Surprise twist after council spends $400,000 destroying 150-year-old tree

The tree is still providing habitat for local wildlife, but some want to extend the car park it grows in.

A bitter feud is brewing over a remnants of a tree growing in the centre of a car park in Melbourne's outer east.

Clinging to life, a stump is all that remains of the well-loved Warburton Tree. The mountain grey gum had flourished for 150 years in the eastern suburbs town it was named after. Its sad decline began in 2023 after it became the subject of safety concerns.

After a months-long community fight to save it from the wood chipper, the tree was trimmed down to little more than a stump in June — a process that ultimately cost the Yarra Ranges Council more than $400,000.

Left - the Warburton tree prior to it being lopped. Right - the result shows little more than a stump.
The Warburton tree was cut down in the dead of night and the result is not one many residents are happy with. Source: The Warburton Tree

Once the tree was hacked down, most thought the dispute was over and the tree would stay at 10 metres and surrounded by a small exclusion zone.

Then some residents contacted council saying they want the remnants gone. So on Tuesday, in a surprise twist, the Shire of Yarra Rangers will vote on spending even more money to remove the stump.

How did we get here?

Before and after pictures show the result the project so far. Because it was cut down in the dead of night by contractors, the result is something few Warburton residents are happy with.

While it may not be Victoria's prettiest tree, it does still provide key habitat for wildlife, and parts of it could grow back. But for many, the remnants of the mountain grey gum are a reminder of the bitter split in the community they want to forget.

The tree was fenced off and council called in private security and police to keep protesters away from it. One man even climbed its branches and was forcibly removed.

It's literally - Paved paradise, put up a parking lot.Nicole Fisher

Hundreds following tree on social media

Warburton resident Nicole Fisher runs a social media page with hundreds of members that is continuing to advocate for the tree. Because most of the township's old-growth forest has already been cut down, the mountain ash was its oldest, and until recently, tallest tree.

“It’s been like a member of the community,” Nicole told Yahoo News Australia.

“It provides quite a lot of habitat and a couple of galahs keep coming back to it. Lots of kids climb the tree and people have grown up with it,” she added.

She believes plans to totally remove it are part of a trend towards urbanisation. “Development could destroy the essence of the town, it’s a beautiful place that tourists love,” she said.

Police and private security standing in front of the Warburton Tree
Police and private security were called in May as the dispute to protect the tree intensified. Source: The Warburton Tree

Council silent as tree future put to a vote

Before its trimming, numerous arborist reports were commissioned and the tree was suffering from rot. Cables had been used to stop branches from falling.

Both Shire of Yarra Ranges and Mayor Jim Child declined to answer questions from Yahoo News Australia ahead of the vote.

How on Earth does a tree removal cost $400,000?

In June, Shire of Yarra Ranges told local media to costs included:

  • Independent arboricultural advice.

  • Legal advice.

  • Contractor costs.

  • Traffic management.

  • Fencing.

  • Security.

'Complete absence of empathetic thinking from the bureaucracy'

Arborist James Shugg has a specialisation in Victoria’s last remaining upper-echelon trees which he cares for at botanic gardens.

While the Warburton Tree did have a structural issue, he thinks it's likely with further investigation evidence may have been found that could have enabled its retention. "The tragic aspect was that wasn't done," he said.

Because so few old trees remain in Victoria's landscape he wants councils to modify their approach to their care.

“There appears to have been a complete absence of empathetic thinking from the bureaucracy,” he said. “I don't think the tree was accorded the respect that one of such venerable status deserves."

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