Local environmentalist Maureen Schmitt’s decades-long devotion to protecting the environment will be celebrated with the presentation of a national award for her dedicated service.
Maureen is this year’s honouree for the Garden Clubs of Australia Gwendy Hansford Award for Outstanding Service by an individual or affiliated club to the Environment.
Maureen has been a longtime volunteer with Landcare and the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, as well as Bundaberg Organic Gardeners who nominated her for the award.
Most known for her work leading Woongarra Scrub revegetation efforts on the Hummock, Maureen has long been involved in environmental and regeneration work, after developing a love for the outdoors at a young age.
She said her mother taught her about gardening and raising chickens and would reminisce about Maureen disappearing into the fog as a toddler to visit the family’s cows.
“I just always loved being around animals and being outside,” Maureen said.
After travelling the world, completing a degree in Applied Science in Canberra and time spent living in Cairns and Ingham, Maureen returned to Bundaberg in 1990.
Mauren recalled meeting famed local naturalist Eric Zillmann at Baldwin Swamp in the early 1990s, who stoked her early love of nature.
“I would just go out with Eric, and he would teach me the trees and the birds and the spiders and the butterflies and it just sort of ballooned from there.”
Maureen’s career has seen her work across many aspects of the industry including plant nurseries, plant surveying and environmental rehabilitation, as a consultant to companies, government departments, councils, and individuals, as well as tutoring at CQUniversity and teaching at TAFE.
It was in the late 1990s, when she was part of Landcare, Maureen said, that Burnett Shire Council approached her about revegetating a section of the Hummock, an area now known as Maureen Schmitt Park in her honour.
“I remember I did a report called ‘Conservation of Woongarra Scrub Remnants’ and I went all around Bundaberg and tried to find what little remnants were left,” she said.
“I think I found there was about 1% left of the scrub and that was it, so we thought, well, if we can establish a little bit more, it all helps.
“I used to go out and collect seeds and we'd have working bees up here, and it went on, and I think we were planting for at least seven years.”
Maureen said she got a lot of satisfaction out of volunteering, and she most enjoyed the camaraderie of the groups.
“You get to talk to people and, you know, you're learning something, they're learning something and you're doing something good for the environment,” she said.
“And that's great because it's all of us working together.
“That's how we're going to solve a lot of the problems, if we can communicate.”
Hope for the future
Maureen said she saw climate change, habitat loss and use of plastics as the most pressing environmental concerns, and that if people could learn to be more in touch with the environment, they would be more tolerant and understanding of it.
“I think that, for a long time now, we've become sort of removed from the environment and a lot of people are almost frightened of it,” she said.
“I just hope that people will realise how precious our environment is and if we keep treating it the way we've been treating it, it's going to impact on us as well.
“Our very future will be at stake.”
Maureen said she thought organic gardening was a wonderful way for people to help the environment.
“The more people that can organic garden the better because we'll be producing our own food and will be reducing our chemical usage,” she said.
Maureen said she was initially reluctant to put herself forward for the award but was convinced by other members of the Bundaberg Organic Gardeners.
“It’s very humbling and I was a little bit uncomfortable with it because I thought, I just do this stuff because I love it,” she said.
“Someone said, it's not for you, it's for the environment, it's to draw attention to the importance of the environment and of volunteering in the environment.”
Garden Clubs of Australia’s Awards Director Maureen Lucas said Maureen was chosen out of a field of very worthy nominees.
“Garden Clubs Australia was very proud to be able give this award to Maureen as she is a very deserving recipient,” she said.
“From the 1980s onwards, Maureen has been a passionate and very hard worker and volunteer to the environment.”
Even now though she is officially retired, Maureen still co-ordinates clean-up activities in the region, working with a small group when they find an area in need of clean-up.
“We like to focus on creek lines because we don't like to see rubbish going out into the rivers and the oceans,” she said.
“Walking in the bush, it just brings me great joy and pleasure.”
Garden Clubs of Australia is the largest umbrella garden organisation in Australia, with nearly 800 affiliated clubs and approximately 55,000 members.