before returning to Lower Hutt, where he became a manager in the wool department of Murray Roberts, which eventually became part of Fletcher Challenge. He was chairman of the Wellington Woolbrokers Association for many years and helped establish training standards for wool handling.

During the 1950s the Milnes joined Forest and Bird to encourage their children to value their natural environment. Mr Milne became more active in the Lower Hutt branch from the late 1970s, and he was chairman from 1990 to 1993 and deputy chairman till he died.

He joined the first trips in 1981 to Matiu/Somes Island to plant native seedlings, establish a plant nursery and later rid the island of rats. It was a daunting task to transform hillside paddocks into the lush expanses of native shrubs and trees that are now home to many birds and even tuatara.

Mr Milne branched out to work on other conservation projects. He was a founding member of the Rimutaka Forest Park Trust 20 years ago, and eight years ago helped launch the Restore the Dawn Chorus project in the Catchpool Valley.

He and other volunteers checked possum, rat and stoat traps every week, racking up a tally of about 5000 dead possums. Their work led to the release of kiwi in the area in 2006 -- an achievement in which Mr Milne took great pride.

In Pauatahanui, Mr Milne helped build fences and boardwalks, plant natives and get rid of pests for the Pauatahanui Wildlife Management Reserve.

In the hills between the Hutt Valley and Porirua he checked possum traps for 11 years as a member of the Friends of Belmont Regional Park committee.

Through his involvement with the Southern Hutt Lions Club, to which he belonged for 33 years, he worked on tracks and built observation hides in the new Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

When Elaine joined the Kaumatua Tramping Club in the 1970s, Mr Milne followed her, and within months he'd become chairman of the club. With his knowledge of back country areas and shearers' quarters, he opened up many parts of the North Island to his tramping mates.

Mr Milne's community spirit extended beyond conservation to the committees of the schools his children attended, the Taita rugby and cricket clubs and organising golf events. With his outgoing personality, he made newcomers to his organisations feel welcomed and involved.

"He inspired people in conservation with his enthusiasm," says a fellow Matiu/Somes volunteer, Ron Freeston. He was eager to tackle new adventures, in his 60s and 70s trying skydiving, bungy jumping, parapenting and skiing.

He continued his work on conservation projects despite recent heart problems. Two weeks before he died, Mr Milne was on Matiu/ Somes Island helping with the native plant nursery and he made weekly checks of traps in the Rimutaka Forest Park till early this year.

The Conservation Department honoured Mr Milne with a Conservation Week Award in 2001, and Hutt City Council recognised his voluntary service with a Civic Honour in 2004.

Forest and Bird had planned to mark his outstanding contribution to conservation with an Old Blue award, the organisation's highest honour, next month.

Mr Milne is survived by his wife Elaine and children Janet, Paula, Robert and Andrea. -- By Marina Skinner. Sources: Stan Butcher, Ron Freeston, David Lewis and family members.


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