Image for The philistines ... Arbor amour: a kiss of death

Savagely wounded, perhaps dying, a mature black peppermint eucalypt in Cygnet in its way symbolises a puzzling, seemingly intractable, community gulf in the Huon Valley.

Can’t say I wasn’t warned when I joined the campaign to defend that gum. Having become aware of my involvement, an acquaintance emailed me: “Simply to stand up in defence of a tree is almost to assure its destruction, whether by legal means or other (trees have been poisoned or ringbarked previously to make sure they would not survive).”

Also, an ominous first sentence: “Don’t know how long you’ve lived in Cygnet, Bob, but as soon as you identify yourself as a ‘greenie’, or anywhere along that particular spectrum, there are many and varied forces arrayed against you.”

You can probably guess what comes next: while members of Pat Synge’s Cygnet Citizens Group were finding plenty of support for a petition to force Huon Valley Council to call a public meeting to discuss the fate of the black peppermint tree — on the work-in-progress Mary Street subdivision — some misguided soul, most likely under the cover of darkness, was hacking away with an axe at the bole of the very same tree.

Was it fear of detection or pure incompetence on the part of the attacker that left the ringbarking assault not quite perfect?

The eucalypt — possibly dying, if not from the axe attack, from a dose of something lethal — has become both a cause celebre and a new source of rift in the sometimes brittle fabric of old-timer/newcomer Cygnet.

In a very short time, the story of this tree (and its now removed neighbour, a magnificent blackwood — see TT ‘Death of a Blackwood’, July 27: HERE ) has become tortuous and ineffably sad, and far too difficult to relate with any confidence of total accuracy.

Suffice it to say, lots of people in Cygnet would have liked to see both trees survive (especially the gum) and become part of a soon-to-be available “public open space”; equally, lots of people couldn’t give a damn whether the trees stayed or went; and, obviously, there are a mere handful determined that the remaining tree should perish, by fair means or foul.

After discovering in late June, almost by accident, that both the blackwood and the eucalypt were to be removed, Synge’s group collected almost overnight 100 signatures on a petition requesting that both be retained. (I decided Synge’s cause was well-intentioned and reasonable, and harmful to no one, so I signed the petition.)

That first petition was presented to the July meeting of Huon Valley Council. Among other things, it asked that the eucalypt be retained. The petition was tabled and received — council had also received 15 written submissions requesting that the eucalypt be retained — and council later decided to call in an arborist to assess the health of the eucalypt. (In July, the blackwood was pushed over — in the process breaking branches off the eucalypt — and removed to make way for a roundabout at the junction of Charlton and Mary streets. The roundabout was a requirement by the main-roads authority, DIER, for the subdivision to go ahead.)

At the August meeting of council, having received an upbeat arborist’s report, staff recommended that the eucalypt be “maintained” and that about $300 a year be spent on an arborist to monitor its health. (The staff recommendation contained an ambiguous clause (d) that could be construed as a recommendation to remove the tree in autumn 2011, but the tone of its report was that the tree was worth preserving for another decade.) 

Councilor Rowan Gudden was not interested in any of this. He wanted “maintained” replaced with “removed”, and he moved accordingly. The two Greens councillors, Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff, who wanted the tree kept, appeared caught off guard. And Councillor Mike Wilson (a member of the council’s 7-man power bloc, for the moment calling itself the Huon Valley Team — HVT) also said he did not want the eucalypt destroyed, arguing that an “umpire” (an arborist) had been called in and had judged the gum was good for at least another 10, maybe 20, years. It was a time span in which replacement vegetation could become established.

As council observers know, when all nine councillors are present, the HVT can tolerate two of its members breaking ranks and still get a motion through. That’s how it worked out in August: the Gudden motion passed 6-3, supported by the votes of Ian Paul (seconder), Robert Armstrong (mayor), Bruce Heron, Gary Doyle and Tony Duggan.

