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Mike Baird's war on trees is threatening our biodiversity

Over the past year, there's been a war on trees and there's no sign that it will stop.

I grew up in Sydney's eastern suburbs and knew the great native fig trees along Alison Road well. Many were more than 100 years old – testimony to the foresight of our early civic fathers. They were vital wildlife habitat and filtered clean air for all of us. They were also great carbon stores, that when destroyed release their carbon, worsening climate change.

Tree protesters lose fight against light rail

Sydney residents chain themselves to 100-year-old trees in Centennial Park, protesting against contractors chopping them down to make way for Sydney'€™s light rail. Courtesy ABC News 24.

Yet the NSW government and light rail builder, ALTRAC have set upon these trees over the Christmas/new year period. They are planning to remove more along the route – 400 in all.

Randwick Council and local residents have provided practical alternatives and route alignments, and despite recent losses are making a last stand as more trees come into the firing line. These magnificent living organisms are becoming a pile of woodchips. ALTRAC, which includes the local light rail operator Transdev, have offered eight young replacement trees for each mature tree as an offset. But what good is that? They cannot replicate what is lost in any useful time frame.

This episode is the latest in the war on trees.

Eighteen months ago the Baird government introduced the 10/50 rule to allow greater flexibility in removing trees that could be a bushfire risk. Despite clear warnings there were too many loopholes and it would be abused, the government pushed ahead.

What happened? Mature trees across the city were felled – without clear evidence this would assist bushfire mitigation. Great angophoras and gums, loved by residents and integral to the city's canopy, were lost to developers seeking to clear lots and by home owners who wanted a better view. Some commercial tree fellers mulched the limbs and just dumped it in the roadway and adjacent to bush reserves.

A hotspot was the Pittwater electorate of then environment minister Rob Stokes, with hundreds of trees removed and the local council fearful half the area's canopy was under threat. Eventually the government examined the evidence of misuse and partially modified the law. But why was it so blind in the first place?

Trees being cut down along Alison Road earlier this month.
Trees being cut down along Alison Road earlier this month. Photo: Nick Moir

Another major development is the West Connex roadway (M5 East section). The recent environmental impact statement admits threatened vegetation communities in the Wolli Creek area will be destroyed.

So their answer is to propose offsets, but there is no local bushland to protect that is "like for like". Roads and Maritime consultants have suggested looking for other bushland areas many kilometres away – "it's not the same but it will do". No it won't – an inner Sydney suburb will see some of the rarest vegetation and native habitat disappear forever.

Trees being cut down on Alison Road in Randwick in order to extend the Light Rail.
Trees being cut down on Alison Road in Randwick in order to extend the Light Rail.  Photo: Nic Walker

Total Environment Centre's Urban Sanctuary project has catalogued more than 20 current assaults on urban bush and parks in Sydney alone. Our development and planning system treats them as disposable, when they should be untouchable. Planning Minister Rob Stokes talks a lot about open space when announcing new development precincts, but has done little to protect our existing green assets.

Not satisfied with these local assaults on trees, the NSW government is moving to declare wholesale war on the entire state. It is intent on abolishing the Native Vegetation Act, passed by Parliament in 2003 to stop broadscale land clearing. It will be replaced by a so-called Biodiversity Conservation Act that will apply many of the current tree destruction tools in the government's armoury to the city and the country.

Offsets are the new mantra and the weak "major projects offsets policy" will become the rule. This states that if you can't find a "like for like" offset (inevitable in urban areas), then almost anything else will do, including developer payments to a fund or rehabilitating a mine site (when this should be entirely the responsibility of the mine owner). It's a sure recipe for the extinction of more endangered habitat. The Native Vegetation Act, which has saved hundreds of thousands of hectares from the bulldozer and chainsaw, had scientifically based rules about what should be protected (red lights) or offset with integrity. But no more under this new legislation – you can buy your way out.

The Baird government has argued it will establish a new fund to bring priority areas of farmland under conservation management to offset the expected loss of key native vegetation. But not only has it failed to allocate any money, it cannot guarantee that the right land will be offered by landowners for conservation. Their plan will disconnect our trees and enhancing biodiversity, from an effective conservation ethic.

The new legislation is expected to be released for public comment in a few months. Environment groups are of the view this will bring the war on trees to every council and neighbourhood in the state. This assault is in the context of so much of our bushland in the city and country having already been destroyed. It's why scientists have found so many "threatened ecological communities" and councils go to great lengths to register significant trees.

It's time for all those who value our native bush and urban trees to unite and stop this war.

Jeff Angel is executive director of the Total Environment Centre.

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