Conservation and activism

We still look upon our country as a source of wealth rather than a heritage to appreciate, manage and hand on intact, or even enriched, to the next generation.16

The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland

The friendship between Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright underpinned their shift into public roles as conservationists and campaigners. Their concerns about the limited knowledge of most Australian children regarding our rich natural heritage led to them forming the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) in 1962 after being contacted by naturalist David Fleay. Jacaranda Press founder Brian Clouston offered to assist through publishing an educational magazine (entitled Wildlife Australia, which is still published today).

Judith Wright served as the first Wildlife Society President, with Kathleen McArthur as Secretary. In 1963 Kathleen formed a Caloundra branch of WPSQ and led Sunshine Coast campaigns to protect the Cooloola region, Pumicestone Passage, beach dunes and local Wallum.

The Cooloola Campaign

… the first grassroots conservation campaign in which large numbers of private citizens finally convinced their government … The Cooloola Campaign – is a story that has needed documentation.17

Judith Wright and Meredith McKinney, Mt Tinbeerwah, 1953

Judith Wright and her daughter Meredith McKinney, Mt Tinbeerwah, 1953

The genesis of the campaign to save Cooloola began while Kathleen and Judith were on an expedition near Noosa in 1953. Climbing to the top of Mt. Tinbeerwah with their families. Kathleen and Judith looked north across the untouched plains and coastline stretching to Double Island Point and Wide Bay and declared ‘this would make a great national park’. 

Returning to Brisbane Judith began inquiring about whether a national park could be established at Cooloola, but at the time they were told by Romeo Lahey of the ‘National Parks Association’ that ‘the area was not threatened in any way, whereas there were far more important areas of rainforest that were, the rainforests were the priority’.18 

In March 1953, in company with Jack, Judith and little Meredith McKinney, I had stood on the top of Mount Tinbeerwah behind Noosa, looking out over the white-edged arrow head of land that has Laguna Bay on its right and Wide Bay to the left… it was obvious that this was great wildflower country … It would make a unique national park.19

Meredith McKinney at Boreen Point, 1954

Judith Wright's daughter Meredith McKinney at Boreen Point, 1954 

Judith Wright at Cooloola

Further north at Boreen Point on Lake Cootharaba is a little village of nine or ten houses and a general store. We stayed there a week and fell most awfully in love with it….They are wild and birdy lakes, lost in the Wallum country … And what should be there but a half-finished cottage for sale awfully cheap, and lovely, really lovely.20 

It was during the 1953 expedition that Judith Wright also came to buy a house in the Sunshine Coast region. The cottage was called ‘Melaleuca’. 

Judith’s engagement with the location and history of the area resulted in a number of memorable poems, one of these being ‘At Cooloola’.  Verses of this poem were also used in the brochure for the Cooloola Campaign.  

At Cooloolah

The blue crane fishing in Cooloolah’s twilight

 Has fished there longer than our centuries

 He is certain heir of lake and evening,

 And he will wear their colour till he dies;


 those dark-skinned people who once named Cooloolah

 knew that no land is lost or won by wars,

 for earth is spirit; the invader’s feet will tangle

 in nets there and his blood be thinned by fears.21

The crisis and postcard campaign

Protest Cards addressed to The Honourable Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, Parliament House, Brisbane

Protest cards.

The Wildlife Preservation Society Queensland and Noosa Parks Association had been advocating for a national park for the Cooloola region throughout the 1960s. They felt a crisis point was reached in 1969 when there were up to 10 sand mining leases pending for the Cooloola area.

The novel initiative that activated the public campaign was stimulated by Kathleen borrowing ideas and reshaping them into the Cooloola postcard campaign.

A postcard had been sent to the WPSQ Brisbane headquarters which had been used in the United States as a protest to the White House. That campaign had resulted in truckloads of mail descending upon the US government, and a campaign success.

While others were sceptical about such a campaign, Kathleen saw the potential to use it for Cooloola.  She therefore proposed a postcard, letter and brochure be created that could be distributed far and wide.

Cooloola Wildflowers, by Kathleen McArthur

Cooloola Wildflowers, by Kathleen McArthur 

To build a nation-wide network of support, Kathleen proposed that they create lists of contacts including all the natural-history organisations in Australia, hence thousands of postcards were distributed right across the country. 

Hundreds of letters of support started to flow back to the ‘Mistress of Midyim’ and the ambition of their campaign was further promoted through multiple means including media articles, public talks, and selling cards featuring ‘Cooloola Wildflowers’.

Other campaigns and work

… As a community we are inclined to undervalue what cost us nothing to acquire and to take for granted a fascinatingly rich environment that on a world scale is of estimable value.22

Following the 1970 Cooloola Campaign, while Judith Wright was increasingly caught up in national agendas and campaigns, Kathleen’s efforts returned to the local, gathering information to establish the Pumicestone Passage on the National Heritage Register. This work was also published as the book Pumicestone Passage

Kathleen also campaigned to protect beach dunes and lobbied to prevent the creation of canal estates on the passage.  Following the pattern of previous campaigns, she engaged in detailed research, drawing on expertise nationally and internationally.

Kathleen identified several areas that should be protected as reserves, including the one posthumously named Kathleen McArthur Conservation Reserve just north of Lake Currimundi.

Currimundi Lake (Kathleen McArthur) Conservation Park, 2017

Currimundi Lake (Kathleen McArthur) Conservation Park, 2017 

An ongoing project that both fed into and drew from her publishing was her establishment of a series of monthly presentations called ‘Lunch-hour theatre’.

This format was borrowed from something she had seen in Canberra and adapted for her own purposes. The form is a spoken word presentation where performers read the text, they generally also included several songs.

Kathleen would write the scripts drawing upon various writings, poetry and literature, focussing on different topics from local history, to family history, and more.

16. Kathleen McArthur, Living on the Coast (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989), 73.

17. Lawrence. S. Hamilton, Foreword in Living on the Coast. (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989), 8.

18. Kathleen McArthur, Living on the Coast (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989), 52.

19. McArthur, Living on the Coast. 

20. Judith Wright in Patricia Clarke, and Meredith McKinney, eds., With Love and Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright (Canberra: National Library of Australia 2006), 82.

21. Judith Wright, Five Senses (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1953), 108.

22. Kathleen McArthur, Pumicestone Passage: wetlands of importance (Caloundra: Kathleen McArthur, 1984), 70.