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This book is delightfully easy to read but not so easy to review in a limited space as it moves widely from topic to topic despite being embraced by a common theme, being Australia’s incredibly diverse tree flora and the human interaction and exploitation both pre- and post-European occupation.

An early chapter captured and intrigued me right away because we lived in Perth for nine years, and he writes through the eyes of a First Nations woman as she traversed Perth's original landscape with its native trees, now changed largely beyond recognition. But the portion of that chapter that deals with Rottnest Island was an eye opener for us who visited the island regularly and actually had our honeymoon there. The brutal incarceration of Aboriginal prisoners and the gradual destruction and thinning of the native flora meant that what we saw on visiting bore little resemblance to its original state.

One chapter features the Leichhardt Tree Nauclea orientalis, a member of Rubiaceae or the coffee family. The so-named tree in Mackay is probably 200 years old and has survived incredible danger and destructive forces like tropical cyclones, has lost all its neighbouring companion flora, but has survived the destructive fate of so many native trees. So-named because it was encountered and recorded by explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the author highlights its cosmopolitan distribution in the south-west Pacific and its recognition by Melanesian islanders of the Kanaka slave trade as a reminder of home. But of course it was also part of the largely lost native flora of the Yuwibara First Nations inhabitants of the Mackay region and part of its rich history.

The previous paragraph was a brief 10 pages, illuminating and dense with information, but numerous other chapters follow comparable themes with diverse species and settings. For example, having worked inland and encountered isolated palm groves – oases in the middle of nowhere – I was fascinated to learn of the possibility that these had been brought south by First Nations travellers from closely related tropical palm groves, and had only modestly diversified and evolved to fit their new homes.

He touches a number of times on the huge diversity of eucalypt species, highlighting Dean Nicolle’s Currency Creek ‘tree museum’ in South Australia. He intertwines this with Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus novel, a story in the vein of that country and western song Wolverton Mountain. Coming from Britain which has only 15 or 20 truly native tree species, you can spend a lifetime learning only a small fraction of what Australia has to offer even if you never get beyond the eucalypts.

What author Dave Witty’s professional qualifications are or what he does for a living when he’s not writing books or articles never came clear (he has been awarded a Nature Conservancy nature conservation prize and has published articles in Meanjin and Griffith Review among other journals). But it’s made clear he grew up in Britain and migrated here, and had a long standing relationship that failed after 12 years. The latter arose as an uncomfortable backdrop on several occasions in the book though it did tend to soften and humanise it, and it was good to learn he subsequently met and married a new partner and they have a young daughter.

Dave Witty, Monash University Publishing (2023) 284 pp (reviewed by John Martyn)

Published in STEP Matters 224
Monday, 11 March 2024 22:47

Calls for stronger tree protection measures

According to 2020 data Ku-ring-gai currently has an urban forest canopy cover of 45%. The Urban Forest Strategy is to increase this to 49% by 2036. However the level of canopy cover is going the wrong way and there is increasing community concern about tree destruction, both legal and illegal.

In recent months there have been some extreme examples of tree destruction in Middle Cove (over 250 trees) and Longueville (about 300 trees and shrubs). There are many examples of trees being removed in order to ‘improve’ views or increase property value as the size of a home rebuild is increased.

There is some dispute about the level of canopy loss. Council’s measures are that 1.4% of canopy has been lost over the two years to 2022. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald quoted data from a study compiled by consultancy group ArborCarbon for the state government and analysed by the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue. This claimed that the Ku-ring-gai had lost 8.2% between 2019 and 2022. The discrepancy is so large that the baseline or methodology needs to be examined.

The article stated that, altogether, Greater Sydney’s tree canopy barely changed; trees covered 21% per cent of the city in 2019 and, in 2022, cover was 21.7%. That’s a long way off from the government’s target of 40% coverage by 2036. That target will totally unachievable if the housing proposals go ahead as announced (see previous article). A large proportion of the increase needs to occur on private land. Only so many trees can be planted along streets and in parks.