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Councillor Paul grumbled about the cost of the annual assessment of the health of the eucalypt, mocking Smith for her usually stringent attitude on wasteful expenditure yet this time wanting to spend $300 a year to keep one tree standing.

Not surprisingly, no one mentioned the $155,000 allocated (without public consultation) in the 2010-11 financial year budget for a new toilet block in Cygnet. (The public could only find out about this by combing through the budget figures.) Why $155,000 should be wasted on a new structure when Cygnet already has a perfectly functional public toilet — if rather quaint and in need of a bit of a facelift — is beyond me, especially considering there are also three pubs in Cygnet that are open throughout the hours in which people are most likely to be caught short in the street.

And, again not surprisingly, no one mentioned the $200,000-plus allocated to “street cleaning” in the 2010-11 budget. Early in September, council announced that “a new . . . street sweeper will soon be seen sweeping its way around the Huon Valley”.

Two-hundred-thousand bucks to clean the streets for a year! The money might have been better spent on casual manual street-cleaning labour in a municipality that has a high unemployment rate.

I couldn’t spot a separate budget allocation for cleaning all the places in the municipality (littered by bottle-throwing and garbage-disposing louts who don’t seem to give a damn what the municipality looks like) out of reach of the palpably semi-efficient whirling brushes and huge suction power of our noisy new rubbish-and-energy gutter guzzler. We are assured, however, that it is also useful for cleaning stormwater pits.

It’s funny how a $300 expense can loom so large in one councillor’s view when $355,000 on questionable projects can be decided upon in secret and then tucked away in small-print budget statements.

Back to the tree and Pat Synge’s efforts to save it.

It was not long before news got about Cygnet that the validity of the Gudden motion was suspect — on the grounds that the land on which the tree stands would remain the property of the owners until the subdivision was complete, probably sometime next year; and then that it was likely to become DIER property because it lies below the Australian Height Datum level of three metres above the highwater mark. From this perspective, it appears the council, in its wisdom, decided to remove a tree that it had no legal right to touch.

A second petition was started. This time it was a ‘Section 59’ type that can call for a public meeting to discuss an issue. (To force council to call a public meeting requires the signatures of at least 5% — somewhere around 550 — of the municipality’s electors.) Again the signatures rolled in.

I did a stint on federal election day collecting signatures outside the Cygnet polling booth. The support for the tree was overwhelming and there were only a few fairly good-natured asides — “Fuck the tree”, “Push it over”, “Tree hugger” and so on. The relaxed mood was marred only by one quite seriously obnoxious fellow who, in fairly colourful language, wanted to know what right I had, having only been in the area a few years, to “change” the town (seems he’s been around Cygnet for about 15 years, so he had it all over me in terms of time served). It was a waste of breath telling him that, by working to save a Cygnet icon, I was actually trying to prevent change.

More than 700 people signed the second petition within a few weeks but such has been the enthusiasm for the cause that among them are many whose support, under the law, does not count. (If you can’t vote in a Huon Valley council election, your signature has no value on a Section 59 petition.) A check against the council’s electoral roll in Hobart found the petition was still short by about 50 or so eligible signatures. So the signing continued and Synge says he is now confident the 5% target will be met.

With many thinking that the eucalypt, as a result of the axe attack, is in the throes of a slow death, the issue has become more a matter of principle. What signatories still want to know is why Gudden and Mayor Armstrong, both of whom live in Cygnet, should have indulged in what is seen by many as communally divisive behaviour. And they want to know why four councillors who do not live in the township threw their support behind the Gudden motion to destroy a tree that the developers and a large portion of the Cygnet population wanted kept.

If there had been a widely supported petition to have the tree destroyed, I might have been writing a vastly different story. But there is not.

Clearly, all of us busybodies in the Cygnet community who have been working to save the black peppermint were naïve to ignore my correspondent’s warning: “Simply to stand up in defence of a tree is almost to assure its destruction.”