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Bill Smythies *. (Memorials).


On 27th June, 1999, the death of Bill Smythies robbed the small and rapidly diminishing band of ex-colonial foresters of one of its outstanding members. Bertram Evelyn (Bill) Smythies was born in 1912 in India, to E.A. Smythies, silviculturalist of Uttar Pradesh and in the 1940s, Chief Conservator of Forest of Nepal, and his wife, Olive, well-known author of The Tiger Lady. After school at "home" in U.K., Bill read botany and forestry at Balliol, Oxford.

He joined the Colonial Forest Service and took up duties with the Burma Forest Service from 1934 to 1948. Here, as a keen amateur ornithologist, in 1940 he was drawn into the task of writing the text for Birds of Burma. After the independence of Burma, Bill was transferred to Sarawak in 1949 and posted in Sibu as Section Forest Officer. At that time the spectacular rise of ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) as an export timber, the ensuing scramble for concessions and the burst of almost uncontrollable logging in the peatswamp forest of the Rejang Delta overshadowed all other forestry development. It was a respite for him when he was seconded for a brief period to the Sarawak Museum to sort, catalogue, and collate the bird skin collection. The project was encouraged by the Governor, the late Sir Anthony Abell, and given financial backing by the late Dato' Lok Wan Tho, who sponsored the ornithological work of the Sarawak Museum and supported an expedition by the British Museum (Natural History) in 1956 to Sabah (then British North Borneo). The result was a 300-page Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Borneo, printed in 1957 and the beautifully illustrated Birds of Borneo, first published in 1960, followed by updated editions in 1968, 1981, and 1996.

The years 1952 to 1959 were professionally, his most satisfying period as State Forest Officer, Brunei, and concurrently, Section Forest Officer, Limbang-Lawas (northeastern Sarawak). Forestry activities in Limbang-Lawas were mainly concerned with the routine of sustainable management under a working plan of the unique deltaic coniferous peatswamp forest in Kayangeran Forest Reserve, Lawas, producing sempilor (Dacrydium pectinatum, Podocarpaceae) timber, controlling and guiding the pioneering steps into commercial logging of Mixed Dipterocarp forests in the hills of the Limbang valley by James Wong, and exploring forest potentials mainly for conservation but also for possible later treatment, protection, and forest production, collecting botanical specimens by the way. In Brunei, Bill enjoyed full political backing by the conservation minded government. Based on the results of the excellent work by foresters seconded from Malaya in the 1930s, Bill was able to initiate a heavy but well-balanced program of soil , site, and forest resource assessment, forest mapping and demarcation, botanical, ecological and sociological exploration, taxonomy, silvicultural trials and silvicultural and management routines. These activities were integrated in 1955 in a 10-year forestry development plan.

The conceptual features of Bill's approach to forestry in the tropical rainforest were the traditional principles of multi-purpose social forestry and the combination of basic natural science and practical silviculture, utilization, management and conservation which is crucial for achieving sustainability. His aim was the prudent use and sustainable development of human and natural resources by integrating prudent conservation, rational management, and social development. Closest to his heart were botanical exploration, autecological observation of plant and animal species, and taxonomy of trees and non-tree plant species. Bill recognized the immense importance of scientific research for forest management, conservation, and development. He cooperated closely with the forest research in Kepong (now FRIM) and Sandakan, in addition to Kuching, and enlisted the help of I.A.N. Hutchinson as silviculturist and P.S. Ashton as forest botanist. He himself engaged actively in field botany, concentrating on collecting d ipterocarps but not neglecting other interesting floral components such as the pitcher plants (Nepenthes). The experimental plots and data sets of silvicultural research in the 1930s were continued, evaluated, and supplemented by new experiments, especially in Andulau and Anduki Forest Reserves. The formerly tried shelterwood, regeneration improvement and uniform systems were gradually replaced by selection and group selection systems, except in the single-species (Shorea albida) dominated communities of the peatswamp forests.

