Dr Rob Lesslie: Transforming a legacy into a reality

Written by Tabitha Carvan

When friends, family and colleagues talk about Dr Rob Lesslie, one word keeps coming up: worldview.

It was sharing Rob’s worldview which his wife, Lynne Alexander, says drew her to him when they were studying together at Adelaide University.

It’s her father’s worldview which Rob’s daughter Ellen says she recognises in her natural resource management courses at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, where Rob also completed his PhD.

And it was Rob’s worldview, his friend and colleague Richard Thackway says, which moved people to contribute chapters to the book Land Use in Australia: Past, Present and Future, dedicated to Rob, and which Richard edited and recently launched at ANU.

“It was that we have a responsibility to steward and look after the land in which we live,” Richard explains. “And to point out, as politely as possible, that people create the mess they live in and they can fix it.”

Rob was one of Australia’s leading geographers and natural resource scientists, and his career made a significant impact on natural resource management spanning government, education and the private sector.

With Richard, his colleague of 20 years, Rob created an influential framework which described the modification of Australia’s natural landscape over time. It demonstrated that environmental degradation is rarely a lost cause; instead, the landscape can respond to regenerative management systems.

“If you take a bulldozer and bowl down a bunch of trees, that’s not the end of the story,” Richard explains. “We showed that if you cease to use your bulldozers and ploughs and cattle and sheep, the environment will come back.

“It may take a long time, it may not go back to what it was originally, but it can go back to something which approximates it and then people can get multiple benefits from the ecosystem goods and services.

“Rob’s was quite a level-headed outlook which said: We need our Corn Flakes, our steaks and our milk, but we also need places of reflection and solitude.”

“From a boy he was drawn to investigate the natural world,” Lynne says. “Even at school he went off on trips into the bush and was fascinated by maps. It formed the foundation of his imagination.”

Richard says some of his fondest memories of Rob come from the grown-up version of these adventures.

“We always said we wanted to do a trip through inland Australia,” Richard remembers. “He bought himself a new car and was very proud of it and wanted to try it out. We drove out through western NSW into South Australia and into Victoria and drank lots of red wine and argued about how the world would, and should, change as a result of our thinking. It was lovely.”

The next year, Richard and Rob were back in Canberra and kayaking on Lake Burley Griffin. As they were climbing ashore Rob mentioned that he had a stomach cramp.

“Regrettably it was more than that, and within a year he had died from cancer.”

Richard has spent the four years since then promoting Rob’s worldview, now his legacy, and trying to keep that conversation in the car continuing. Along with editing Land Use in Australia, he is a Visiting Fellow at ANU, hoping to inform future generations of scientists.

His family has done the same, with the establishment of the Lesslie Endowment. Through grants to ANU research students, the Endowment has supported research into issues including evidence-based ecological management in protected areas, conserving native flora in agricultural landscapes, and a study of Euclayptus coolabah on the Diamantina River system in South Australia.

“It’s fantastic that his and our views are being perpetuated by encouraging people to do further study,” Lynne says. “It’s the best memorial to him there could possibly be.”

“He’d be smiling up there now knowing that other people are being encouraged to take up his research and his line of view.”

Lynne says she isn’t always positive that governments will follow Rob’s lead in looking after the land we live in. “But I’m hopeful that young people will form the push to change it,” she says.

Right on cue, her daughter Ellen adds: “I am optimistic”.

And with her father’s worldview, and the world in her hands, it’s easy to feel the same.