Responses by local councils

Several local councils presented motions to the local government conference in November 2023 calling for increases in penalties for tree vandalism and illegal removal. The motion passed called on Local Government NSW to:

  • Urgently undertake a review of the legislative regime for tree protection and seek increased penalties and deterrents, including significantly increased fines and community service for the destruction and vandalism of trees in NSW. The review is to include the destruction and vandalism of vegetation in environmentally sensitive areas such as riparian zones, areas of high biodiversity value and foreshore protection areas. The review should identify opportunities to better coordinate tree protection across NSW, along with improved education and awareness around the importance of tree protection to build stronger community support.
  • Advocate for effective reform to improve collaboration and coordination in education and enforcement to combat tree vandalism in NSW.

Upper house petition – please sign

The Legislative Assembly of the NSW parliament has put up a petition calling on the government to significantly increase penalties for urban forest tree vandalism. It also calls for the recognition of trees as 'natural assets' in the Integrated Planning and Reporting framework of the Local Government Act.

Click here to sign the petition.

The preamble to the petition explains that councils lack resources for thorough criminal investigations, hindering effective prosecution. Despite the illegality of tree vandalism under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, only 19 cases were prosecuted from 2018 to 2022.

The petition also asks the Legislative Assembly to call on the government to amend the NSW Local Government Act to include trees in councils' asset registers as 'natural assets', allocate a budget for a collaboration of councils to undertake pilot projects to integrate natural capital/asset reporting in balance sheets and develop natural asset data capture and management standards. Recognising trees as 'natural assets' helps us appreciate their true value including their role in combating climate change and preserving biodiversity.

What’s Ku-ring-gai doing?

1. Strengthened tree regulations

Council is now enforcing strengthened tree regulations.

Residents who breach the conditions of their DA or Complying Development Certificate through illegal tree removal, will be required to replace them with a like tree in addition to fines. Residents undertaking works on their land should expect to be monitored and conditions enforced in accordance with their development approval.

2. Illegal Tree Removal Community Forum

Tuesday 26 March, 6 to 8pm
Ku-ring-gai Council Chambers,
818 Pacific Highway, Gordon

This text comes from council’s website.

Council invites all community members and groups to a public forum addressing the critical issue of illegal tree removal in our neighbourhoods. This growing problem threatens our tree canopy - an invaluable community asset we must protect.

We will discuss the challenges faced in curbing the threat, as well as potential solutions. Most importantly, we seek to hear from you - the community - regarding your insights into the problems and opportunities before us. What actions can we take together to protect our trees and urban forest?

The session will concentrate on three crucial aspects:

  • the primary obstacles in sustaining and enhancing our tree canopy
  • compliance and regulation – measures that can be taken to prevent or remedy tree removal
  • education – discouraging people from wanting to remove trees

By registering now, you can share your views in advance of the forum. This will aid in guiding the forum discussion by addressing questions on the above topics in the registration form.

This is a call to all who care about saving our trees to get involved. Join the forum and make your voice heard in developing community-driven strategies to turn the tide on illegal tree loss in Ku-ring-gai.

3. TreeCare

A group of concerned citizens has been working with some of the councillors and staff on ways to ensure that our iconic trees are cared for. The plan is to set up a TreeCare group that will install protection measures such as and information signs around significant trees on public land. The angophora at the edge of the car park at the St Ives Showground has been suggested as the first site.

4.     Tree Watch

A new community action group has been formed called the Voices of Ku-ring-gai with goals of lifting the standard of integrity, environmental protection, transparency, accountability, and community-mindedness of Ku-ring-gai Council.

One of their first initiatives is to set up a scheme called Tree Watch. Community members who opt into Tree Watch can download a poster for their community notice board or place a plaque on their fence or gate. This alerts the neighbourhood to the fact that the person who lives there places a high value on the precious and sensitive ecosystem in the neighbourhood.

The group will share information about tree losses and how to report to council if someone spots tree loppers in action and council’s website shows that the tree removal has not been approved. However, their main objective is to educate the community about the benefits provided by maintaining our tree canopy.

