Thursday, May 30, 2024

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HomeIssue 31New hope for street trees

New hope for street trees


Following public outcry, the butchering of Alice Springs’ street trees is now hopefully a thing of the past.

The Town Council last night heard from Luke Stapleton, Vegetation Maintenance Coordinator for  PowerWater Corporation (PWC).

They’re lifting their game, following “feedback” not only from the community but the Australian Energy Regulator.

While PWC has a legal obligation to maintain power line clearances, they are now adopting “a risk-based approach” and moving to “minimum clearances” – as opposed to the one size fits all (“generic clearances”) we’ve witnessed in recent years.

Both the frequency of trimming and clearance criteria will be changed.

They have engaged an Indigenous-owned company with a qualified arborist to look at the whole network – of trees in relation to power assets.

The arborist will advise on the best cutting techniques to maintain clearances (taking into account species and growth rates) and to reshape the trees.

PWC is empowered to remove any tree that they deem a risk but henceforth when trees are unsafe or unsuitable to be under power lines they will talk to council about possible removal and replacement. (Mr Stapleton was advised last night that council has a two for one replacement policy, though the replacements don’t necessarily have to be in the same location.)

Exceptions may apply in relation to trees of significance to Indigenous people or that have historic interest. Conversely, if a customer has a problem with a specific tree, PWC will individually assess the situation.

A data collection system will allow their staff to “audit every trim” and record their dealings with customers.

“We really want to do a better job,” said Mr Stapleton, emphasising their plans to “engage with key stakeholders” and especially council.

In response, councillors were appreciative of the changed approach while noting the lamentable record in the past.

Cr Jimmy Cocking emphasised the value of mature trees for their amenity and heat mitigating effect.

Mr Stapleton assured him that tree removal would be “very rare”.

Director of Technical Services Scott Allen described PWC’s previous performance as “atrocious”.

He complained of council being left “holding the ball” and to “pick up the pieces”. (Mayor Damien Ryan said council had “taken a shellacking over last round” of tree-trimming.)

Mr Allen said it was good to see PWC adopting a “different approach” but “actions will speak louder than words”.

He seemed to challenge PWC’s good faith with his dubious closing comment, that an improved regime “hasn’t happened for the 13 years I’ve been at council”.

Photos from our archive.


  1. What are the chances of putting the cables and wires underground and letting the trees grow to the height and shape that they are meant to be, so they can give the badly needed shade?

  2. Sorry Fran, but your suggestion is far too sensible and practical to gain any traction with our decision-makers these days.
    Having our power lines underground might also reduce future black-outs due to downed lines – something to be expected with more frequent and increasingly severe storm conditions due to climate change.

  3. @ Fran: Wouldn’t make any difference.
    I live in New Eastside with underground power lines.
    Although there is nothing overhead, the Council sent an arborist to establish the species of street tree I planted to ensure it will not exceed height regulations.
    The arborist was unable to determine the species and I have been informed that the Council is currently “monitoring the tree” to ensure that it does not exceed height regulations.

  4. When the Alice Springs Town Council or PAWA (including its various corporate rebrands) enter our street with vegetation on their minds we mostly go backwards.
    We paid for our nature strip plants and water them because we’re embarrassed by the lack of care shown in the public domain.
    Our efforts and amenity has been mauled by both agencies and we’ve been impacted financially.
    I touched on some of the glaring issues in a couple of essays (April 14 and 21) as part of the Touch of Light series.
    Of the 19 essays published to date, those describing the sorry management of street trees in Alice Springs have generated the most response eg. direct emails and interactions on the street.
    Most residents shared their own experiences with agency incompetence and lack of care.
    Earlier this year, at the height of summer a contract crew came into Hele Crescent and trampled through our nature strip gardens to cut back some Acacias.
    I know they were only following instructions but they probably copped the accumulated frustration and anger of decades.
    I pointed out the Acacias were a species approved for use under power lines.
    “You can’t have it both ways!” I shouted. “These shrubs are incapable of reaching the power lines so please go away!”
    They replied they were required to prune everything back to maintain a minimum distance of three metres between power lines and all plants!
    They clearly want to reduce the number of visits by over cutting. A “saving” negated by the fact they are cutting plants that do not require it in the first place.
    I truly hope this agency is turning over a new leaf and this isn’t just pre-election spin.
    If it’s a genuine desire to bring some basic professionalism to their operations, to create the beautiful streetscapes that are possible here, that’s great.
    We look forward to other tiers of government following suit.
    I always intended to write a third part to the street tree series – it’s still on the horizon, some time next month.

  5. This is a problem that goes back decades in Alice Springs; for example, if you’ve seen photos of Todd Street taken during the earlier decades of last century, the street featured an old river red gum that was cut down (despite public opposition) for road safety reasons in 1949.
    This was despite the fact it had caused no apparent problems for convoys of military traffic during the Second World War.
    Another river red gum, outside the former Stuart Arms Hotel in Parsons Street, was retained and is amongst the last surviving remnants of original vegetation in the CBD.
    The river red gums opposite the former Memorial Club were also slated to be cut down in 1951 but were saved through public protest – they are now registered sacred sites.
    The river red gums were highly valued for their shade.
    Historically, these were isolated events; and in fact the period between the war and the creation of the Alice Springs Town Council (the so-called bad old days of Commonwealth control) saw a considerable effort by the local municipal branch of the NT Administration in establishing street trees.
    The first to be done, in the 1940s, was Gap Road, creating an avenue of river red gums, the majority of which survive to this day.
    Olive Pink, an early local enthusiast of native plants, was highly impressed by the use of river red gums along what was then the main entrance road into town, and in 1963 she nearly succeeded in having Gap Road renamed as Van Senden Avenue, in honour of the official in charge of municipal services in the late 1940s / early 50s who had overseen the original street tree planting programs in town.
    In the main town area itself (the CBD of today) the main species used was white cedar, established in the late 1940s and during the 1950s.
    In an era when air-conditioning was virtually unheard of, the white cedars were highly valued for their shade, and in fact during the 1950s and 60s Alice Springs enjoyed a reputation as one of the shadiest towns in the nation – the drought and water restrictions notwithstanding.
    In the 1960s, under the management of Jan Reus, the emphasis shifted towards using Australian native species for street trees, mainly from Western Australia, for the burgeoning new suburbs of town. Many of these trees still survive.
    Over time and with increasing familiarity of their cultivation, more local native plant species began to be used for street tree plantings.
    However, it was in the mid 1970s that the Alice Springs Town Council commenced a program to remove the white cedar street trees in the CBD, intended to be systematically replaced with mainly local native species provided by the Forestry Unit of the Reserves Board of the NT.
    As had occurred decades earlier, there was significant public opposition (including from a newly established branch of the Australian Conservation Foundation headed by lawyer John Reeves) but this time it was to no avail – hundreds of street trees were cut down in the town centre, and the lack of shade has been a significant issue ever since that time.
    This was the beginning of the controversy that regularly flares up over the management of street trees in Alice Springs.

  6. Seems to me that the issues around street trees go to the heart of a broader problem of poor communication between the Council and ratepayers.
    My issues with street trees have finally been resolved but for five months in an engagement that involved CEO Jennings, various managers and the Ombudsman. Not one response was received to at least seven letters.
    That included no response to a request for a review supported by the Council’s own environment officer.
    Outside that group Councillor Jimmy Cocking was all talk but no action. Dale Wakefield’s office at least made an attempt to assist.
    Council needs to be response to ratepayers to resolve the issues around street trees and other concerns.


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