In a piece published this month on April Fools Day in the Sydney Morning Herald by urban affairs reporter Megan Gorry, a picture was painted of Sydney’s Inner West Council region as post-apocalypse chainsaw central.

Between February 2020 and March 2021, 915 trees were removed. This was more than double the 373 felled in 2019 and 409 that came down in 2018.  The Inner West’s tree canopy had fallen to 17.56%, against a Sydney-wide average of 23%. Self-evidently a shocking state-of-affairs?

Well … not quite.

Green cover across Sydney varies enormously, with factors like building and population densities, parkland and rainfall differences all being important factors. Below are examples of a few Sydney local government areas’ green cover:

Sutherland 72.6%      

Ku-ring-gai 58.9%      

Lane Cove 45%                       

Penrith 30.4%

Blacktown 22.4%

Inner West 22.23%

Sydney City 20.7%

Quite clearly areas like Sutherland, Ku-rin-gai and Lane Cove have massive national parks inside their perimeters, while last placed Sydney City has the CBD, with decent tree numbers mostly in the Botanic Gardens, Hyde Park and Barangaroo. If you take a look from a window of any tall building in the inner west, you see trees almost everywhere throughout the region. Some industrial areas with factories and warehouses within the area like Sydenham and parts of Marrickville make it difficult for the Inner West to ever have an abundance of trees throughout its entire area. And without national parks, it will never be in the top league like some of those listed above.

And so who was responsible for the Inner West’s 900 tree carnage last year? It’s those dastardly private landowners! The tree canopy on private land had fallen 20 hectares, while that on public land had grown by 6 hectares, thanks to tree planting by the Council.

I’m hereby outing myself and my wife as people who have signed the death warrant for two trees on our property over the last 30 years. But just in passing, we’ve also planted 13 other trees and very large shrubs (2 Robinia pseudoacia, 2 Elaecarpus emundi, 2 now huge camelia trees, 5 Syzygium australe ‘resilience’ – two metres tall after 1 year, 1 Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle), 1 Tibouchina, and a huge stand of Dypsis lutescens (golden cane palm). But there’s not a lot of faux outrage news in that, it seems.

We’ve lived in our inner west house for 30 years. When we moved in, there was a towering 20 metre tallowwood tree (Eucalyptus microcorys) growing literally one metre from our kitchen wall and 3 metres from our neighbours’ house. They asked us to see if it could be removed. The council tree inspector came around and immediately gave approval, shaking his head in disbelief that such a massive tree could have ever been planted so near two houses.

At the rear of our back garden we had a 15m peppercorn tree (Schinus mole), a non-native. A 70 year old neighbour who was born in the same house he lives in today told us the tree was almost that big when he was boy. It was a beautiful tree with a nobbly 3.68 metre circumference. Our children had a cubby house platform three metres up a rope ladder. To call it imposing was an understatement. We loved it.

About 15 years ago, one of its huge boughs that went across the back lane was hit by two trucks. We applied successfully to have the bough removed and it took four men with a cherry picker several hours to cut it down.

In March 2017, we were experiencing sewage problems with toilet flushes taking a long time to clear. The plumbers quickly determined that there was extensive root penetration which had cracked and collapsed sections of the original clay sewage pipe. $7500 later their report stated in part:

The soil removal exposed extensive root penetration of the large peppercorn tree. These included two roots of approximately 140cm diameter which traversed the entire exposed hole, with one extending under the surface of the rear lane and the other looking like it would have gone under the wall of your garage and under the garage building of the neighbouring property. There were also many roots of smaller diameter from 1-5cm to approx. 60cm. These roots were severed by the excavator, with the two larger ones needed to be cut by a saw.

Excavation site for collapsed pipe from tree root

The tree had also caused extensive cracking to both the exterior and interior double brick walls of our garage, and to its 190cm thick reinforced concrete floor, as well as to raised garden bed brick retaining walls inside our yard. On several occasions I’d had to replace tiles on the garage roof smashed from falling branches.

Cracked internal garage wall caused by tree roots

Seeing this extensive root damage, I phoned the council tree inspector who came around immediately. I wanted him to see and photograph the root invasion for evidence I would provide in an application to remove the tree. On seeing that many roots of the tree had been cut by the excavator needed to get to the pipe damage, he intimidated the plumbers about whether they had applied for permission to cut the roots. I explained that sewage was threatening to overflow from our toilets and was happy to take this further if he believed there was a problem in what had been done. What other option did he suggest should have been taken, I asked.

It then got surreal. He explained in all seriousness that, to do everything possible to avoid damaging the tree roots, we might well have been ordered to re-route the entire sewage pipe from the back of our house to the rear lane. As all waste water currently exited out house from its right hand side, re-directing it to the left would have involved removing a large stand of golden cane palms, two mature robinia trees, demolishing and rebuilding a deck and a large pergola, demolishing a very large raised garden bed with mature shrubs and the brick retaining wall, demolishing and rebuilding our back fence, digging up the rear lane surface to run our pipes to the mains in the lane, and cutting a new hole in the mains.  All this would have cost perhaps $40,000-$50,000 or more.

The inspector left telling me meaningfully that the council had been very reluctant to even let us remove the large bough years ago and that in his judgement any application to remove the tree, regardless of the damage it was causing, would be knocked back.

So when we learned in 2019 that the Inner West Council had passed policy, after intractable opposition from the Greens, to allow any tree that was within 2 metres of a building to be removed, we put in our application a nanosecond after the policy had finally passed through all the stages required. Our tree was 1.4m from our garage wall when measured 1m from the soil at base of tree (photo below). Along with about a dozen others with similar stories to ours, I’d addressed a council meeting in 2019. Only one resident spoke in opposition. I recall her framing her case in terms the need for everyone needing to play their part to reduce global deforestation. I sensed that, for her, almost no case could ever be made to remove any living tree, regardless of the circumstances or replacement plans.

Tree on its last day before removal

When permission was given, we had the tree removed ($6400), and as required, we planted a replacement.  We renovated the back garden and in a 1m raised garden bed planted two 1.5m native evergreen eumundi quandong trees (Elaecarpus emundi) which will grow to 12-25m.

So the 915 trees that were removed in the Inner West in 2020 included ours. Many of these would have been people like us who love trees, but who faced simply crazy costs and who had been waiting years for a sensible policy to be adopted. The extra numbers reflected a log jam that is now clearing.

Apparently the Greens have not given up their opposition to the tree removal policy.

The backyard today