Sydney Battles Invasion of the Tree-Snatchers
Author: Paul Tait
Their victims are trees, and the perpetrators are property-obsessed Sydney homeowners seeking to increase the value of their land by adding or improving views of the city's world-famous harbour and beaches.
Tree vandalism has reached "epidemic" proportions in the waterside suburbs, according to New South Wales state Environment Minister Bob Debus.
Debus's government wants to toughen existing environmental laws, which include fines in excess of A$1 million ($741,000), in order to catch and prosecute the vandals.
"In some of the worst cases entire groves of mature trees have been poisoned to give uninterrupted views to nearby waterways," Debus said in a letter to the head of a local government association which was seen by Reuters on Thursday. The vandals most commonly bore large holes into the trunks of trees and fill them with herbicide and other poisons, chop them down with axes or "ring-bark" them by cutting away strips of bark around the tree stem, ensuring a slow death.
In the seaside suburb of Coogee, more than 75 native banksia, melaleucas, eucalyptus and other introduced species have been killed over the past six years in one beachside park alone.
World-famous Bondi has also been hit, with Norfolk Island pines poisoned in front of a block of apartments. Dozens of huge mature fig trees, casuarinas and peppercorn trees have been destroyed in several other suburbs.
Water views can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a house or apartment.
Sydney housing was once the most expensive on the planet before the property bubble burst in 2003, with the speculative excess of its harbour-hugging homeowners even dragging on the national economy.
Local councils are fighting back, erecting signs and banners in front of dead and dying trees promising that they will be replaced. But in some cases even the newly planted saplings have been ripped out of the ground.
Debus wants local park rangers to have greater powers to search and gather evidence, such as poison, from private homes.
"It's clear some residents are taking matters into their own hands but, unless you catch people in the act, it's extremely hard to find and prosecute for tree vandalism or poisoning," Debus said in an email received by Reuters on Thursday.
But some waterside residents aren't surprised.
"If they plant trees in front of peoples' houses when people have these views, then it is hardly a surprise that some of them will poison them," Coogee resident and environmental consultant Stephen Sheldon told the Sydney Morning Herald this week.