Gardening / Starving the urban forest

“It was suggested a reasonable figure for maintaining our 500,000 trees to be $12m annually… In recent years I understand the figure has been about $4m or less,” says gardening writer CEDRIC BRYANT

Elm trees planted by Charles Weston in Weston Park.

Elm trees planted by Charles Weston in Weston Park.

IN 2000, a committee of three members of the ACT Legislative Assembly examined our urban forest, in other words the trees in our urban parks and streets.

One person on that committee is still a member of the Assembly, Simon Corbell. Over several weeks there were many submissions from individuals and organisations concerned about the state of our trees.

In that inquiry, our urban trees were considered Canberra’s most valuable asset. It was suggested a reasonable figure for maintaining our 500,000 trees to be $12m annually.

This amount was never actually accepted. In recent years I understand the figure has been about $4m or less. This is to cover replacing of losses due to the drought plus new plantings, removal of dead or dangerous trees, regular formative pruning of newly planted trees and pruning of older trees. The latter is especially applicable to eucalyptus trees that need regular pruning, more so than exotic trees.

About three years ago a committee under Territory and Municipal Services was established. Initially called the Urban Forest Renewal Program, it was intended to re-examine the care and maintenance of trees in our urban parks and streets. I was a member of that committee.

Things looked promising with research examining other varieties of trees used in our urban forest. Unfortunately, due to budgetary restraints this committee was abandoned, although some of the work has continued in a limited capacity.

I read of a recent study by ANU researchers who suggested that present tree management practices could wipe out all of Canberra’s large old native trees by the end of the century if changes are not made.

This may seem a long time, but take into consideration that it takes many years for a tree to reach maturity.

Similar comments were made by Prince Charles regarding the same subject in Britain: “The British countryside and its trees is the unacknowledged backbone of our environment and national identity. It is as precious as any of our great cathedrals and we erode it at our peril”.

The same could be said in relation to Canberra. Our early directors of Parks and Gardens, such as Weston, Hobday and Pryor, recognised this and the planting of trees was one of the first priorities of the establishment of this city.

Manchurian Pear trees in Knox Street, Watson.

We are fortunate in not having had the ravages of tree diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease that killed an estimated 15 million mature trees or the present disease killing ash trees at a similar rate.

However, we are not providing sufficient resources to sustain Canberra’s urban forest. Oh, you might say look at our arboretum, where ratepayers have contributed more than $70m so far. But this does nothing for the urban forest in our streets and urban parks with ever decreasing house block sizes and nature strips.

This situation is leaving literally no space for trees of any meaningful size to provide summer shade, biodiversity for birds and other wildlife, let alone the natural carbon offsets.

Certainly Minister Corbell, who sat on that committee, would be aware of the findings of the 2000 inquiry, and Shane Rattenbury as the Greens would be aware of our treed environment.

The ACT Government must as a matter of urgency provide sufficient funds, even in their Budget-stressed state, to protect Canberra’s acknowledged most valuable asset.

Just planting a couple of thousand trees each year with formative pruning and maintenance running years behind will, as the ANU report suggests, come back to haunt us and future generations.

Perhaps as Sunday, July 27, is National Tree Day it is a good day to change the current situation and announce a reversal in the decline of the care of our trees.


• Go plant a tree this Sunday. Look at, click on Cedfacts and scroll down to “small trees for small gardens”.

• Look around your suburb and see which trees do well in your area.

• Prune dead, diseased or damaged branches on trees in your garden.

• Ensure tree branches are not growing into power lines.



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