300-year-old tree to fall victim to North East Link Project

The 2019 Victorian Tree of the Year was the last survivor of a river red gum forest cut down in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Manningham Council Facebook.
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Preliminary works have begun on the North East Link while thousands fight to save a pre-European settlement river red gum before it’s destroyed. Gemma Neary reports.

A heritage-listed river red gum in Bulleen is on schedule to be destroyed with works on the North East Link Project (NELP) now under way.

PCB contractors began work in Yallambie at Easter, with 26,000 mature trees and habitats to be cleared for the project.

Local botanical artist Frances Lee collected more than 4600 signatures on a petition to save the giant tree.

“We presented it to the IAC hearing and I really thought we made an impression,” she said.

“The minister ignored the panel’s recommendations … it seems most of the residents of the area are pretty keen for a new road.”

Official plans and timelines of the $15.4 billion North East Link have yet to be released, leaving many local councils with concerns.

Manningham City Council, joined by Banyule, Boroondara and Whitehorse councils began Supreme Court action on Friday to review processes they say unlawfully disregards recommendations of the Environmental Effects Statement (EES). The case continues.

Manningham Council CEO Andrew Day said they had “no choice but to challenge it”.

Manningham Mayor Cr Paul McLeish has been advocating for the preservation of the heritage river red gum since EES submissions opened in June of last year, “[State government] must take every consideration to protect it.”

The National Trust credited the tree 2019 Australian Tree of the Year (Victoria) which preceded a listing in the Victorian Heritage Database claiming that it is estimated to be three centuries old.

Manningham Council suggested it would be much older, considering similar reports of trees in the area.

The Wurundjeri people mark the tree as a Site of Significance. Indigenous tribes traditionally use the river red gum’s bark to build canoes and shields. The roots are also intrinsic to indigenous birthing rituals.

The Bulleen River Red Gum. Photo courtesy Manningham Council Facebook.

CSIRO author Dr Matthew Colloff said it is “so much more than just a tree”.

 “The river red gum has been central to landscapes in Australia – perhaps more so than any other Australian plant or animal.”

The Australian native stands at the height of a seven-storey building and has done so since at least a century before Europeans settled in Melbourne.

Ms Lee said she had a message for the Minister for Planning. “We are in the midst of a climate disaster and cannot afford to lose trees of this age.”

The “missing” North East Link, once completed, will stretch 26km and transport up to 135,000 vehicles daily.

Thousands of trucks will use the route instead of congested arterial roads, with the subsequent loss of 182 hectares of Melbourne’s open space.

This means that along with the Bulleen river red gum, 26,000 mature trees, (more than 3m in height) will be cleared.

The EES predicts an additional 10,000 trees will be demolished from the boundaries of the construction, marking an environmental loss of 36,000 trees and their ecosystems.

To compensate, NELP authorities promise to replant 30,000 new trees.

Yarra riverkeeper Andrew Kelly said that wasn’t enough.

“The replacement just isn’t what you had before. It takes decades to regain what you’ve lost. It takes time for everything to interconnect and form an eco-system,” he said.

Deakin University Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology Euan Ritchie said he would continue to fight for the tree.

“Progress shouldn’t come at any cost, and in the case of preserving iconic and valuable trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum, there’s more than enough reasons to ensure this tree’s life, and its many values, continue.”