Published in STEP Matters 224
Sunday, 03 September 2023 21:25

Book review: The Memory of Trees

This book was of great interest having lived in Perth for 9 years and worked and travelled at length in WA for more than 40 years, including in many areas covered in the book, set predominantly in the south-west and south of the state. It's written by freelance ecologist and writer Vicki Cramer, whose research and publications through institutes like Curtin University and the CSIRO span a wide range of WA ecology, from bats and marsupials to Western Australia’s management, exploitation and clearing of eucalypt forests. In 2021 she was awarded a Dahl Fellowship from the charitable organisation Eucalypt Australia. Though set almost entirely in WA, the book mirrors the natural vegetation situation in other states and the threats it faces.

The Memory of Trees is divided into long, quite detailed chapters dealing with topics such as Jarrah forests and their threats, the West Australian Wheatbelt and salinity, the amazing Great Western Woodlands with their vast areas of trees growing in climates so dry that trees really shouldn’t grow at all. And, of extreme importance for us in NSW, the subject of bushfire, of hazard reduction and cultural burns and their history and arguments for and against. Relevant to fire and overshadowing everything covered in the book of course is climate change, the biggest mover of the goalposts that we face.

How many plant species are native to the south-west of WA? Well, the book cites 8379 would you believe (but of course new species are discovered every year so that’s by no means the final figure). Of that number, 1750 are native to Fitzgerald River National Park for example, a big park of nearly 3,000 km2 flanking WA’s south coast, big yes, but that’s very, very rich! (Blue Mountains World Heritage with around 1500 species is three times as big). And then the Stirling Ranges: full of endemic species, some of them isolated to individual peaks. These are examples of the fragile communities surviving as large islands of natural vegetation flanked or surrounded by land cleared for agriculture? What species have been lost through the clearing process? We will never know the full number, plant or animal. 

Stirling Ranges and Fitzgerald River are flanked by the WA Wheatbelt. Vast areas of forest and woodland were cleared through waves of settlement, and managed on a broadacre basis with no treed remnants allowed to remain that get in the way of the massive harvesters. Farms have merged over time and families have moved away, much as is happening in Europe. The ancient impoverished wheatbelt soils were boosted, and have to be regularly topped up with superphosphate and trace elements. Natural vegetation over most of the wheatbelt is restricted to corridors and fringes along boundaries and roadways, plus isolated small copses. Mass tree removal, their roots no longer pumping, led to gradual rise in salinity – covered by a chapter in the book that highlights the recovery efforts of landowners and community groups but also political sidestepping, ignorance and neglect. Governments like to bypass salinity, highlighting grain yields, but a brief Google search will tell you that the WA wheatbelt yields a ball park figure of around 2 tonnes of grain per hectare – Ukraine by comparison, in its heyday, achieved roughly double that.

The Jarrah forests, featuring Eucalyptus marginata, were a backbone to WA’s historic economy. The rich, deep red, termite resistant timber is hard to source today except through recycling, but it was used in building and construction, in termite proof railway sleepers and in flooring and furniture, and it was exported globally. But it grows on iron and alumina rich laterite terrain large areas of which have been mined for bauxite. Bauxite, a chemically extreme end member of a soil profile, is typically only a few metres thick and so vast areas have to be stripped and mined to yield a commercial tonnage. Companies however are obligated to stockpile and restore the surface material, and the author describes traverses with colleagues in areas ranging from pristine and even rare old growth forest to sites in various stages of restoration. But one comes away with the impression that nothing can truly replace the lost forests. And then of course there’s climate change pushing winter rainfall southwards, and Phytophthora dieback!

Now for the Great Western Woodlands: these are truly vast but exceptionally vulnerable, made up essentially of eucalypt species some of which recover from fire, like the numerous species of mallee, while others are obligate seeders and are incinerated. If you’ve travelled the wheatbelt and the southern goldfields you’ll be familiar with the copper-red trunks of salmon gums. If you’ve driven east of Norseman you’ll have seen fine examples of Great Western Woodland, and perhaps be stunned to learn that the seemingly healthy trees are growing in less than 300mm mean annual rainfall. The author's field descriptions in areas east of the wheatbelt town of Hyden are both illuminating and saddening: overall the vast woodlands are threatened by climate change, reduced rainfall, human activity and most especially by fire.

