A year or two ago, Bribie Island was host to a study group from Louisiana in USA. Leading the group was Dr Harold L Dominigue – a noted lawyer from Layfayette. All of the visitors were avid outdoorsmen. “If you can hunt it, or shoot it, or spear it, or hook it… we are into that,” one of them commented. All of them were also extremely committed environmentalists and conservationists. One was a Professor of Biological Science focusing on fisheries research and protection of coastal wetlands. One was pursuing a PhD on Louisiana red swamp crawfish. One was an engineer with the State Government working on restoration of coastal ecosystems. And one was a scientist with the State Government working on oil spill cleanup and mitigation.
Here in Queensland it would be unusual to see hunters and shooters at the forefront of the environmental protection movement. But for these Louisiana visitors there was no conflict. They pointed out that the Louisiana economy relies heavily on the health of industries such as agriculture, tourism, fishing, and outdoor sports. These industries demand that Louisiana has a healthy natural environment. They cannot exist without one. Long, long ago Louisiana learnt the well-known lesson that a healthy economy can only occur if there is a healthy environment.
Queensland, it seems, has not learnt that lesson. Queensland’s economy is heavily reliant on industries like agriculture, fishing, and tourism and they in turn rely heavily on a healthy natural environment. But daily there are examples in the press of unsustainable development activities which are negatively impacting those industries and downgrading the economy by such activities as destroying fertile agricultural lands, by compromising tourist meccas such as the Great Barrier Reef and National Parks, and by encouraging activities which are destroying the health of Queensland’s waterways. The scorecards developed by Professor Hugh Possingham show that Moreton Bay is one of the most downgraded waterways in Australia. This reinforces the point being made by Professor Ian Lowe that … “Our ecological debt is increasing faster than our economic growth”. The gains which might be achieved from the destruction of Queensland’s natural resources will have long-term negative effects.
Nowhere are these unsustainable activities more evident than here on Bribie Island. Over the coming months, MBI will look at the destruction occurring in various parts of Bribie and will ask why has this destruction been allowed to happen. MBI will explore what impact this destruction has had on Bribie’s economy. In this latest article, MBI looks at the destruction of the Fairweather Trail and asks why has this happened.
MBI asks….. Is there a connection between a healthy environment and a healthy economy on Bribie? Has the ongoing destruction of Bribie’s environment contributed to the downturn in real estate values? Why have Bribie real estate values not recovered since the GFC like they have elsewhere? Has this environmental destruction driven away home buyers, investors and tourists and contributed to the difficult business conditions on Bribie? Comments and ideas are always welcome.
THE DESTRUCTION OF FAIRWEATHER TRAIL ON BRIBIE ISLAND
Where and What is Fairweather Trail?
Fairweather Trail is a shared walking and bicycle trail parallel to First Avenue on Bribie Island. It extends from Lions Park at Woorim to Fairweather Park at Bongaree. A footpath leads from Fairweather Park to the Bongaree Jetty. See the satellite photo below for details.
Fairweather Trail was a secluded pathway separated from First Avenue by an extensive network of trees and underbrush. This gave a real sense of separation and seclusion and privacy for Trail users. See photos below. For many years, carers had been bringing dementia sufferers to this area so they could touch and feel and smell the abundant underbrush such as wedding bush. Carers commented that this brought a great deal of comfort to those in their care. With the destruction that has occurred, this is no longer possible.
What destruction has occurred and when did it start?
The most recent destruction started back in November 2007 when, without any prior consultation with affected community groups, Caboolture Shire Council (CSC) removed 50+ mature trees. MBI has been provided with a trail of e-mails on this subject with CSC’s Coordinator,Parks and RecreationFacilities Unit and a copy is attached. This e-mail trail shows that these 50+ trees were supposedly removed for safety purposes and their removal was part of CSC’s ongoing maintenance and risk-reduction efforts. The e-mail trail also shows that although none of these trees was to be replaced by CSC, it was expected that they would eventually be replaced by natural regeneration. The e-mail trail goes on to say that the vegetation….. “.. provide(s) a desirable buffer between the traffic travelling along First Avenue and the pathway.”
Further tree clearing occurred in 2008, and again this was claimed to be for risk-reduction and safety issues. Again, this work was undertaken with no consultation with affected community groups and again no replanting occurred. It was left to naturally regenerate over time.
