WIMMERA River Improvement Committee president Gary Aitken has been recognised for his contribution to beautifying Horsham.
He received the Dame Phyllis Frost Award at the 2019 Keep Victoria Beautiful Tidy Towns Sustainable Communities Awards in honour of his service.
Mr Aitken said he was shocked to receive the accolade at the dinner, hosted by 2018 Victorian Tidy Town winner, Dimboola, on October 26.
"After I got over the total shock, I couldn't really make a speech because I was quite charged," he said.
"It is just a lovely award to receive but it goes further. It goes to all of the people of the Wimmera. There's no doubt about it, small towns deserve to be recognised."
The award is named after Dame Phyllis Frost - an Australian welfare worker and philanthropist who established the Keep Australia Beautiful movement. She died in 2004.
The award recognises the outstanding achievement of an individual in community participation and environmental protection.
The chairman of the Wimmera River Improvement Committee, Mr Aitken retired to Horsham more than 20 years ago.
His conservation work merges his lifelong love of the great outdoors with his knowledge of water systems, which he gained working as a grain and sheep farmer at Jeparit.
"Growing up, it was the sort of the thing to do when you lived in the bush with a big family was to sleep outside," he said.
"I could hear the animals - the frogs, the birds ... it was my playground."
Mr Aitken and his wife Beverley live in a house with a garden that backs onto the river - not far from Horsham weir.
"The wetlands are literally my backyard," he said.
But what is now a rich ecosystem was actually grazing land when he and Beverley originally moved in.
"A lot of people can't believe it when I tell them about the work that went into creating the wetlands. They think we're telling stories," he said.
He said the construction of the wetlands had helped purify the river downstream, making it safe for recreational aquatic activities such as rowing and swimming.
The bush behind his property is abundant with plants and animals - including wallabies, ringtail possums and many species of birds.
He credits Beverley for much of his drive in staying active with his conservation work.
"There is still so much support from her and that keeps me going," he said.
Mr Aitken said he meets with a group of dedicated volunteers every Wednesday, who work together to improve the health and condition of the river and surrounding area.
"This river has been around for thousands of years. Aboriginal people looked after it and we should, too," he said.
Some of the committee's projects have included clearing stormwater damage, erecting signs about birdlife and assisting in the planning of pedestrian bridges across the river.
"We have a really strong core of people that get together every Wednesday," he said. "We've probably planted over 1000 trees and we've also put in the unique picnic shelters."
The committee worked with Horsham Rural City Council to gather community feedback for what would become the Anzac Centenary Pedestrian Bridge.
The engineering team behind the construction of the bridge were later recognised with an award from the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia's engineering excellence awards.
Mr Aitken said the committee had also worked to rebuild a pedestrian boardwalk across the river after floods damaged the previous bridge in 2011.
He said his favourite place, and project, was the Horsham Police Paddock Nature Reserve - an area of 48.5 hectares on the northern edge of the city, which was formerly a paddock for holding police horses in the early 20th century.
"It's like Kakadu without the crocodiles," he said. "It was virtually a nothingness and now it's a place for people to be."
Mr Aitken said some of the committee's future plans included creating a complete loop for the river walk, reviving the grass around the fly fisherman's hut, and putting together a brochure about historical, environmental and cultural points of interest along the river.
"There's a caravan park on the river and those are the kind of people we would like to target (with information about the river)," he said.
"If you analysed waterways around Australia, the Wimmera river would be really high up the list of desirable river systems."Gary Aitken
He is passionate about ensuring people get outside and enjoy the beauty that can be found in the green spaces of Horsham.
"If you analysed waterways around Australia, the Wimmera River would be really high up there on the list of desirable river systems," he said. "Why anyone would want to live anywhere else but Horsham, I don't understand."
He encourages people to take care of the environment around them by using it, but not abusing it.
"There's nothing like getting out in the bush to recharge," he said.
"The best thing is to see people cycling, running, walking, fishing ... just enjoying the river."
Mr Aitken said he gets frustrated when he sees cans or plastic left by the river - especially when it has been stashed in bushes, because it is difficult to remove and shows that people are aware what they are doing is wrong.
He said if people wanted to help, they could start by picking up rubbish and cleaning up after their dog.
While you're with us, you can now receive updates straight to your inbox twice weekly from the Wimmera Mail-Times. To make sure you're up-to-date with all the news from across the Wimmera, sign up below.