Later in the book the author veers towards positive aspects: the Gondwana Link and the Nowanup Cultural Community. Gondwana link, which involves Bush Heritage among other groups, acquires land to revegetate to eventually form a chain of natural vegetation from the coastal forests of the south-west 1000km to the east to join up with the Great Western Woodland. Nowanup on the other hand was established to rally behind and promote Noongar cultural elements of which include cultural burning, which is perhaps the only way to mitigate and soften the devastating effects of climate change and fire on the woodlands and forests within a realistic time frame.

Viki Cramer, Thames and Hudson, 2023, paperback, 292 pp (reviewed by John Martyn)

Published in STEP Matters 222

Ku-ring-gai Council has a new way for you to check whether a permit has been granted for trees being removed in your neighbourhood. If you go to you can look up this information using the address of the property. If you have any concerns that a tree is being illegally removed, please call 9424 0000.

Published in STEP Matters 218

It's difficult to write a simple review of this book because it works at several different levels. But first of all, it's superb. It possibly has had more personal effect than any other I've read in the past few years.

Initially a British Columbia (BC) forest service employee, Suzanne Simard's observations didn’t tally with current forestry practises and this triggered her curiosity that led to her innovative research on forests and their trees

Ultimately its publication led to the coining of the term ‘wood wide web’ as she explored the way trees exchange nutrients and information via extensive fungal threads linking root systems, between mature parent ‘mother trees’ and their saplings but also linking totally unrelated species like birch and pines.

In this she soon came up against the entrenched government ‘free to grow’ policy which invoked the clearing of land of everything that might compete with commercial timber species. However her work, including measuring the movement of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, clearly showed this is not only unnecessary and costly but often strongly deleterious. It strongly supported the conclusion that healthier more productive forests resulted from keeping natural plant and animal communities as intact as possible.

On another level this book is autobiographical, and written by someone who was raised as the child of a forestry family in the Monashee Mountains of BC (between Kamloops and Banff) who grew up close to wild, forested country and absorbed much in the ways of people and animals in her home territory. One can very much read and enjoy this well written book at that level, and feel for all her conflicts, overcoming fear of public speaking, clashes with institutional practise and established scientific beliefs, family tragedies, and her own battle with cancer.

But there's yet another level too: much of the outcome of her research accords with long held beliefs by First Nations people that forests are a living, interactive, whole systems that communicate beneath the soil in mutually supportive ways. Such beliefs submitted for publication of course would not be accepted by any scientific journal, however her meticulous and patient supportive work most definitely has been, many, many times – she's now Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of BC.

And how does all this translate to our local forests? Do blue gums liaise with and feed and support their babies? Angophoras and turpentines often grow side by side, even touching one another, so do they also fungi-talk to each other through their roots? And what is the story now with ‘free to grow’ style clear felling? When we first set up home in Perth in the 1970s, WA's karri forests were managed on a ‘mother tree’ style basis (though I don’t remember if they used that term) leaving the biggest, healthiest trees intact to propagate for the future.

Author: Suzanne Simard
Allen Lane (Penguin) paperback, 348pp
Reviewed by John Martyn

Published in STEP Matters 218
Tuesday, 28 June 2022 21:12

Ku-ring-gai – Urban Forest Strategy

Trees play an important role in defining the character of Ku-ring-gai. Council has been going through a process to develop a new strategy for managing forest over two years. The starting point was an Urban Forest Policy that is a short statement of principles and objectives.

During 2021 feedback was collected from the community and advice sought from expert consultants that have informed a draft Urban Forest Strategy which will define how council manages and improves our urban forest for current and future generations.

Council is now publicly exhibiting the draft document and gathering ideas about how the strategy can be successfully implemented. Have your say now. The closing date is 5 pm on Friday 8 July.

