Fears by Port Stephens residents and landcare members that up to seven perfectly healthy trees in Bagnalls Beach Reserve have been vandalised has led to an intense investigation by Port Stephens Council.
The bizarre set of circumstances started more than a week ago when locals complained about the removal of a large blackbutt tree near Government Road at Nelson Bay.
Sue Olsson, vice-president of EcoNetwork Port Stephens, said that a few days later Tomaree community volunteers had noticed up to seven trees in the vicinity of Bagnalls and Dutchies beach with similar 'X' yellow markings fearing they would also be chopped down.
"Five of the marked trees are adjacent to the Bridle Path and appear healthy, though one has significant termite damage, just part of the process in creating a tree-home hollow for an owl, kookaburra or possum. The two trees on the eastern side of the steps between Thurlow Ave and the Bridle Path appear to be part of the access easement within Bagnalls Beach Reserve."
The Examiner soon ascertained that the blackbutt was removed by Hunter Water (HW) in consultation with the council.
"A water main break in early October had undermined the tree's stability, presenting a potential safety risk for the community," a spokesperson said.
"HW is not aware of any plans to remove the trees in the reserve opposite Thurlow Avenue and does not have any current jobs logged for this location."
The council's environment section manager Brock Lamont was equally mystified by the tree markings.
"Council was advised of markings on trees within the reserve ... they are not associated with any planned council works or recently received tree permits. Council is in the process of contacting the owners of properties nearby the marked trees to seek further information."
In another twist, signs saying: 'Attention: Trees here have been vandalised' erected by the council mysteriously disappeared within days of being erected.
"The removal of these signs is also part of the ongoing discussion with neighbouring property owners.
Mr Lamont said that fines for tree vandalism can range from $3,000 to $6,000 plus remediation, however, tree vandalism can be escalated to the NSW Land and Environment Court where fines can be much higher.
Roz Armstrong, an east ward council election candidate, said that the issues of the yellow markings on the trees "doesn't sit well with me".
"Something is going on but fortunately we have committed locals who care for their environment."
Ms Armstrong said that mature, healthy trees were important to the sustainability of the environment.
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