Anger after iconic trees destroyed during road works: 'Atrocious'

Locals believe the plants could have been saved, but authorities argue removing them would have been dangerous.

You’ve probably walked by them without a second thought, but Australia’s odd-looking grass trees can often live for hundreds of years.

Often crooked and gnarled, these iconic plants are able to withstand fire and have a genuine cult following. Growing an average of just 1 to 2.5 centimetres a year on mountainsides, mature specimens will set you back thousands of dollars in a nursery.

That’s why dozens of plant obsessives are seething at a Queensland government decision to allow roadwork contractors to excavate and smash at least four grass trees as part of a project to repair roads affected by landslips. The tallest grass tree had stretched over two metres high — it’s believed to have lived on that spot for between 80 and 200 years.

Left - the smashed grass trees. Right - an aerial view of the road. A car can be seen on the road.
Ancient grass trees have been smashed to pieces by road works on Lamington National Park Road to prevent further landslips. Source: Supplied

“Terrible”, “insulting”, “atrocious”, “sacrilege” and “disgusting” were just some of the online comments left after pictures were shared showing the broken plants near Lamington National Park, east of the Gold Coast.

If you remove a grass tree in Queensland, you can expect to be prosecuted. In May, a property owner and his employee were fined $23,500 and ordered to pay $4,398 in costs after they destroyed 20 plants and illegally dumped construction waste in a creek. But that won’t be the case for the Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR).

Why the government can allow the destruction of grass trees

TMR told Yahoo News Australia it has “complied with all legislative requirements” because the Nature Conservation Act contains technical exemptions to clear protected species at will.

“In this instance, in accordance with Section 49 1(a) of the regulation, we were exempt from requiring a protected plant clearing permit,” TMR declared. This exemption allows protected species to be removed during "routine maintenance of existing infrastructure".

Three grass trees in a forest in Queensland.
Grass trees have a cult-like following and are a protected species. Source: Getty (File)

TMR's works was jointly funded by the Commonwealth in response to a series of landslips that have occurred since 2021 along a 27km stretch of Lamington National Park Road.

Authorities have declared the grass trees are within “a natural disaster landslip zone”. TMR argues it would “not be suitable nor safe to attempt a transplant”. But their critics aren’t convinced.

Locals believe grass trees could have been saved

Local plant expert Dave concedes the wider area is dangerous, but added there haven’t been landslips 100 metres in each direction of the grass trees. He was responsible for photographing the destruction on Sunday, later sharing them on social media.

He argues the excavator completing the works could have been instructed by the government to save them. “They could easily have done it,” he said. “They can reach up with a giant excavator and pull (the grass trees) down the hill. Why can't they reach up and dig out the trees gently?”

The current works began in March and could continue for the next six months — repairs have been consistent in the years that followed Cyclone Debbie in 2017. Watching mature trees pulled down by contractors has been “soul-destroying” to watch for both Dave and his wife.

“We realise it’s dangerous, TMR isn’t wrong, but that’s how they get out of not doing anything to protect the trees,” he said.

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