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Phillip (Phil) Shedley (1928–2013)

by Phil Shedley

Early in 1950 after graduating from the Australian Forestry School I started work for the WA Forests Department. My first posting was to the tiny forest settlement of Willow Springs—nestled in tall karri forest. Willow Springs had been a Kauri Timber Company sawmill that had burnt down a few years earlier. There were ten Forests Department cottages; Assistant Forester Jim [Stringer] Crawford, previously an axe and crosscut saw faller, occupied the old mill manager’s house and the Department Overseer and gang occupied the others. There were two other houses, one used as the school and the other to house the schoolmaster. Then there was a camp for single men well away from the houses and my unlined hut beside the office and storeroom at the bottom of the hill. A storeman went twice a week for provisions to Nannup some 15 miles away.

Two weeks after arriving, the infamous 1950 wildfires had just started and Stringer had collected me and the two lads of my assessment crew from our temporary assessment camp at Ellis Creek. It was mid-morning and we travelled in an open sided Jeep towards the fire to relieve Forester Oscar [Oc] Pears who had been there all night. But we didn’t make it. By 12 noon I was on the ‘phone from Nannup to my boss John D’Espeissis, the Divisional Forest Officer at Pemberton, to explain how, while on the way to relieve Oc Pears, we had been trapped in a wildfire on private property, the Jeep canopy had caught fire and we had, solely by the courage and fortitude of Stringer, narrowly escaped death. He sent me off to relieve at the first fire while Stringer spent the next three months in hospital recovering from severe burns.

Some 10 days later, back in Willow Springs, I fled from advancing flames to take refuge by the settlement’s only water supply, a 10,000-gallon tank at the top of the hill. Also there were the Conservator of Forests, Dr Stoate, the Fire Control Superintendent, Mick Milesi, a few exhausted men and those women and children who had not been evacuated earlier. Moments later, with a thunderous roar that continued for some 15 minutes, we watched in awe and terror as the wildfire that had raged for the past fortnight, suddenly tore through the crowns of the mature karri forest followed immediately by a ferocious ground fire. From our high vantage point looking across the treeless old sawmill site we had the rare experience of witnessing a crown fire in tall karri forest not half a mile away.

Finally it rained and I returned to find that the fire had been extinguished just 10 feet from my hut and the fuel store.

That was my introduction to life as a professional forester.

My next move was to Shannon River, where a large State-owned sawmill had just started up. There, as well as managing a small District, I became efficient in supervising house building and mastered air photo interpretation for the construction of 1,000 miles of roads. [Kelly McGrath wanted to fail me in Forest Engineering at the AFS, I think because I was better at hockey than rugby. Fortunately Max Jacobs thought my ability at golf and tennis would see me through, so over-ruled him]. What I did not master was how to adequately regenerate karri forest that had been harvested on a selection-cut basis that was then being tested by the Department—a stark contrast with the dense regrowth that followed the Willow Spring wildfire.

When after seven years I was thoroughly water-logged and a request for a transfer to dryer climes was refused, I accepted the position of Forester with the Kauri Timber Company. [The Company had previously sought my services while at Willow Springs but at that stage I was still bonded by my scholarship conditions]. The work with KTC involved the purchase of privately owned timber for five small mills cutting railway sleepers, supervising them and managing the harvesting operations for the three mills at Nannup and the two mills at Northcliffe. After a spell as manager of the two mills at Northcliffe, I was appointed Mill Superintendent for all the company’s mills with a workforce of 175. It was a time when the hardwood industry was moving from green structural production to kiln dried products. We built our own drying kilns, controlled air-drying and dressing facilities and the passion I developed for value adding continues to this day.

When in 1963 KTC sold its WA interests, I returned to the Forests Department, again at the bottom rung of the professional ladder. The job of OIC Collie for eight years included supplying logs to a vibrant hardwood industry, rapidly expanding the radiata plantations and doing battle with an average of more than 50 wildfires each year.

A two-year stint at Harvey saw more of the same plus operating the Department’s small pine sawmill before moving to Head Office in Perth. Here my initial tasks as Utilisation and Marketing Officer were marketing sawn timber from the Department’s four pine mills and its one jarrah mill and negotiating harvesting contracts. When four of the mills were sold, I managed the remaining mill at Harvey and expanded it into a research facility. Features of the research program were to convert small thinning logs using commercial rather than laboratory scale equipment into value added products and to directly involve industry. Significant achievements were the use of high temperature drying schedules for eucalypts; the development of VALWOOD® laminated panels and cost-effective solar drying kilns. For a number of years I ran lunchtime aerobic sessions for the ‘shiny-bum’ forest workers in Head Office.

On retiring from the government service, I joined forces with long-time friend Ed Sprengel and his son-in-law Kevin Bentley to establish a forest industry consultancy, Valuwood International Pty Ltd. Ed had recently retired as General Manager of Millars Timber and Trading Company, one of WA’s leading sawmilling companies at the time. Initially we promoted CALM’s intellectual property in China, India and Malaysia. Later we managed two Federally funded research projects that developed an innovative and efficient approach to converting small native forest regrowth logs and thinnings as young as 6 years old, from E, globulus plantations, into quality laminated flooring.

I believe the future of our native forests depends on our ability to thin overstocked regrowth stands and to use those thinnings to replace the now-preserved old-growth eucalypts. Next year I’ll turn 80, so to keep my passion alive, I have resorted to lobbying all-and-sundry and beavering away to set up a conference on “Borers and Rots in Eucalypts” for the Institute.

Original Publication

Citation details

Phil Shedley, 'Shedley, Phillip (Phil) (1928–2013)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012