This approach of providing a buffer between the pathway and First Avenue, and allowing natural regeneration to occur, changed in January 2009. Without any prior consultation, off-Island Council contractors moved in on January 29, 2009 to undertake wholesale clearing of all understory vegetation and small trees. All lower branches on the larger trees were removed up to ~3 metres from ground level for what were claimed to be safety reasons. The affected areas can now no longer regenerate naturally. Any replacement trees will have to be planted and cared for by Council. Some pictures of this destruction are shown below. There is some debate among councils as to the cost of planting and caring for a street tree to maturity, but the guideline seems to be in the range of $5000 – $10,000. So where trees along Fairweather Trail could previously regenerate naturally, replacement trees will now have to be planted and cared for at a cost of $5000+ per tree.
Various community groups were outraged at this destruction and called on Council to cease this work and consult with the community. This occurred on January 30, 2009 – the day after the work had started. At this meeting a copy of the 1996 Caboolture Shire Council (CSC) guidelines for tree and vegetation removal was shared with Council staff who said they had never seen these guidelines before. After much discussion, an understanding for further work was reached which involved only minor vegetation removal. An assurance was given that no further work would be undertaken without consultation. After much discussion and correspondence, a further undertaking was given by senior MBRC staff in the Governance Office on March 27, 2009 that revegetation of the cleared areas would be undertaken. This was never done and no explanation has ever been offered. That e-mail trail is also attached.
In April 2011, and again without any consultation, MBRC staff again began a program of vegetation removal despite all previous assurances. As a result of protests by local affected residents, this latest round of culling was quickly stopped. In response to a question at a community meeting following this culling, the Division 1 Councillor commented that he supported the destruction that had taken place. He expressed disappointment that Council staff had not been allowed to finish the task and he commented that this destruction was justified for fire containment reasons. This has been difficult to comprehend and is discussed below along with all the varied reasons that have been given to justify this work.
Some of the correspondence documenting these discussions and agreements is attached. Included is an e-mail trail with Caboolture Shire Council (CSC) Parks and Recreation Department and MBRC’s Governance Office. Also included is a letter from CEO John Rauber to one resident with some background to the work undertaken. It was of concern to members of the public involved in these discussions that the CEO had been provided with false and misleading information which resulted in incorrect conclusions – in particular there are no cross streets as is suggested, and no prior consultation with BIEPA had occurred and BIEPA was not in agreement with actions taken by Council. This was pointed out to the CEO by a number of people but no correction was ever issued by the CEO.
Why has this destruction been undertaken?
There have been many reasons for this destruction put forward at various times by different Council officers. None of them makes a lot of sense. When one reason has been shown to be groundless, another reason has been put forward to take its place. Some of the reasons given include:
1) Protection of trail users from attacks: The first claim put forward to justify the removal of this vegetation was to protect trail users from attacks. The claim was made that this vegetation removal had been requested by Bribie Island Police. A quick check with Queensland Police Service (QPS) squashed this claim. QPS had no records of any muggings or attacks on Trail users. They also indicated that they would never have requested anything like this destruction.
This idea that clearing of vegetation will make areas safer is quite false. In fact, the converse is true. Crime statistics in places like Brisbane tend to show that the leafiest suburbs have lower crime rates. Evidence suggests that as suburbs become “leafier”, the crime rates go down. Research by the US Forrest Service and the University of Vermont supports this. That work (see attached paper) shows that as the tree cover increases, crime rates go down.
So the first justification given for the destruction on Fairweather Trail has little credibility.
2) More cost effective way of maintaining the Trail vegetation: The claim here is that once the understory and low branches are removed, then the mowers can get in closer to the trees and hence maintenance costs are reduced. This argument has many flaws.
Once the understory has been removed, then the public is able to access the area around the larger trees. When the understory is kept in place, this is not possible. To address the risk to the public, the larger trees then have to have lower limbs removed and any regrowth also has to be removed. Once that understory and the lower limbs are removed, then the wind can get into the upper story of the larger trees and because they are now quite unbalanced they can be blown over more easily. See the photo below. In addition, once that understory is removed the mowers can mow right up to the tree trunks and many have been ringbarked. It can be argued that this landscape now is a greater risk than the one it replaced. In addition, this modified landscape cannot regenerate and any tree loss has to be replaced by Council. As noted elsewhere, the estimate of costs to plant and grow a street tree to maturity is $5000+.
Queensland Main Roads acknowledges this increased cost and comments in the article below that…. “..replacing most of the existing grass with native trees, shrubs and clumping grasses..(will) … reduce maintenance costs”. See attached story.
