Outrage over US tech company's plan for '400-year-old' Aussie tree

"We can send people to the moon, but we can’t find a way to live with this tree?"

A Victorian community is angry after a US company applied for a council permit to cut down an ancient tree next to a building it manages. Honeywell specialises in advancing aerospace engineering and building technologies, so many are questioning why its experts can’t find a solution to live with the river red gum.

Located at LaTrobe University, experts believe the tree could be 400 years old, but at the very least it pre-dates white settlement and contains 26 hollows that provide homes to birds and animals.

Arborist James Shugg has managed significant heritage trees in the state’s botanic gardens for over 20 years and he believes the river red gum is among the “top echelon”.

Left - the river red gum from a distance. Right - close up of a kookaburra in the tree's branches.
The river red gum is known to predate white settlement and provide habitat for iconic Aussie species like kookaburras and brushtail possums. Source: James Shugg

How destroying trees will change Australia's landscape

While it’s been common practice since white settlement to simply chop down trees that are considered dangerous, Mr Shugg argues that thinking must be overhauled. Eucalypts need to be 100 years old before they begin to form the hollows which provide essential habitat for many iconic species.

“The sound of the kookaburra is already an increasingly rare sound around suburban Melbourne,” he said.

“One of the actions that we need to carry out is actually keeping these trees in the landscape for much longer than we have been accustomed to. That may mean giving them the physical space they need and just moving away from them, or installing support systems to keep them going.”

A skyloom optical intersaterlite link with a man sitting behind it.
Honeywell has developed technologies like this skyloom optical intersaterlite link, so Victorians question why it can't find a solution to protect the tree. Source: Getty

Why an application was filed to fell the ancient tree

The tree is situated next to LaTrobe University’s 5-star green energy-rated agricultural bioscience research building. Its architects actually mentioned the river red gum in their design plans, describing how the courtyard would be formed around it.

But in May 2022, a tree branch fell, causing its building managers to become concerned. An application was lodged with City of Darebin to remove the tree in June. It told Yahoo its assessors requested more information and put the request on hold.

“Once the information is received, the application will be put on public notice. This means that anyone who would be affected can lodge an objection with Council,” it said.

A subsequent independent assessment of the tree commissioned by LaTrobe University noted the tree has some structural issues but recommended it should be pruned and not removed. It concluded investing in resources to retain the tree was warranted because of its visual appeal and high biodiversity value.

Background - the tree against the building. Inset - the architectural brief.
The tree was used as a selling point when the building's design was released. Source: James Shugg/Lyons

What does Honeywell say?

For now, Honeywell isn’t providing any clarity as to whether it will remove the tree, but it issued a statement through a public relations firm.

“Honeywell is a contracted service provider on the site and is advising on a range of measurements to ensure safety. The decision on these recommendations rests with the property owner and council and we understand no decision on the removal of the tree has been made at this stage,” it said.

Until the matter can be resolved, Honeywell has created an exclusion area around the tree for safety reasons. LaTrobe University told Yahoo News it hopes to find a resolution in the coming weeks.

Simple solution for ancient tree's future

James Shugg thinks the risk presented by the tree may be tolerable, however, if the building manager is concerned he believes the simple solution is to exclude people from the site — something that's already in place.

“We can send people to the moon, but we can’t find a way to live with this tree? We can so easily coexist with large trees, we just need to find the will,” he said.

“Turning to the axe has been ingrained into us as Australians, it’s been an old, cultural thing dating back to colonial times. Consciousness is changing rapidly but we find the people in authority tend to be of the old mindset.”

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