Early white explorers were often unimpressed with the Blue Mountains. As Francis Barrallier reported to Governor King: "I do not believe there can be so barren a desert in any part of Africa as these mountains are." He was describing, of course, the poor agricultural potential.
But those of a more romantic or scientific bent sometimes saw the bush differently. George Caley wrote: "Let me be tried upon the lofty mountain, the dark and intricate wood, the wide-extended plain, the marsh and peaty bog."
In 1836 the most influential biologist of all time, Charles Darwin, rode across the Blue Mountains. Although he made some interesting excursions and observations, he seemed little concerned with the demise of wildlife that was already obvious. Two of the first scientists to speak out for nature in the late 1800s were John Gould (who wanted exotic flora and fauna excluded) and William Clarke (who argued for forest protection).
Ironically, it was new legislation in 1861 promoting the sale of public land that prompted the creation of the first 'reserves' (meaning 'reserved from sale'). At first, and with ecological knowledge in its infancy, the emphasis was on impressive beauty spots - particularly caves. Wombeyan Caves were reserved in 1865, Jenolan in 1866, Tuglow in 1878 and Colong in 1899.
Other reserves were established around the new western railway in the central Blue Mountains, including the upper Grose Valley. These early reserves were never secure and many had a short life. But others survived to form the nucleus of future conservation efforts.
Enthusiasm for the natural beauty and healthfulness of the mountains grew steadily across the turn of the nineteenth century. Mountain residences and holidays were the preserve of the wealthy, but rail transport made it accessible to all. There was strong public support for recreation reserves and scenic protection. From about 1890 there was massive construction of walking tracks through the glens, waterfalls and escarpments.
In 1903 the great American conservationist John Muir visited the Blue Mountains while travelling the world. He went to Jenolan Caves and decried the clearing of forest from the tablelands. Whether he directly influenced a rising generation of Australian conservationists is uncertain, but they certainly knew what was going on across the Pacific Ocean.
From 1910 on, young Sydney architect Myles Dunphy began exploring the Blue Mountains on foot and developing ideas on conservation. Others were thinking along similar lines. By the 1920s Dunphy had developed a strategy for twelve major reserves from the Blue Mountains to the Victorian border, but was secretive at first.
It took the logging of his beloved Couridjah Corridor (west of Thirlmere Lakes) and a threat to another popular forest of blue gums on the floor of the Grose Valley to prompt action. When the leaseholder declared his intention in 1931 to clear Blue Gum Forest, bushwalkers and other supporters campaigned together to save it. Despite the hard times of the Depression, they managed to raise enough money to buy out the lease and give the forest back to the public. It was a powerful symbol, and set the template for future community environmental campaigns.
In 1932 Dunphy submitted and publicised an ambitious proposal for a Greater Blue Mountains National Park - 460,000 hectares including 'primitive areas' (what today would be called wilderness areas). Australia's first national park (now Royal National Park) had been created in 1879 south of Sydney, but it would be a long haul for the Blue Mountains.
Finally, the 63,000 hectare kernel of Blue Mountains National Park was declared in the Grose Valley in 1959. Blue Gum Forest was added in 1963, but the park's official status was poor until specific legislation (the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act) was passed in 1967, also creating the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
For the next four decades, conservationists campaigned to achieve Dunphy's 1932 vision, proposing new parks and additions and countering alternative plans for various developments - mainly dams, mining, forestry and utilities. Ironically, one dam was instrumental in protecting a very large area for the future. Warragamba Dam was completed in 1960, flooding the magnificent Burragorang Valley but securing much of the southern Blue Mountains as a protected catchment.
Then in 1963 a proposal emerged to quarry limestone from the still-surviving 1899 Colong Caves Reserve, in the heart of the southern wilderness. The struggle for Blue Gum Forest was a gentleman's picnic compared with the no-holds-barred battle over Colong. Legal and political wrangles surrounded the struggle for public hearts and minds. The campaign was expanded in 1970 to prevent the montane forests of the Boyd Plateau being cleared for a pine plantation.
These were hectic years, with a growing environmental awareness in the community and governments often lagging behind. In 1972 Australia's first public environmental enquiry was held into a gas pipeline proposal across the Wollangambe Wilderness, north of Bells Line of Road.
The conservation argument prevailed in all three campaigns. It can now be seen that events of the early 1970s signalled a quantum shift in public attitudes. Colong and the Boyd Plateau were added to the new Kanangra-Boyd National Park. The pipeline was routed elsewhere.
Conservationists went on to campaign for the northern Blue Mountains, a vast swathe of tangled, barely-known ravines and ridges. There were many competing plans for other uses, but Wollemi was declared as the second largest national park in New South Wales in 1979, Yengo National Park in 1988 and Gardens of Stone in 1994. Down south, much of the Warragamba Catchment Area was added to Blue Mountains National Park in 1977 with further big additions in 1987. Nattai National Park of 1991 also took in catchment lands.
Myles Dunphy died in 1985, but his son Milo Kanangra Dunphy was also a major activist of his era until his own death in 1996.
Whilst the addition of many other small areas to the Greater Blue Mountains reserve system has continued, the main focus over the past two decades has been stronger protection through wilderness and World Heritage. The 1987 Wilderness Act led progressively to over half of the area of Blue Mountains reserves being designated as wilderness. In the year 2000, over a million hectares of reserve, more than twice Dunphy's 1932 plan, was accepted as being of outstanding significance to all humanity.
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area was the culmination of someone's seventy-year dream. Today, it is a repository of rich biodiversity, amazing landscapes, vast forests, wild rivers, clean water catchments, rare wildlife, huge carbon storage and a lifetime of enjoyment, awe and wonder. May we all look after it.