Culturally important ancient forest set to be destroyed by developers at Lee Point

'We are just seeing our country being demolished all the time. And it’s horrible.'

Birth certificates reading 1770 and 1759 have been tied to trees in an ancient Darwin forest that predates white settlement. It’s just the latest protest by Darwin locals who are working to protect the 132-hectare Lee Point site.

These woolybutt eucalyptus are among hundreds of native trees that are scheduled to be destroyed by an Australian government business for a housing project. The wider site, referred to as “Binburra” is held dear by many Indigenous locals who remember when the “old people” used to live there. One woman told Yahoo News Australia her mum used to spear stingrays off the point before the war.

Defence Housing Australia (DHA) is the company behind a project to build 800 homes and help ease the housing crisis. It confirmed it has “obtained all necessary approvals” and consulted with the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation — which we have contacted for comment.

Two images of woollybutt trees at Lee Point with birth certificates attached showing 1759 and 1770.
Birth certificates date ancient woollybutt trees as being pre-white settlement. Source: Graeme Sawyer

Despite the desperate need for new homes in Australia, it's not the first time development plans by DHA have caused community concern. In 2020 it proposed bulldozing koala habitat at Mount Lofty in Queensland.

Woollybutt facts you need to know

  • The width of woollybutts increases by only 1.6mm a year.

  • Researchers estimate one Lee Point tree could be 406 years old.

  • They have orange flowers that feed wildlife including native bees.

'Pave paradise, put up a parking lot'

Larrakia elder Lorraine Williams is now in her 50s, but she has strong memories of visiting Lee Point as a kid which she said is “culturally and spiritually” important.

When she thinks about DHA’s planned destruction of the forest, she recalls lyrics to a Joni Mitchell song, “pave paradise, put up a parking lot”. She sees it as part of a wider problem that's disenfranchising her people.

“It’s upsetting for Larrakia because we are just seeing our country being demolished all the time. And it’s horrible. It’s actually really upsetting. And it’s not good for our health,” she said.

“You look out and you just see more houses, we just see it as more trouble for us. Country isn’t valued the same by the government. They just see land as dollar signs.”

The land at Lee Point is culturally important to Larrakia elder Lorraine Williams. Source: Environment Centre NT/Supplied
The land at Lee Point is culturally important to Larrakia elder Lorraine Williams. Source: Environment Centre NT/Supplied

In 2006, the Larrakia’s native title rights were controversially rejected by the court, meaning they have no legal recognition of their ongoing connection to their land.

The ongoing destruction has led Ms Williams to no longer want to perform a “welcome to country” to greet outsiders to Darwin. “I’m sick of doing welcome to country — I don’t feel very welcoming anymore,” she said.

Binburra is culturally and spiritually important to our peopleLorraine Williams

Who approved this project?

Ecologist Graeme Sawyer told Yahoo woollybutts provide habitat for black-footed tree rats and the northern brushtail possum that’s federally listed as vulnerable to extinction. “We estimate there are 1500 hollows in the trees that are going to get taken out by the clearing — which is just crazy,” he said.

On Monday, Yahoo contacted the office of Northern Territory environment minister Lauren Moss about the planned destruction of the Lee Point trees. The following day, these questions were redirected to planning minister Eva Lawler. On Wednesday, the government was yet to determine who was responsible for providing comment. By the time of publication on Thursday, no response had been received.

Two Gouldian finches sitting on a tree branch.
Endangered Gouldian finches were not living at Lee Point when the DHA project was approved. Source: Graeme Sawyer

The DHA project was also assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act and subsequently approved by then environment minister Sussan Ley in 2019. That was before flocks of endangered Gouldian finches began roosting there.

'Annihilating an important part of Darwin'

The birds’ unexpected relocation to the site in 2022, prompted the new environment minister Tanya Plibersek to re-examine the proposal. Dr Kirsty Howey, the cofounder of Environment Centre NT, said the decision could be her “first big test” in her new role.

After growing calls from environment groups for the project’s approval to be revoked, in June 2023 Minister Plibersek acknowledged the plan would have “significant” impact on the finches. She then said it could proceed, but she attached a series of variations to the original approval designed to protect the birds.

“It is clear that the project in its original form would have an unacceptable impact on threatened species in the area, including the Gouldian Finch,” she said in a statement. Hundreds of trees are not set to go.

Dr Howie said protesting the development has nurtured community expertise about Lee Point and the birds, mammals and flora that survives there. “It’s an extraordinary area. It’s a clutch of old-growth trees that just don’t exist in the Darwin region anymore,” she said. “We are annihilating an important part of Darwin's cultural and natural history.”

NT government responds to Lee Point concern

Following publication of this article, a Northern Territory government spokesperson issued a statement.

"Casuarina Coastal Reserve and Lee Point are important sites to Territorians. Earlier this month the Australian Government announced a number of changes for the Lee Point project to better protect nature," it said.

"This included a commitment to increase the biodiversity zone around the Lee Point development, replacing invasive gamba grass with native grass and changes to access points to Casuarina Beach to avoid disturbance to migratory birds."

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