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What value is a century old tree?  

A 3 year saga and at the end … a tree story of woe but a mandate for better processes?

The setting is the Bridle Path, a much-loved and walked and cycled pathway from the Nelson Bay Marina west to Dutchman’s Beach, along the beautiful Port Stephens shoreline.

In October 2021, yellow crosses appeared on 7 trees in the Council Reserve on the high side of the Bridle Path near the Public Access pathway.

So strange.

These trees looked healthy, though one had some termite damage — just part of the process in creating nest hollows for wildlife, such as owls, kookaburras or eastern rosellas. 

Of particular concern was the massive blackbutt adjacent to the steps. Community quickly rallied with negligible forewarning to express their concern. 

More yellow crosses elsewhere confused the issue  

Coincidentally and concurrently, a massive blackbutt in Bagnalls Beach Reserve, also marked with yellow crosses, was decapitated.  

A burst water main blew sand out destabilising its roots.

Possibly a less severe truncation may have reduced the risk of it uprooting in a storm enabling some habitat.

We lobbied to stop the stump being totally removed on several grounds

  • the stump presents no apparent threat to life or property 
  • the stump’s removal does not improve the functionality of the Reserve
  • the stump serves an educational reminder of the huge size of trees once in the reserve, with the remaining majority of trees, though tall, are young by comparison
  • further stump removal wastes residents’ rates, whether Council and/or Hunter Water, for no apparent tangible benefit.

Sense prevailed, the stump had a reprieve and has sprung into life. Though it may take another 100 years to again form hollows, but it has a head start on a sapling, and would be more advanced if less severely truncated.

Massive community concern was expressed over the potential loss of the trees. 


Facebook: (some sites) with significant commentary and interaction

Just a few of the concerned locals

Mystery of the yellow XXXs in part resolved

Council reported that a new owner purchased the property adjacent to the Council reserve in March 2021.

The property had an existing Development Approval (DA) from 2016, with the trees on the reserve marked on the plans. The developer thought that meant they were approved for removal. However further Council permission was required. 

But the crunch came in May 2023 

February 2022 the developer was refused a permit to remove the trees on Council land 


May 2023 the developer was granted a permit to remove the large blackbutt immediately adjacent to his property. 

The 2016 approved DA included a brick fence on the property’s boundary. Apparently excavation for the fence’s foundations would be within 5 metres of the tree and was expected to significantly damage the tree roots, which would affect the tree’s health, stability and safety. There could be no respectivity.

The obvious question is why originally were there no requirements to modify this part of the DA to avoid impacting this significant and valuable mature tree?

On Saturday 4th May 2024, the tree met its demise 

The beautiful old blackbutt in its final hours –

Standing proud – First limb down – Ready for chipping.

Last stand – And the final cut! 

What value is a near century old tree? 

A measly 5 or 6 sapling trees is the compensation for a beautiful near century old tree – if they survive the next 100 years.

In the meantime, wildlife the tree supported have no shelter.

And what was achieved?

Not a home, but the potential for a brick fence to barrier in a boundary.

Could another fence-style have achieved a barrier without damaging  roots? Will the fence even be built?

The water view may have broadened. But what of appreciating the diversity of a filtered view – the joy of seeing what is happening beyond, while simultaneously enjoying life in the trees nearby.

Where to from here? Is this a tree story of woe but a mandate for better processes?

Should the environmental impacts on public spaces surrounding private property be taken into consideration when future DA’s are being assessed?

  • Could Council assessment officers have looked at this DA through a better environmental lens?
  • Could a better compromise be reached, requiring use of less intrusive fencing? This relies on officers’ judgement and values, and working in a context where the environment is important and they’re supported. 
  • Can guidelines be put in place for similar future situations?

What about the value of the dead tree to the immediate area? 

  • In 2023 when we learnt the tree was to be removed, we liaised with Council officers to retain any tree hollows and some woodchip for rehabilitation work on the Council reserve. 
  • However there were only hours available on a Friday, from the time the community was notified, to the first chainsaw cut Saturday morning. 
  • Better processes are required with timelines in place to enable better outcomes for the environment and community regarding trees in public spaces. 

We are yet to see if the death of this tree can improve processes 

A start is the recently appointed Environmental Advisory Group to Council which provides community an opportunity for such discussions and an avenue to support action.

We wait with interest as to what the future brings.

More information:

Published: 6 May 2024