This claim of reducing maintenance costs by vegetation removal also has little credibility. In fact it increases maintenance costs and creates a long-term liability for taxpayers.
3) Compliance with State Government Crime Prevention Through Environmental Designs (CPTED) guidelines: The CPTED guidelines were established to maintain uniform guidelines for the care and maintenance of public open spaces across Queensland. These guidelines comment they are intended for use by …… “architects, urban designers, engineers, landscape architects, community development managers, social planners, building managers and others involved in planning, designing and managing our built environment and especially publicly accessible places”.
These guidelines have considerable discretion but the intention is to set some uniform guidelines. But as the photos below show, the standards being implemented on Fairweather trail are totally out of step with standards being maintained elsewhere in MBRC and across Queensland. Why is that? No explanation has ever been given for this discrepancy despite many inquiries.
4) Improved sight lines for emerging traffic: The letter from MBRC’s CEO indicates that this culling is required, in part, to maintain sight lines for emerging traffic along this route. However, there are no roads crossing the Trail in the area concerned. The CEO has obviously been provided with false and/or misleading information which has resulted in this false conclusion.
5) Compliance with codes for fire control accesses: This argument is a little difficult to follow and is one that was put forward by the Division 1 Councillor at a public meeting following the 2011 destruction episode. He commented that there are differing interpretations of how wide the First Avenue “firebreak” should be. If MBI understands it correctly, the argument is that First Avenue is a key “firebreak” and its ability to act as a “firebreak” is enhanced if the vegetation is removed beyond just the roadway. The argument, as MBI understands it, is that as more vegetation is removed and the wider the “firebreak” is made, then the ability of the fire to jump that firebreak is reduced. This is incorrect.
The various royal commissions into recent major fire disasters found that for the fires occurring in eucalypt forests, there really is no such thing as a “firebreak”. Fires in eucalypt forests travel primarily through the tree canopy and these are the typical fires that would occur on Bribie. These fires can, with suitable wind conditions, jump hundreds of metres. In these types of fires, so-called “firebreaks” are of no value in preventing the advance of a fire regardless of their width. Hence the practise of the SES is to now refer to these as “fire access routes” and the use of the word “firebreak” is discouraged. “Fire access routes” are considered adequate as long as they provide acceptable access for fire-fighters and their equipment. First Avenue is a perfectly acceptable fire access route and no culling of vegetation on either side is warranted. It is most difficult, therefore, to understand why vegetation culling is being put forward as a fire prevention option.
Discussion and Conclusions
Prior to the destruction described in this story, Fairweather Trail was a quiet secluded pathway with abundant vegetation providing … “a desirable buffer between the traffic travelling along First Avenue and the pathway.” A bicycle ride along Fairweather Trail was listed in some tourist brochures as one of the “musts” on a trip to Bribie. The Trail was a sustainable, low maintenance landscape that regenerated naturally and presented minimal risk to the public. The destruction of the vegetation along this Trail has converted this to an unsustainable and environmentally-unacceptable, higher-maintenance, higher-risk landscape which has created a much increased long-term financial liability for taxpayers. At a time when all governments at all levels are supposed to be looking for cost saving measures, it is difficult to understand why MBRC has chosen an option which is more expensive to maintain and one that has created a great long-term liability.
The reasons given for this destruction along First Avenue are most questionable as can be seen. If it wasn’t for these reasons, then what was the real reason? Was this destruction on Fairweather Trail the result of stupidity, ignorance and sheer bloody-mindedness as has been suggested by some? That reason would be just as credible as the others that have been put forward. In the last Council election, candidates talked about being “open and honest” with the public and made commitments to “work closely with the community”. In the case of Fairweather Trail, it is very clear that those commitments need to be put into practise as they have been conspicuous by their absence to date. It is also very clear that for an iconic trail such as Fairweather Trail that used to be one of the attractions of Bribie, Council needs to put in place practises that are “best-in-class”, practises that are cost-effective, practises that are environmentally responsible, practises that reduce long-term liability, and practises that are consistent with practises elsewhere in MBRC and in Queensland. Practises like that would help restore Bribie as a place where people would want to come and visit and perhaps visit again.
Will there be any effort to repair this overculling as has been previously committed? Proposals have been put forward to remove virtually all the vegetation in the photo below to make way for visitor parking. So will this destruction of Fairweather Trail be continued to the west? Only time will tell and MBI will keep readers informed of developments.