Bill transferred to Kuching in 1959 to take over as head of the Sarawak Forest Department from F.G. Browne, a similarly traditional "multi-use" and science-minded forester renowned for his achievements as entomologist, dendrologist, conservationist and all-around "dirt" forester with a strong sense of social responsibility. However, in the early 1960s the political, social, and economic climates in the environment of forestry began to change and affected forestry practice drastically even before the great rush for hill timber of the 1970s swept traditional forestry and social constraints away. In 1963, Bill wrote in No. 15 of the Borneo Territories Forest Bulletin "There has been much discussion during the quarter on native participation in the timber industry. As the problem appeared insoluble, the Government [of Sarawak] following the accepted democratic method of dealing with insoluble problems, referred it to a committee consisting of a nice blend of civil servants, native chiefs and leading timber men." The problem to find an equitable solution remained and still remains unsolved.

When Bill retired and left Sarawak with his wife, Florence Mary (Jill) on 15th May, 1964, first to Spain and then to England, planning and utilization of all Ramin Mixed Peatswamp forests, whether permanent or conversion forests, met the principles and criteria of sustainable conservation and management. Regional management plans regulated the integration of forestry with sustainable industrial and general socioeconomic development. Local working (management) plans prescribed yield, operations of harvesting and silviculture, and conservation measures for individual forest management units in the permanent forest estate. Felling plans synchronized the rate of liquidation of the timber growing stock with the expected demands of the developing economy. Planning during Bill's tenure was based on the results of research in the 1950s into the ecology and silviculture of the peatswamp phasic communities and their main tree species and was designed to be continuously adapted to new knowledge from research and monitor ing. The prudently phased opening of the Mixed Dipterocarp forests to sustainable utilization, conservation and management was in the making. The main features of the regional pattern of units of protection and production forests in the hilly to mountainous interior were decided according to tentatively assessed resource potential and foreseeable demands and mapped by the Working Plans Branch which Bill had established in 1960. In spite of the popular opinion at that time, shared by Bill, that timbers outside the peatswamp forests have little prospects for export, but may be quite serviceable for the local market, discussions were initiated with FAO in 1962 for a national forest resource assessment.

However, subsequent development turned in another direction. Bill wrote to me in 1997, "I long ago came to the conclusion that in the struggle between conservation versus human greed and superstition, conservation will always lose out, so I no longer take any interest in TRF (tropical rainforest) or its silviculture/management, apart from the historical aspect". He added that contemporary, prevailing production-oriented forestry research "with mysterious machines and computers humming and ticking in all corners [has] little to do with forestry as I remember it." Bill's legacy to us tropical foresters are his landmark books on the birds of Burma (1941) and Borneo (1960), the practical field-guide to non-dipterocarp trees of Sarawak (1965), his many always pertinent, substantial and useful contributions on matters of biodiversity of tree and non-tree flora and birds, and on forestry and conservation generally in the Borneo Territories Forestry Bulletin (1959-63), and to have shown that science-based traditional multi-functional forestry is feasible and can work well in the rainforests and landscapes of Borneo if the political and social environments are favorable.

In retirement, Bill continued his botanical interest with fieldwork in southwest Europe which led to the publication of Flowers of South-West Europe. a field guide (1973) in collaboration with his wife and Oleg Polunin. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1969 and an Honorary Fellow in 1985. (Eberhard F. Bruenig, Professor Em., Assoc. Member, Oxford Forestry Institute, Oxford University, 114 Oxlease, Cogges, Witney, Oxfordshire, OX8 6QU, UK)

* This memorial owes much to information supplied by the Earl of Cranbrook, I.A.N. Urquhart, J. Wyatt-Smith and Dr. Hj. Morni bin Othman, Director of Forestry, Brunei Darussalam at the time of the 60th Anniversary of Forestry in Brunei, 1993.
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Title Annotation:forester and botanist
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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