The RSL has condemned protesters opposed to the removal of century-old Moreton Bay fig trees along Sydney's Anzac Parade for using in their campaign a poem to the fallen in World War I.
Despite mounting opposition, the Baird government is standing firm in its decision to allow trees, said to have been planted along the avenue in 1917 in honour of Australian diggers, to be felled for a $2.1 billion light rail line to the city's eastern suburbs.
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Fight to save majestic trees
Centennial Park residents hoped a last-minute change to the light rail route would save 100-year-old trees from facing the chop.
Contractors began cutting down eight trees on Anzac Parade near the new Albert (Tibby) Cotter Walkway on Wednesday and a further nine on Wansey Road near Randwick Racecourse.
The tram line will link Circular Quay to the eastern suburbs via Anzac Parade, and includes stops near Moore Park and the racecourse.
While sad to see the removal of trees planted a century ago, RSL state president Rod White said activists opposed to the removal of trees had inappropriately used Laurence Binyon's poem, For the Fallen, on banners along Anzac Parade.
"It is disrespectful and wrong for protesters to have used it on banners along Anzac Parade," he said.
Mr White said many memorials and commemorative plaques in NSW had been relocated or replaced due to developments over the past century, and the latest work along Anzac Parade was another example.
The RSL would seek to have the original intent of the memorial trees along Anzac Parade reinstated when new plantings were made in the area.
Transport Minister Andrew Constance said the tram route had been known publicly since January last year and the government had been working to "minimise disruption to trees".
"You can't have it both ways. Unfortunately some vegetation is going to have to be removed to build this $2.1 [billion] construction project," he said.
"The reality is that you can't do the big build without disrupting vegetation."
Mr Constance described as "simply outrageous" comments and actions from Randwick City Council, which has campaigned against the tree cull, and Labor leader Luke Foley.
"We have to be realistic here – we cannot build this project without removing some trees. This is the best outcome we can achieve."
Mr Foley said the historic trees could be saved if the government considered alternative plans such as those submitted by Randwick City Council.
"It doesn't have to be this way. The community can have light rail without the carnage," Mr Foley said.
Jeff Angel from the Total Environment Centre, which has campaigned against the tree cull, said the RSL should recognise that the trees were not only important commemorative plantings but also provided "clean air, shade and wildlife, all of which new plantings cannot compensate".
He estimated up to 40 trees that had been planted as a memorial to Australian soldiers in 1917 would be felled for the light rail.
The government has guaranteed it will plant eight new trees for every mature tree felled, and four for every mid-sized one.
In a letter to Mr Constance, Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said the large number of trees removed along the route was "extremely distressing, particularly historic trees".
"The avoidable loss of trees along the [light rail] route threatens to further jeopardise community support for the project," wrote Cr Moore, who has been a supporter of the project.
"Given this late stage, I urge you to urgently intervene to protect the further destruction of significant Moreton Bay figs in Moore Park."
CBD co-ordinator general Marg Prendergast said the road would have to be widened to accommodate traffic if the existing route for the light rail was moved.
"We are not happy about having to remove trees but it is a necessary evil of this major transformation project," she said.
"One myth that's out there is that every tree we are cutting down is a 100-year-old fig – that is not true. There is a minority of significant trees and it is heartbreaking. Some of the other trees are noxious weeds."
Early this month about 35 trees were removed from Alison Road in Randwick, and a further four from Anzac Parade for the project.
The environmental impact statement for the light rail shows up to 760 trees along the entire length of the 12-kilometre light rail line could be felled.
However, transport officials say they are confident fewer will need to be cut down for the project.