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Mulch ado about nothing: Activist's arrest over tree protest

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An environmental activist has been charged with wilful damage after allegedly moving garden mulch during a dispute over the controversial removal of a 400-year-old paperbark tree by Cairns Regional Council.

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In footage captured on Saturday, activist Geoff Holland is seen being handcuffed by police, dragged from the mulch heap and lifted into the back of a police paddy wagon.

He was charged with wilful damage and obstructing police.

“I was being arrested for wilful damage of mulch,” he said.

“Naturally I resisted because this is ridiculous.”

Holland said he moved the mulch so an independent arborist could assess the base of the melaleuca tree, which was cut down with chainsaws and a crane by council officers last week.

“It’s a complete cover-up,” Holland said.

“We need to see the state of the base of the tree, which the council says is 80 per cent rotten and from what we can see is a maximum 30 per cent rotten.”

Holland is among a group of activists who fought to save the giant tree, estimated to have stood in its location on the Palm Cove waterfront for more than 400 years.

“We should be trying to save our history and our heritage, not destroy it,” resident Robyne Fechner said.

She said the tree was an icon of the far north Queensland tourist town and had featured in travel blogs and photographs around the world.

It is also believed to be one of the trees Captain Cook observed when he sailed along the coast of far north Queensland in 1770.

In a notice to Palm Cove residents, Cairns Regional Council said the tree needed removing for safety reasons, because there was evidence of a fungal infection in its trunk.

“This tree is classified as significant and council has been monitoring it for 15 years, with regular density scanning, investigation and reporting taking place since 2005,” it reads.

“The fungal infection has escalated and the hollowing and decay of the tree now presents too great a risk to public safety from potential structural failure.”

However some residents believe the tree could have been saved and are now guarding the site over fear the council may “burn” the base of the tree so the extent of rot damage and its age cannot be independently assessed.

“We want to remove [the mulch] and measure [the base of the tree] and photograph it and document it,” Holland said.

“Once we’re satisfied it’s been completely documented we want to have the top ground flat, we want to polish it … and we want to have an interpretive sign here talking about the history of it, the value of it.”

He said there was an opportunity for citizen science, where the public could get involved in analysing the tree.

Others have called for increased protection of melaleuca trees in the area, which normally draw thousands of tourists each year.

“Moving forward from this, what we would like to see as a community is making sure that these giants are absolutely looked after, that they are checked for fungus regularly to make sure we are treating these issues,” resident Sarah Oliver said.

The trees are also significant to members of the region’s Aboriginal community, some of whom played the didgeridoo while council officers removed the tree last week.

Holland is scheduled to appear in the Cairns Magistrates Court on September 1.

Cairns Regional Council has been contacted for comment.

– ABC / Marian Faa

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