Donna Kelly and Kyle Barnes

2 May 2013 — I was thrown an insult the other day.

Apparently I’m a tree hugger – and apparently that’s a bad thing.

I didn’t mean to be a tree hugger, I’m not a bad person. I like animals and babies and hold open doors for people older than me. And younger too, mostly.

But a couple of months ago I heard that the Country Fire Authority, which is building next door to me in country Victoria, was going to remove at least one tree from the Avenue of Federation. Maybe more.

The planning permit had long gone through. Community consultation looks great on paper but when neighbouring properties have no idea what’s going on, it’s not really working in the real world.

Now these trees really make our little town shine. They are an alternate planting of oaks and elms, are elm-leaf beetle free, and were planted in 1898. Now I know that’s too early for Federation but it is when it was passed in Victoria. Instead of waiting for NSW to catch up – our forefathers and foremothers just started planting.

And an arborist’s report said that, even though the targeted elm was a little poorly, and who isn’t at 115, he recommended that the CFA use the back of the block to come and go and leave the trees alone.

I spoke to him one day and he said he was sick and tired of writing up reports which were totally ignored anyway. He said he was used to driving past places where he had recommended one thing just to see the exact opposite happening.

So a group of us got together, had a photo taken and I wrote an article for our local paper on how important it is to keep environment and heritage. And it didn’t run.

Apparently one of the women decided that because she hadn’t read the article she couldn’t put her name to it and asked the newspaper to pull the photo. So they pulled the whole lot. Without telling me. Great start.

Eventually The Friends of Barkly Street was whittled down to just three committed people – myself, my husband and a woman from over the road.

We started emailing to get the trees some sort of protection. We tried the national heritage register – still waiting, tried the state heritage register – were told no-one could stop the CFA, and we tried council – still waiting. The trees have been on a proposed list for a Trees of Significance register for six years now. Things move slowly in the central highlands.

During our many emails, while my husband was out mowing, he noticed an electricity distributor contractor on the opposite side of the road to the block the fire station is going on. They were about to start digging so they could tunnel under the road to connect power to the block.

He, and that other friend, asked if roots would be affected. Of course they would, they were told.

“It’s just a f…king tree mate. It’s progress,” they were told. Finally the contractors agreed to stop for a cuppa while we made some calls. I eventually got through to the manager who calmly told me “they are expert contractors out there, Donna, not cowboys. They will do as little damage as possible”.

I mentioned the response so far from the professional contractor adding “you can understand my reluctance to agreeing they are not cowboys”.

Anyway, work stopped, and they finally agreed there was no reason they couldn’t bring power in through the back of the block where just one gum lives.

Our final attempt was through our council members. I emailed them all and asked for them to think about the trees. I said I realised we had a low rate base in our little shire, and that there wasn’t a lot of money for new infrastructure, so we needed to keep what we had.

And it worked. They wrote to the CFA headquarters and asked them to rethink their plans. And they did.

And now the fire trucks are going out onto the Avenue but driving between that elm and an oak, using a bridge that will stop them crushing their roots, and come back in the back of the block.

A win-win.

But at a meeting held to explain the new driveways, as my husband and I waited for the mayor and CFA boss to say thanks, we heard, in a derogatory way, that we were “tree huggers”, “didn’t think they would let you in”, “where are your placards” and “tell me, do you really care about the trees or are you just causing s..t”.

We decided to skip the meeting – we already knew the outcome – and in our local newsletter it was written that it was “disappointing that those who were most vocal did not attend”.

Not sure what was disappointing really. We saved a tree, maybe more. But saving trees and heritage and the environment is not for the faint hearted or thin skinned.

And it can divide communities. But, at the end of the day, I sleep better knowing that elm will be around for a while yet.

And sometimes I am just going to go out there and give it a good old hug.

Donna Kelly writes for The Fifth Estate – when she’s not saving trees.

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  1. I’m a terrible facebooker and rotten at writing emails, and every day just seems so jam-packed with things I have to do or should have done yesterday but right now I just have to put everything aside and tell you how fabulous you are.
    I just read your tree-hugger article (I read all your pieces) and want to tell you, you are wonderful. And your husband (and the lady across the road) To actually not just think about something like that but to pick up the phone and type the emails and get things done. This is perhaps the most inspirational story I’ve read this year, perhaps longer.
    From now on I’m just going to do things – see I’m writing this email so it’s already working.

  2. I can’t believe that it reached this stage, when there was an alternative route – one that would save our heritage – available all along. Well done Donna, Kyle and the neighbor across the road for keeping up the fight.

  3. Great story. Thanks for sharing and well done.

    Unfortunately Newcastle citizens were unsuccessful in saving their amazing Fig Trees. –

    I have also been called a tree hugger, but I commonly value urban trees as I know what a great impact trees can make on an urban street. Some of the trees in the Northern suburbs or Sydney, and in the Melbourne CBD really make them great places to be.

    But having worked on many new projects, I know the frustration of waiting for them to grow to create the intended final street design. So let’s not chop down the ones that exist!

  4. Great article and even better to see the commitment you and your friends had to this campaign.

    Its so easy to give up when you are surrounded by such complacency and mediocracy to care and find solutions. It may have been a small victory but and inspiring one nonetheless



  5. It was heartening to read your story. I thank you for taking the time & effort to do something to save these trees. I am also sorry that you received criticism for doing so, but not surprised. I think it is odd the level of tree hatred or lack of concern regarding trees in many areas of our community. The worst statement I have heard from was that a street tree is only expected to live 7-years. When I became incredulous, it was hastily lengthened to 15-years. I wonder how they manage in Europe, the USA & Canada where urban trees are often celebrated & loved by all. Good on you. Being a Tree Hugger is actually a good thing as it shows you have concern for people’s wellbeing, the environment & the future.