2nd May - Pine Trees

For us to build the fence round Warrawong Sanctuary, it was necessary to remove a number of feral pine trees growing on the roadside. It was 1975 and the “green” movement was starting to flex its muscles. It is also necessary to understand that this was Stirling Council, “the Little Europe of the Adelaide Hills”. I actually spent a couple of years as a councillor on Stirling District Council in the early 1970’s. It was probably the most wasted two years of my life.

At that time a resident of the district could request, and be given, a whole street of stringy bark trees, to cut for firewood, provided they planted the street with liquidambars on completion. These poisonous trees now dominate the Stirling landscape, killing wildlife for miles around.

If it had been native trees that I wished to remove then there probably would have been no fuss. But these were feral pine trees from California. I had to be careful here.

While I was a councillor, I formed a small group of dedicated volunteers called the “Mylor Tree Planting Group”. We started planting native trees and shrubs on the roadsides of Mylor Ward of Stirling Council. In our first year we planted 2,500 trees and shrubs. The local paper described it as a “waste of money planting so many.” The fact that it had only cost $1,000 whereas that same year it had cost $1,800 to plant 30 liquidambars in the main street of Stirling didn’t seem to matter. One resident was pictured on the front page of the local press. It was titled “a picture of despair - after years of clearing his roadside of scrub, it has been replanted.” These were fairly torrid times. We were often abused by the locals as we carried on with our roadside projects.

I asked approval from Stirling Council to remove the pine trees from the Williams Road frontage of Warrawong Sanctuary. I received written approval from Stirling Council. I commenced removing the pine trees.

The interesting point to note here is that the reason I gained approval to remove the feral pine trees was not because they were feral pine trees, but they were trees. In fact, the majority of councillors on Stirling Council at that time thought they were native trees because they had come up naturally on the roadsides. If the Councillors had realised they were exotic trees they would never have given approval.

The opposition had the ammunition it needed to attack. Here was John Wamsley, in the name of conservation, removing trees from the roadside. Stirling Council was flooded with complaints about the removal. It publicly denied that it had given approval. The battle lines were set.

On the other hand I had written approval from Stirling Council. What was I to do? If I publicly disclosed I had approval then the Stirling Council would simply rescind that approval. It only needed to give notice of motion and get a majority of Council to agree. The Adelaide News had run a story on it. The television stations were asking what it was all about. They wanted to video a tree being cut down. It seemed simple enough.

All the TV stations turned up at Warrawong. A professor friend of mine, Igor Kluvanek, came up with me from Flinders University where I was working. They were all a bit touchy because they did not know I had approval. They would like to film a pine tree being cut down on Warrawong and pretend it was on the roadside. Igor volunteered to do the actual cutting. Someone decided it would look good if he wore a bag over his head.


A short clip of the Phantom Axeman

Courtesy Channel 2


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The CEO of Stirling Council explained that it was a group of people who called themselves GROAP (Get Rid Of All Pines) and from then on we had all the press we wanted.

It was too much for everyone. Here we had someone wearing a bag over his head cutting down pine trees on public land without any approval and no-one could do anything about it. Members of Stirling Council said that it was clearly me and that they would swear in court that it was me with the bag over my head. In fact it wasn’t me, it was Professor Igor Kluvanek, Professor of Mathematics, Flinders University.

A few nutters got in on the act. Someone started cutting down pine trees in the south-east. Someone cut down the pine trees along the south-eastern freeway. I just continued cutting down the pine trees I had written approval to cut while no one was watching.

It all got a bit much for our Premier, Don Dunstan. He called a special meeting of the Executive Council of the South Australian Parliament. He ordered the Police Commissioner to lock me up.

I had cut down a small pine tree near the main entrance of Warrawong Sanctuary. It had hung up in another tree. I put down the axe and grabbed the trunk and shook it. It fell. I hadn’t noticed. A police car was passing. It fell right on top of the police car. Three excited detectives jumped out. One arrested me on the spot. His name was Lacey. They had caught the mad axeman of the Adelaide Hills. I was charged under the Criminal Law Consolidation Act - Damage to a tree in an avenue worth more than $2. It carried a four year gaol term.

I produced my written approval. Lacey threw it in the bin. That set the scene. I was guilty until proven innocent. I was released on bail. The bail condition was that I not do any work on my road frontage, ie, I not build the fence round Warrawong Sanctuary. At about the same time Stirling District Council took out an injunction stopping me from building the fence.

The next few months were rather dull. Every couple of weeks I would be paraded in front of a magistrate. The police would ask for an adjournment. Every couple of days a police car would pick me up and make sure I was behaving myself.

Peter Duncan was the Attorney General of South Australia. He returned from overseas. Someone must have told him the true story. He was horrified. He rung me and told me that I could forget about it. He said that he had to sign some document before I could be committed to trial and he simply would not sign them.

At the next appearance before a magistrate, the police said they did not wish to tender evidence. The case was dismissed. A police car picked me up and delivered me to Stirling Police Station. The head of the Station wished to see me. He showed me a letter from the Police Commissioner. It basically gave the direction that if any police saw anyone cutting down trees on the roadside and when questioned they stated they had Council Approval, the police were to take no further action.

There were 600 pine trees on my road frontage still to remove. Every night I would cut some down. Every night Stock Road was closed with falling pine trees. The police ignored it. No-one could understand what was going on.

Stirling Council held the famous Mylor Trial. I was put on trial by the residents of Stirling. Mylor Elderly Citizens Club was the courtroom. The judge was the chairman of Stirling Council. The prosecutor was Councillor Jenstch. I was invited to come by one of the radio stations if I were game. They said if I didn’t turn up I would be tried in my absence. I decided to turn up.

Councillor Jenstch started proceedings by reading out the charges against me. He said I was guilty unless I could prove I was innocent. I reminded him that we were not in Nazi Germany, that he had it round the wrong way. I produced a copy of the written permission I had from the Chairman. The Chairman admitted that the Council had given approval. The trial collapsed in uproar.

Probably, the most memorable part of it all was the time that the Adelaide News asked for a story. It was the Adelaide News which first broke the story. They felt they deserved a bit of a break. I remember the reporter and photographer turning up. I noticed the police car round the bend. They were going to photograph the arrest of the mad axeman. I got into their car. We drove round until we had lost the police car. I directed them to Councillor Jenstch’s house.

It was set up beautifully. Robin Turner appeared as if from behind a tree. He was dressed in white overalls and black gum-boots. He had large leather gloves and a bag over his head with eyeholes. He had a cattle drench pack on his back filled with diesel fuel. He strode down the road giving a squirt at every pine tree in range.

“We have mechanised now,” I told the reporter, “We can do in 10,000 pine trees a day now.”

The photographer grabbed at his bag on the front seat. In his enthusiasm, he spilled his gear everywhere. The reporter dived over him and grabbed the two-way radio. “Hold the front page,” he blurted, “We have the scoop of the year here”.

“This is better than the Eucla Nymph,”  I said. “Yeah.” came the reply.

Stirling Council decided that the best outcome would be for them to remove the pine trees that were left. The pine trees war was over. The Chairman of the Council later bought a group of cubs to Warrawong. “What a wonderful place,” he said.