Conservation of the natural environment was a concern of many early scientific institutions in 19th-century Melbourne. The Philosophical Institute of Victoria (a precursor to the Royal Society of Victoria) published Transactions from 1855, and many of the early writers were concerned with Melbourne's water quality. These scientists influenced the later 'closed catchment' policy of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW), which preserved forests near Melbourne from logging because of their value to water purification. The first government botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, also campaigned in the 1870s to preserve forests near Melbourne from wasteful logging practices. The Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria (FNCV) was active in many early campaigns to preserve tracts of bushland both in the metropolitan area and further afield.
The Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (later ANZAAS) met in Melbourne in 1890, 1900 and 1913, and discussed the preservation of native flora and fauna at each of these meetings. With Federation in 1901, the first national natural history organisations also emerged, most notably the Royal Australian Ornithologists' Union (1901- ) (since 1996, Birds Australia) which based itself in Melbourne. It was very active in the 1920s, campaigning against the plumage trade, and in the 1930s, against egg-collecting. The Melbourne-based Bird Observers' Club (BOC) (1905- ) was also active in these campaigns.
The first National Parks Association of Victoria, established in 1908, concerned itself with the reservation of bushland, especially at Wilsons Promontory National Park (reserved in 1898, but legislatively established in 1908) and Wyperfeld National Park (established in 1909). By the 1920s, the Association had been subsumed by the Town and Country Planning Association, because of the influence of Sir James Barrett, an eminent ophthalmologist with interests in both organisations.
Nature conservation re-entered the political agenda after 1945 in response to postwar reconstruction development pressures. In 1946, radio journalist and editor Philip Crosbie Morrison (1900-58), incontrovertibly the nature conservation movement's most notable public figure at the time, declared: 'the birds and beasts and wildflowers have no votes, and therefore they don't interest the politician'. His radio broadcast signalled the beginning of a campaign for what he called a 'local post-war New Deal for the wild things'. At the centre of the 'New Deal' was a Melbourne-led campaign to conserve the bushland at Wilsons Promontory devastated by military manoeuvres during World War II.
In 1952, the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) emerged out of a 'conservation committee' of the FNCV, with Crosbie Morrison as its inaugural president. Generally, field naturalists were more concerned with conserving particular places, rather than the processes of government: they loved the bushland haunts where they spent weekends 'birding' or 'botanising'. But in the 1950s, they campaigned actively for a National Parks Authority (NPA) (established in 1956) to manage the State's national parks. The professional National Parks Service was a very important outgrowth of the NPA in the 1960s.
Other groups were more concerned with nature conservation within Melbourne itself. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was for most of the 20th century responsible for large tracts of public land along river frontages in the metropolitan area. In 1996, the 'parks' division of the former MMBW was amalgamated with the National Parks Service, bringing the management of city and country natural reserves together.
The Save the Dandenongs League, founded by Professor John Turner of the University of Melbourne's Botany School and Miss May Moon in 1950, aimed to preserve the aesthetic appearance of Melbourne's nearest mountains by preventing developments that would detract from their natural beauty. Turner remained president of the Save the Dandenongs League throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1970s the Bolte Liberal Government began to buy back land that had been unsuitably developed on the Melbourne side of the Dandenong Ranges, to restore the 'blue view' so valued by the campaigners.
Turner joined with Dr Norman Wettenhall to establish a Landscape Preservation Council (LPC) under the aegis of the National Trust in 1960. The LPC acted as a pressure group on government planning bodies whose actions affected rural and 'wild' landscapes. Distinguishing itself from other conservation agencies such as the Soil Conservation Authority and the Natural Resources Conservation League (NRCL), which were more concerned with 'material resources', the LPC's focus was on the conservation of 'those things which nourish the spirit as well as the body of man'.
In 1969, a new group, the Save our Bushlands Action Committee (SOBAC), emerged to lobby against a proposal for agricultural development of the Little Desert area in north-western Victoria. Although it drew on many of the earlier conservation groups, SOBAC ushered in a new era in nature conservation, becoming the core of a new Conservation Council of Victoria (established in 1969, renamed 'Environment Victoria' in 1995). As a direct result of the Little Desert dispute, the Land Conservation Council was established to review public land use throughout Victoria on scientific principles. Its structure allowed for conservation groups to be represented within the planning process. The LPC was abolished in 1997, in favour of an Environment Conservation Council.
Since the 1970s, 'the environment' displaced 'nature conservation' as the focus of concern. 'Nature conservationists' were not always comfortable with radical environmentalism. A plethora of green activist organisations have emerged, including Melbourne branches of the international Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund, alongside other groups with a single-issue agenda. The Melbourne-based Native Forests Action Group, for example, was very active in East Gippsland in the late 1980s, but disbanded in the early 1990s.
A different sort of 'nature conservation' is promoted by Trust for Nature - Victoria (established as the Victorian Conservation Trust in 1972), which facilitates conservation on private land by enabling landowners to 'covenant' the conservation-sensitive parts of their land to prevent clearing if the land is sold. This organisation was one of the first to recognise that nature conservation on privately owned land is very important to preserving biodiversity beyond national parks and public reserves.