The strategy will cover trees and vegetation in:

  • public parks, streets and commercial areas
  • private gardens, schools and other developments
  • council managed bushland and reserves

The management of the urban forest needs to take into account the whole ecosystem that supports the trees and plants, including the soil and fauna that are essential for the health of the vegetation plus the availability of a water supply.

Ku-ring-gai Council has described the municipality as the ‘green heart’ of Sydney. This creates an attractive environment for residents. Trees also provide many other environmental benefits that are described in the strategy.

The draft Strategy includes ambitious goals to increase the tree canopy coverage. However the urban forest needs to be looked after by all residents. There are pressures that will work against the goals for improving the health and extent of the urban forest such as climate change, development and preferences changing towards very tidy easy-care gardens.

Published in STEP Matters 216
Saturday, 15 June 2019 17:40

Citizen Science Project - Dead Tree Detective

Western Sydney University and the University of New England have set up a Citizen Science Project called the Dead Tree Detective.

The aim of the project is to collect observations of dead or dying trees around Australia. It sounds a bit grim, but knowing where and when trees have died will help us to work out what the cause is, identify trees that are vulnerable, and take steps to protect them.

This project will allow people Australia-wide to report observations of tree death. In the past, there have been many occurrences of large-scale tree death that were initially identified by concerned members of the public such as farmers, bushwalkers, bird watchers and landholders. Collecting these observations is an important way to monitor the health of trees and ecosystems.

All you need is a smart phone with a camera and GPS. It is also possible to report on paper by asking for a survey form by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The leader of the project, Prof Belinda Medlyn wants to get better data about how trees respond to drought.

How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.

Published in STEP Matters 201
Monday, 13 August 2018 19:10

Hornsby Council News

Call for Review of 10/50 Legislation

At their meeting on 11 July, council resolved:

  • to write to the state government calling for a formal review of the 10/50 Clearing Code
  • to present a motion for consideration at the NSW Local Government Conference calling for a formal statewide review of 10/50

The request is being made on that basis that:

… as the formal review was commenced following only two months of the scheme's operation, rather than two years operation as was the original intent of the legislation, it is questionable whether the review assessed the full impact of the 10/50 scheme over time.

The scheme commenced in August 2014.

The mayoral minute calling for the review argued that there is continuing community and councillor concern regarding the integrity of vegetation clearing being undertaken under the 10/50 entitlement scheme, and the ongoing loss of trees in 10/50 entitlement areas appear to have little to do with bushfire risk or hazard reduction. It pointed out that reversing the decline in tree canopy is a key objective of the Greater Sydney Commission and the clearing code is in conflict with council’s objective to plant 25,000 trees over the next two years.

Let’s Plant 25,000 Trees

The mayor, Philip Ruddock, continues his efforts to improve the tree coverage of the Hornsby Shire to make amends for losses over recent years.

$1 million has been allocated from the budget to plant 25,000 trees by September 2020. Details and a tally of trees planted are provided on

Council is calling on the community to help plant these trees on special tree planting days and to nurture them as they grow.

A key source of the new trees will be council’s Community Nursery, 28–30 Britannia Street, Pennant Hills, where production is shifting to a new level. There is an event on 23 September when residents of Hornsby Shire can collect four free native plants.

Published in STEP Matters 197
Tuesday, 12 June 2018 22:07

John Martyn’s New Book, Rocks and Trees

The perfect way to learn about the geology that underpins the landscape and diverse flora of the Sydney region

A photographic journey through the rich and varied geology, scenery and flora of the Sydney region

Rocks and Trees captures the dramatic scenery of the Greater Blue Mountains, the beauty of the coastline and the great sweep of plains west of the CBD, but its main purpose is to highlight the geology and flora and their interrelationships. The book journeys from the Illawarra along the coast to Newcastle and inland to the Greater Blue Mountains, staying within the framework created by the massive sandstones and conglomerates of the Triassic Narrabeen Group.

Find out more

Look inside

Order your copy now

Come along to the launch on Sunday 19 August!


