01.08.2012 Environment

To Save a Tree

Individuals can play a key role in saving rare native trees in the suburbs, urges Adrian Glamorgan

Imagine: it's 7 o'clock on a cold wintry Saturday morning, and from the comfort of your early morning sleep, a chain saw starts up nearby, and there is the sound of a limb being sawn into. "I knew straight away it must be the Tuart," Amanda Joy says. She leapt out of bed.

The Tuart, eucalyptus gomphocephala, is a rare tree. Once found throughout the narrow Perth coastal plain, almost all the Tuart forest is gone now, with just one significant location left in the world, a 2000 hectare patch around Ludlow in Busselton, in the Southwest Botanical Province of Western Australia. But here and there in suburban Perth, like Amanda's own Hamilton Hill, a Tuart survives, a memento from pre-colonial times. But the hardiest of woods cannot survive a chain saw.

Seeing the Tuart having its limbs cut down, "I came across, stood underneath the tree with the four mulching trucks lined up under it, and the several utes, and tried to stop them." What was it like? "It was quite frightening - I'm a five foot two poet!" Amanda says, "It was interesting: they had clearly done this many times, they had strategies to get me out, away from the tree. As soon as I approached them all the machines went on. They said, 'We can't hear you, you're going to have to step over this way.' As soon as I stepped away from the machines, the cherry picker went up." Amanda couldn't find out who had given permission for the tree to be felled. "No one was able to provide me with paperwork. It was a very volatile situation."

Residents in the suburbs, learning by phone of the threat to the rare Tuart, joined Amanda by 8.30am. The contractors had left by then. The community residents willingly parked their cars around the tree, to protect it, and waited for further support.

'Forest Rescue' very quickly arrived. Forest Rescue is a group of active nonviolent campaigners, putting their bodies on the line, defending old growth and high conservation value forests. In the city, they oppose developments in urban bushland, whether it comes from developers, government land corporations, or universities wanting to clear land. They are often bold. In a surprise move earlier this year, Forest Rescue launched 'Operation Tree Shepherd', and in a complex night manoeuvre, starting from two small boats near Rottnest Island, Geoffrey Tuxworth and Glen Pendlebury followed the moving Japanese whaler, Shonan Maru #2, 30 kilometres out to sea, found a way on to the side of the ship, worked their way past razor wire and spikes over the rails, to successfully board the whaler, bringing international attention to the gruesome work of these boats.

The suburbs would seem a much easier proposition. Urban infill rarely involves razor wire, but it often does see the destruction of old, beautiful trees, on verges blocking views, on vacant land, and even those on boundaries, whose only offence to developers seems to be that they are an impediment to bobcats moving around easily. Down, another tree. And another. All over the city, one by one, not through a line of bulldozers but by single random, unconnected, unregulated, sawing down of this or that tree or felled by a blunt front end and then the grinding of the mulchers, at all hours. Even when owners specifically tell their builders not to clear, owners will return to see a straight rectangle of flatness, a mumbled apology, and no recourse. A real estate war against nature.

Forest Rescue are quick. Says Amanda, "They had the fantastic 'Don't destroy red tail habitat' banner up, within moments, which was fabulous because all the local community saw it going up straight away. All the people who had initially closed their doors and windows or driven away, not wanting to see the tree go down, assuming it was authorised, suddenly came out and said, 'Somebody's done something.'"

When someone does something, it gives the rest of us hope. That's the secret behind the Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, Forest Rescue, the community opposing the Kimberley Gas Hub. It's Rosa Parks sitting down at the front of the bus, Jack Mundey's union defending The Rocks, through Green Bans. It's Jacqui Katona calling for civil disobedience to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine. Someone doing something.

Yes, sometimes they look like plain ratbags. Until history looks back, and sees their courage, and sanity.

Within a couple of hours Forest Rescue builds a tree platform. Sean "Roley" Gransch takes up precarious residence, enduring nightly winter cold and rain. He's not shifting. "These are the costs you pay to get some change," he tells me. "We do like to see campaigns through. We're in for the thick and thin."

The word goes out on Facebook. Hundreds sign up, dozens come over to share warm food and chai under the still standing tree. Councillor Sam Wainwright explains, "It's a great opportunity for people to come together. There's been no confrontation with the police, it's all gone very smoothly, because it's been done in the right spirit. This is about people trying to save something important to the community, they have a stake in it."

Local councillors and the Mayor of Cockburn, Logan Howlett, are quickly on board, trying to establish the developer's decision making chain. It seems they've actually been chopping down a tree on a neighbour's block because of its threat to their own. They have permission, but have destroyed the neighbour's limbs first before they start on the overhang itself, and then the roots. Much time is taken, trying to get to the bottom of who said what and gave permission for whom, and how the tree might be saved still.

Then there is the need for significant trees like this to be listed on the already established council register, the need to consult Aboriginal elders for trees of significance and heritage. A professional arboculturalist quickly donates his expertise and values the tree at $80,000. Local member of parliament Lynn MacLaren explains that people ring her office regularly with stories like this of suburban trees being felled, and the need for a whole system response. You would think such a system failure was worthy of a Royal Commission. There was one - in 1903. Writer Irene Cunningham quotes its findings: "Tuart is the most valuable tree...Between Bunbury and Busselton it is ceasing to reproduce, scarcely a single seedling under ten years to be found." But someone in 1903 failed to act.

"We've been trying to protect the tree: as you can see, it's a beautiful thing," says tree platformer Sean. And it is. All because Amanda Joy gets out of bed, instead of pulling over the covers. Because residents park their cars under the tree. Because activists build a tree platform. And Facebook folk click "share" but then leave their computers to come down, to share stories and join the action.

The red tailed black cockatoo was once seen in flocks of hundreds. They are a raucous crowd, flying to a considerable height. But they are mostly gone. Like the Tuarts, and native trees around the city, a rarer sight. "They're very old, beautiful trees, they're heritage," says Sean. And so are actions like these. If a tree falls in the suburbs, who will hear?

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism