As cars tooted in support around 80 locals gathered this morning at Wollumbin High School to protest against the removal of native and endangered trees that were planted by the ‘Man of the Trees’ Bruce Chick and school students from when the school was founded.
The Department of Education (DoE) were planning to remove the 49 trees that were planted at the school and throughout the car parking area to make way for a temporary car park as part of the mega-school merger.
On Monday (26 August) the DoE clarified that they were planning to go ahead with the tree removal despite opposition. By Wednesday the DoE contacted students, staff and parents of the school and the local media to say they are now ‘reconsidering the original car park plans at Wollumbin High School with a view to better balancing different needs and perspectives’.
Local Tweed Shire councillors Dr Nola Firth and Meredith Dennis were both in attendance and Cr Firth pointed out to those gathered that ‘we still haven’t got it in the bag yet. We need them to say that these trees need to stay.’
‘I’m concerned that the whole thing happened at all in the first place. These are native, endemic trees that were to be removed. And all to put in a parking lot? We live in a world heritage environment. If you remove one of these trees without a permit you would be fined $6,0000. Yet the State government says this come under “exempt development”.’
Cr Firth also told the gathering that the report on the trees that she had sighted had listed the ecological value of each of the trees to be removed as ‘none’.
‘I think that was justified because they were planted. But what does that say of all the trees that have been planted by Landcare, all the riparian zones that people have revegetated?’
During the gathering a number of Wollumbin High School students joined the protest to add their voice.
Teachers not allowed to speak out
Former environmental science teacher at Wollumbin High Garry Shearman told the crowd that there were numerous trees that the DoE proposed to remove that were currently fruiting, including the native tamarind, that support local species and ecosystems. He also highlighted the fact that teachers at the school are not allowed to speak up in opposition to the removal of the trees or the school merger.
Getting emotional he described the times he had brought students to the car park to highlight the value of the work former students and Bruce Chick, who was also the patron of the school until his death in 2007, as the founders of the school had achieved.
Brain Fitzparick who moved from Murwillumbah High to Wollumbin High when the school opened in 1995 said that Bruce Chick had not just planted trees at the site but had helped every teacher and student plant trees as well.
‘Every student in the first five to six years planted a tree here and Bruce helped them. The irony is that there is a memorial to Bruce at the side of the car park where they want to remove all the trees,’ he said.
Stop the merger
Mr Shearman said that the teachers at Wollumbin High had had no idea that a merger of the four schools in Murwillumbah was going to take place until they found out about it on social media.
‘No one here wants a merger,’ he told the gathering.
‘There was no consultation like the DoE claimed. As teachers, we only found out about the merger on Facebook.’ Mr Shearman has since moved schools.
Deficient DA for school merger
The process of creating the mega-school for Murwillumbah has been met with opposition and failures by the DoE across the board. When they submitted their development application (DA) to the Tweed Shire Council it was noted by the Mayor Chris Cherry that ‘There are so many shortfalls’.
Councillor Dennis said at the time that ‘I’m absolutely horrified at the planning of the school. The removal of trees, small inside areas… In Murwillumbah there is already gridlock coming over the bridge. The lack of consultation with the community – it is terrible. If this came to us we would have said “no” straight away, it’s dreadful.’
Sean O’Shannessy who organises Fridays for Forests who initiated the protest reminded everyone that there is a NSW state election in six months and this was a time to get active.
‘Why would we want you to tear down the new school to build a five-storey monstrosity?’ asked one person in the crowd.
‘MPs Janelle Saffin (Labor) is the member for this area and she and Tweed’s Geoff Provest (Nationals) both went into bat for us,’ said Scott Sledge from Northern Rivers Guardians.
‘This is an unpopular decision,’ he said as he reminded everyone to contact their representatives and possible representatives to highlight their feelings on the merger and the resultant tree removal that was being pursued by the DoE.
In opposition to State government policy
Speaking to the crowd Cr Firth also highlighted that the removal of the trees was in opposition to the policy position being put forward by the State government in the North Coast Regional Plan that promotes ‘cool towns’.
‘We have to have more trees in towns,’ said Cr Firth.
‘We need more vegetation and trees especially in places like car parks as they are a heat bank. This car park is a model for the future and shouldn’t be removed for a temporary car park.’