by Donna Kelly

9 May 2013 — I received a letter from Tony Burke the other day. That’s the federal minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Now, we’re not penpals or anything like that.

But I had emailed to him on 26 February about saving some very old trees in my town’s main street. He’s in charge of the National Heritage List. Seemed like a given.

See our story here: Saving trees not for the faint hearted

Anyway, he sent back a letter, stamped on 30 April, by post. It arrived last week.

I wrote that an avenue of trees planted in country Victoria, to celebrate the Federation of Australia, was under imminent threat, and a group of “friends of the trees” was hoping to apply for inclusion in the National Heritage List.

We wanted to apply for registration under the EPBC legislation. That’s emergency leglisation. That’s to do with the “imminent threat”. That’s why I emailed.

Other bits I wrote were that “furthering its national significance, is the fact the avenue was actually planted in 1898 – with a plaque as proof – after Federation referendums were held around Australia on the issue. It was passed in all four states but because New South Wales did not have the needed numbers it sat on the backburner for a few more years – until 1901”.

(It also means the forefathers and foremothers of my little hamlet just thought “stuff it, let’s just start planting while the rest of the country gets its act together”.)

And I wrote a bit more.

“The trees form a spectacular avenue on the main street, and on a federal level must be among the most incredible historical markers of the Federation of Australia.

“The threat comes with the building of a CFA Fire Station on a greenfields site on the main street with an entrance and exit planned for the street. This potentially means the removal of one tree, an elm, with heavy pruning of the other two oaks. An arborist commissioned by the CFA says his first recommendation is to leave all trees alone and use another exit/entrance at the rear of the block. He also said the root and sucker damage from the proposed concrete apron and driveways onto the block will cause major interference to the historical treescape – and potential harm the remaining trees in the area.

“The works are proposed to start now and form part of the permit for the CFA building.”

Anyway, Tony politely thanked me for my letter. But, and there’s always a but, he let me know he could only include a place in the National Heritage List “if, among other conditions, I believe the place is of outstanding heritage value to the nation”.

“Based upon your email, I believe that in terms of the connection to the Federation, the Avenue of Federation is unlikely to meet the threshold of outstanding heritage value to the nation.

“There are several commemorative tree plantings throughout Australia and the age of the planting does not signify national importance.

“Therefore, based upon the information presented in your submission, I am unable to agree to enter the Avenue of Federation in the National Heritage List.”

Tony then suggested I either gather up more evidence for “a standard nomination” or because the national criteria is so high, go down a notch to Heritage Victoria. Mmm. Perhaps they have lower standards.

I am going to email back. And thank him for his letter. But, and there’s always a but, in the time it took him to write back, what was basically, “no”, we saved the trees through other means.

I’m also going to let him know that although I am not a complete idiot – although I am a journalist so credibility is low –  I am not a heritage expert, so to make his decision on national heritage matters “based on my email” seems a tad bizarre.

Doesn’t he have his own people on the ground. Or our council has a heritage planning expert – wouldn’t it make more sense to put a call through to her?

And honestly if I relied on “gathering up more information for a standard nomination” the bloody tree/trees would be long gone by the time anyone made a decision.

Anyway, while Tony was writing, we went the way of asking the council to ask the CFA to change its mind and use a rear entrance to the site for returning vehicles so they don’t need a giant driveway and the trees can remain as they have for 115 years.

And they did, and they did too, and the trees will live to fight another day.

But I do have Tony Burke’s signature, so in September, if things go as they seem to be going, perhaps he will join Peter Garrett in his old profession with Midnight OilAnd one day it might be worth a bob or two.

In the meantime, to future proof against other driveways, I’ll try for Heritage Victoria, again, and our council, again. Someone must care.

And I’ll go out and give the tree another good old hug.

Donna Kelly writes for The Fifth Estate – when she’s not corresponding with Tony Burke.

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