Jeff Rootes is a rare beast. A quiet achiever, he is a man whose motives have been described as "100 per cent altruistic". His work mostly takes place in the background, out of the spotlight - but his efforts have reaped spectacular public results.
With a grasp of wider possibilities that is unusually clear and far-reaching, he is best known for his role alongside Dr Linda Zibell and Bob Hartmann in the formation of the area's newest regional park, Woowookarung, on the city's eastern fringes.
Many would be happy to rest on their laurels after making that happen, but Mr Rootes is still working on bold plans that range way beyond that work. It might be wise not to bet against them, especially as the success of Woowookarung was not a given. That grassroots campaign to save the neglected forest, abandoned plantations and old mining territory on the eastern fringes of Ballarat was viewed with scepticism at the start. When the plantation company decided to leave, many thought development was just a matter of time.
Others openly expressed their doubts about the land. Bemused bureaucrats from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning assessed the land the Friends of Canadian Corridor were fighting to keep, and dismissed 50 hectares of failing blue gum plantation as having "no biodiversity value whatsoever".
A relentlessly affable figure, Mr Rootes took the long view. Having largely retired from work, he was free to use his dogged spirit, organisational nous and connections to help bring that vision to life for others. He formed a formidable trio with Dr Linda Zibell and Bob Hartmann, working towards setting aside the huge swathe of land in perpetuity for the Ballarat community.
Active within the Labor Party, Mr Rootes has found the contacts he has made there useful over the years. He is mates with former Buninyong MP Geoff Howard, an old teaching colleague in Wendouree - and without doubt a helpful association in the run-up to the 2014 election as they pushed for park status.
Even with those links, there is nothing tribal in Mr Rootes' approach. He makes a point of never being openly critical of anyone, even in moments of frustration - perhaps with one exception.
"We do bag rubbish dumpers but even there we're a bit mild," he told The Courier. His emphasis is on trying to include as wide a cross-section of the community as possible. "We work with people and we try to understand how you fit them into this park," he said.
This gently cajoling approach has been key, captured in one of his favourite sayings: "you catch more bears with honey than vinegar."
Mr Hartmann puts it as follows: "One of his great skills is in organisation of community. I think it's a natural skill that he's got. He's just always been one of those folks that wants to go to the next level.
"He is amazing, and has got really good connections into the community."
"He's got ideas that seem to leap to the next thing. He's got that really good big picture view of things and then is able to convert that down by mobilising people. That's his real strength."
He's got ideas that seem to leap to the next thing. He's got that really good big picture view of things and then is able to convert that down by mobilising people. That's his real strengthBob Hartmann, Friends of the Canadian Corridor
"I've never seen him involved with confrontation with anybody. There's always negotiation."
The president of the Friends of the Buninyong Botanic Gardens Roger Permezel has seen Mr Rootes in action. He describes him as both an optimist and a realist who is focused and has the ability to get to "the guts of an issue."
"Jeff is like a dog with a bone... once he knows the objective, he will carefully and patiently work at achieving a win-win outcome. And he's taken on some hefty bones over the years."
That style dramatically bore fruit in the run-up to the 2014 election when the area's future as a regional park became an election promise. In August 2016 Premier Daniel Andrews made an official visit to confirm the preservation of the 641 hectares. And, despite the cynicism of the DELWP workers, the plantation regrowth on the "top block", as Mr Rootes calls it, stands taller each year in what he defines as a "massive revegetation natural experiment", while trails take shape - and more people come.
Just as the re-growth will take years, the park's masterplan - an evolution of an "Imagine" document sketched out in the early days of the campaign- is going to be a work in progress for some time. However, with its detailed vision, the park's path now seems set. Overseen by Parks Victoria, the area has had a huge injection of public interest and funding. The area Mr Rootes still calls Ballarat's best kept secret is now becoming quite well known, and is likely to feature more and more in the community's life in years to come.
Mr Rootes remains in the thick of things, organising events, marvelling at everything that is going on, regularly referring to the indigenous connection to the land.
Speaking to The Courier last summer, he was excited about a University of Melbourne researcher coming to the area to give some scientific weight to koala number studies (the project is now up and running). He also spoke about Federation University often using the area for research.
"There's all sorts of stuff that we don't even know anything about going on out here," he said. "People doing studies on things - you'll come across something marked out and somebody's studying ants, because there's an ant expert out here."
He compiles the group's newsletter, Spikey News, which is connecting more and more people to all those goings-on. Stuffed with updates on the latest animal sightings, dumping prosecutions, track restoration, working bees, walks, forums and more, it is very much his creation. Now up to issue 77, the most recent edition went out to 788 "friends", the previous total shown crossed out in what Mr Rootes calls an "old marketing trick". This was training at a Nissan sales school - his family ran the Nissan dealership in Maryborough - just another strand in the skillset he draws on for the cause.
A LARGER VISION
Even with everything that has happened so far, Mr Rootes prefers to look forward. He only admitted to feeling only a "small
satisfaction" when talking to The Courier as he looked across the protected land he once feared would become another suburb of Ballarat.
It perhaps should not be a surprise.
A veteran of the campaign to save the Franklin River in Tasmania, Mr Rootes has been immersed in environmental concerns for decades - and he does not want to stop now.
ALSO IN THE NEWS
Although he says he began to retire from teaching more than a decade ago, he does not consider himself to have left the workforce. "I'm not retired. I'm just not getting paid," he laughed.
Now the man who gained his pilot licence at the age of 16 sees a picture that extends way past the massive 641-hectare protected space on the edge of Ballarat - and something he hopes the relatively recently formed Bunanyung Landscape Alliance he belongs to will help to push forward.
Warming to the theme when we spoke, he got out a map, gesturing a length going right down eastern Australia.
"This linkage here from Cairns to the Grampians is this massive, three and half thousand kilometre long biolink. We're in the middle, right here. This is where it goes through here.
"That's actually next year's job and the year after that: it's connecting Enfield to the Wombat [state forest]. This is the absolute keystone of that wombat to Enfield corridor. "
"If we'd lost this, that wouldn't be there. If we'd lost this, it would have just been ruined."
"There's more to go. This is a stepping stone to an even larger biolink."
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