As cars rang in support, around 80 locals gathered at Wollumbin High School this morning to protest the removal of native and endangered trees that were planted by tree man Bruce Chick and the students of the school since the founding of the school.
The Department of Education (DoE) planned to remove the 49 trees planted at the school and throughout the parking lot to make way for temporary parking as part of the mega-schools merger.
On Monday August 26, the DoE clarified that it planned to proceed with the felling of the trees despite the opposition. On Wednesday, the DoE reached out to students, school staff and parents, and local media to say they are “now reviewing Wollumbin High School’s original parking plans with a view to better balancing different needs and perspectives.”
Tweed Shire local councilors Dr Nola Firth and Meredith Dennis were both present and Cr Firth remarked to those gathered that ‘we still don’t have it in the bag yet’. We need them to say these trees should stay.
“I’m afraid it all happened in the first place. These are native and endemic trees that needed to be removed. And all to put in a parking lot? We live in a World Heritage listed environment. If you remove one of these trees without a permit, you will be fined $60,000, yet the state government says this falls under “exempt development”.
Cr Firth also told the gathering that the report of the trees she had sighted had listed the ecological value of each of the trees to be felled as “none”.
“I think it was justified because they were planted. But what does that say about all the trees that have been planted by Landcare, all the riparian areas that people have revegetated?
During the rally, a number of students from Wollumbin High School joined the protest to add their voices.
Teachers have no right to speak
Former Wollumbin High environmental science professor Garry Shearman told the crowd that there are many trees the DoE is proposing to remove that are currently bearing fruit, including the native tamarind, which support the species and local ecosystems. He also pointed to the fact that school teachers are not allowed to oppose the removal of trees or the merger of schools.
Growing emotional, he described the times he brought students to the parking lot to highlight the value of the work of former students and Bruce Chick, who was also the school’s boss until his death in 2007, as the had made the founders of the school.
Brain Fitzparick, who moved from Murwillumbah High to Wollumbin High when the school opened in 1995, said Bruce Chick not only planted trees on the site, but also helped every teacher and student to plant trees.
“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 on the side of the parking lot where they want to remove all the trees,” he said.
Stop the merge
Mr Shearman said teachers at Wollumbin High had no idea a merger of the four Murwillumbah schools was going to take place until they found out on social media.
“Nobody here wants a merger,” he told the assembly.
“There was no consultation as claimed by the DoE. As teachers, we only learned about the merger on Facebook. Mr. Shearman has since changed schools.
Deficient DA for merging schools
The process of establishing the Murwillumbah mega-school has been met with opposition and failures from the DoE in all areas. When they submitted their Development Application (DA) to Tweed Shire Council, Mayor Chris Cherry noted that ‘there are so many gaps’.
Councilor Dennis said at the time: ‘I am absolutely horrified by the school’s planning. The removal of trees, small interior areas… In Murwillumbah, there are already traffic jams on the bridge. The lack of consultation with the community – it’s terrible. If that happened to us, we would have immediately said “no”, it’s terrible.
Scott O’Shannessy, who organizes Fridays for Forests and who started the protest, reminded everyone that there is an election in NSW state in six months and now is the time to get active.
“Why would we want you to tear down the new school to build a five-story monstrosity? asked someone in the crowd.
“MP Janelle Saffin (Labour) is the MP for this area and she and Geoff Provest of Tweed (nationals) have both fought for us,” said Scott Sledge of the Northern Rivers Guardians.
“This is an unpopular decision,” he said, reminding everyone to contact their representatives and prospective representatives to share their feelings about the merger and the resulting tree felling, which the DoE is suing. .
In opposition to state government policy
Addressing the crowd, Cr Firth also pointed out that the tree removal was in opposition to the policy stance put forward by the state government in the North Coast Regional Plan which promotes ‘cool towns’ .
“We need to have more trees in cities,” said Cr Firth.
“We need more vegetation and trees, especially in places like parking lots, as they are a heat bank. This parking lot is a model for the future and should not be removed for temporary parking.