Trees get the axe: “community divided”

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The decision to remove long standing trees in Melbourne’s south east town of Emerald is causing uproar amoung some within the close community.  

Tall temporary metal fences and bright orange tape stops the public from entering. Behind the boundary is a scene of demolition. There are gaping holes and upturned soil, littered with huge tree stumps and roots, splintered logs and debris. These are the remnants of what stood along the side of the oval only a few days before and for many years before that. Further along stands a few remaining trees, awaiting the fate of their neighbours. The air smells like a mixture of a pine air freshener and petrol.

Days later the metal fences and tape are now gone. The stumps and roots have been turned into a giant pile of mulch. The dirt is smooth. The machinery has been taken away. If you hadn’t been here before, you wouldn’t be aware of the giant pines that grew at Worrell Reserve in Emerald, a small south-eastern suburb of Melbourne. For over 100 years, approximately 50 impressive Monterey cypress trees lined the side of the oval. The trees were iconic.

Despite the trees being well established, there was the decision to remove them. This was done so that Worrell Reserve would qualify as a Neighbourhood Safe Place (NSP). An NSP is a place of last resort during a bushfire emergency. They are not purpose-built structures; rather they are public spaces, such as an oval like in this case. These designated spaces do not guarantee safety during a bushfire emergency, and only should be treated as a place of last resort.

For Worrell Reserve to become Emerald’s Neighbourhood Safer Place, it was decided that the 100-year-old trees had to be removed. A number of factors contributed to why this was the only option for the trees. Ultimately, they were seen as a radiant heat risk if they were to catch fire, and the Cardinia Shire Council started planning for their removal.

Ranges ward councillor, Leticia Wilmot, says this action was the only option.

“A key requirement for a Neighbourhood Safer Place is that it provides protection from lethal levels of radiant heat. The radiant level that would emanate from the cypress trees is some 50 times higher than the tolerable level,” Cr Wilmot explains.

“So in order for Worrell Reserve to meet CFA criteria, the ageing cypress trees that form a windrow along the north-eastern boundary of the reserve needed to be removed.”

While the threat of bushfires plays on the minds of everyone who lives in the vulnerable area, some people within the community are outraged at the removal of the trees.  This includes Lee Fuller, who is the leader of community action group Emerald for Sustainability. Emerald for Sustainability is a non-profit, non-politically aligned group that publically and loudly voiced it’s opposition for the plans to remove the trees.

One of the main issues Ms Fuller took with the tree removal was the lack of community consultation and involvement that took place during the decision making process. She believes that the decision to pull down the pines was made too quickly, and too silently, leaving the community out of the process to a large extent.

“We had been trying to work with council saying that this is not a good idea. This is the most significant plan for Emerald in recent years, and we needed more community consultation. I’m afraid the community consultation wasn’t anywhere near enough considering how major the plan was,” Ms Fuller says.

Emerald and the surrounding areas have been hit hard during the bushfire season in the past. After Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday, the people have Emerald have seen the devastating effect that bushfires can have on a community. Following the Black Saturday fires, there was a community forum held in the Emerald town hall. The hall was packed to capacity with people spilling out into the car park. Another community forum was held concerning an overbearing development in the town, and this forum also attracted a sizeable amount of people. Ms Fuller wonders why the same type of community involvement didn’t take place this time.

“Clearly development or plan and bushfires interest people, so why not have the two things in a forum and let people hear what has to be said? Communities should be able to decide what’s right for them and what’s not. You’re starting to see the erosion of a community voice and we want it back.”

However, the council is adamant that their community consultation and planning process was extensive and sufficient. During a six-week period from early March to mid-April, the council took many different measures to raise awareness about what was happening.

“This [consultation period] included written notification to over 50 community groups and organisations, notifications were in local newspapers, local and school newsletters, local radio, and on community notice boards.  A public information kiosk was held and staff attended public meetings for the Emerald Village Committee on several occasions to answer questions. Staff also attended meeting with other groups,” Cr Wilmot explains.

“Personally I spoke about it at every opportunity when meeting with residents whether as individuals or at group meetings.  I wrote about it in our regular articles in local newsletters and spoke about it on our regular timeslot on 3MDR. I do think every effort was made to engage the community.”

Along with the lack of community involvement, Ms Fuller also feels what a Neighbourhood Safer Place offers does not justify the removal of the long-standing trees. She says with the limitations placed on the NSP – for example you can’t bring your car or pets – and since there is no guarantee for safety, the trees shouldn’t have been removed on the basis of an “if” scenario.

“The benefits of have an NSP with the limitations in place do not out-weigh what’s happened. The limitations mean that not everybody can go to the NSP, that it’s not for everybody, but those trees were for everybody. The environmental and aesthetic costs are greater than the benefits of including the oval as an NSP,” Ms Fuller believes.

She also believes that there are now “mixed messages” amoung the community about fire safety. She’s concerned that the oval might be seen as a place of refuge and an alternative to having a fire plan.

“In the Emerald community, the message has always been leave early, have a plan and go. Now the message is just so mixed.”

Cr Wilmot says the council has considered this possibility though. She says the council has started to implement a community awareness programme about fire safety, holding a meeting with key community representatives about the purpose of an NSP and the need for a fire safety plan.

She acknowledges that it is extremely important for every family to have a plan and to leave early in the case of a bushfire emergency. However, after recent fires, it is clear that many people do not leave early for a variety of reasons, which emphasises the need for an NSP.

“Fires can start unexpectedly on a day that isn’t considered high risk.  The recent fires in NSW are an example of this.  We have no way of determining how many people will use this NSP-PLR but after speaking to locals that were here for the Ash Wednesday fires, they have all said that the reserve was full and the population is much higher now 30 years on.”

The overarching need for fire safety seems to be a common concern amoung people in the community. While there is definite unrest in the community over the tree removal, many residents understand the need for an NSP.

Owner of an antique store overlooking Worrell Reserve, Jan Kennedy, understands the reasons behind the tree removal.

“I love trees and I’m very sad that they’re gone, but I understand why. You have to really watch out with fires.”

Bridget Sung, 20, a frequent visitor of Emerald and lover of the scenery in the area, also sees the need for fire safety, despite admiring the trees.

“I get it, but it is a shame. It’ll be a bit hard to get use to, but having some type of safety net during the bushfires is more important.”

Ms Fuller says she’s been painted as a “tree-hugging hippie” who would put human life over trees, which she says is completely untrue. She doesn’t dispute the need for fire safety, rather she thinks the way the situation was handled by the council left a great sense of discontentment in the community and questions need to be answered.

“We were certainly kept quiet and deliberately pushed aside. There’s quite a bit of tension in the community. People who would normally stop and chat; some of them just walk the other way now because of that division,

“It’s a mess. The community is divided. When those trees started to come down, we had an awful lot of people come past to take photos and ask questions. People were crying on my shoulder saying, ‘how did this happen? I didn’t know this was happening’”

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