Published in STEP Matters 196

Great cities need trees to be great places, but urban changes put pressure on the existing trees as cities develop. As a result, our rapidly growing cities are losing trees at a worrying rate. So how can we grow our cities and save our city trees?

Tree bonds have recently been proposed by Stonnington City Council as a way to stop trees being destroyed in Melbourne’s affluent southeastern suburbs.

Tree bonds are a common mechanism for protecting trees on public land, but have so far had limited use on private land. A tree bond requires a land developer to deposit a certain amount of money with the local authority during development. If the identified tree or trees are not present and healthy after the development, the funds are forfeited.

The size of the bond can be established based on estimated tree replacement costs, and/or set at a level that is likely to achieve compliance (likely to be thousands or tens of thousands of dollars).

Why are trees important in cities?

The concept of an 'urban forest' includes all the trees and plants in cities. This includes tree-lined city streets as well as parks, waterways and private gardens. The urban forest contributes substantially to the quality of life of all urban dwellers, both human and non-human, and is increasingly used to adapt cities to climate change.

Trees cool the streets, filter the air and stormwater, and create a sense of place and character. They provide food and shelter for insects, birds and animals.

There is growing research evidence for the physical, mental and social health benefits of urban trees and green spaces. Many local councils such as Brimbank and Melbourne are investing substantially in tree planting to increase these benefits.

However, despite new tree planting on public land, tree canopy on private land is declining.

What can we do to protect trees?

There are a range of existing policy and land use planning measures focused on landscaping requirements for new development. Recently, the Victorian government introduced minimum mandatory garden area requirements. Some Melbourne councils, including Brimbank and Moreland, have also included planning scheme requirements for tree planting for multi-dwelling developments.

Other mechanisms for protecting urban trees on private land include heritage and environmental overlays within local planning schemes, and listings of significant trees and heritage trees.

However, penalties, monitoring and enforcement of tree protection bylaws have not kept pace with the pressures of urban change.

If penalties are insignificant relative to development profits, developers can easily absorb the costs. If monitoring is weak and removal has a good chance of going undetected, tree protection is more likely to be ignored. And if enforcement is weak, or there is a history of successful appeal or defeat of enforcement, many trees may be at risk of removal.

Even when it is successfully pursued, after-the-fact planning enforcement action is a particularly unsatisfactory recourse for tree removal. Replacement trees may take decades to match the quality of mature trees that were removed. What is needed, then, are mechanisms that prevent tree removal in the first place.

Increasing use of tree bonds

The advantage of tree bonds is that they place the onus of proof of retention on developers, rather than the onus of proof of removal on local councils. If a tree is removed, the mechanism is already in place to monitor (the developer needs to demonstrate the tree is still there) and penalise (the financial penalty is already with the enforcing body).

However, tree bonds still do not guarantee tree protection. Some mechanisms used to impose tree bonds may be vulnerable to challenge. For example, historically in Victoria, the planning appeals body VCAT has struck out conditions imposing tree bonds, arguing that punitive planning enforcement measures should be used where trees are removed.

Even where bonds can be imposed and enforced, developers may still be able to demonstrate that trees are unsafe or causing infrastructure damage, and thus need to be removed. In these circumstances, it is often hard to prove otherwise once the tree has been removed.

Nurturing an urban forest

Ultimately, if a landowner is hostile to a tree on their land, that tree’s health and survival can be imperilled, whether through illegal removal, neglect, or applications for removal based on health and safety grounds. It is therefore important that building layout and design realistically allow space for trees to flourish and be valued by landowners.

The urban forest needs protecting and enhancing. This calls for a range of policy mechanisms that work together to retain mature trees, maintain adequate spacing around them, and encourage residents to value and protect the trees around their homes.

The ConversationTree bonds provide an attractive solution for local governments in the absence of a strong land use policy framework for protecting trees.

Joe Hurley, Senior Lecturer, Sustainability and Urban Planning, RMIT University; Dave Kendal, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management, University of Tasmania; Judy Bush, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, University of Melbourne, and Stephen Rowley, Lecturer in Urban Planning, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Published in STEP Matters 196
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