The tumultuous day the trees fell



Stuff NZ Newspapers


The first weeks of January can be a slow time for news in New Zealand. But 25 years ago in January 1997, Palmerston North answered the prayers of bored news reporters. In the earlymorning of January 5 members of the ‘Save the Avenue’ protest group began ‘occupying’ the plane trees which lined the section of Fitzherbert Ave between Te Awe Awe St and the bridge. This occupation, which consisted of huddling around the trees or in some cases climbing into them, was a last-ditch effort by the group to stop the council felling them. The subsequent forced removal of the protesters by police created sensational news footage. The occupationwas the last action in a long-running saga which centred around how to solve the traffic congestion on Fitzherbert Ave. This was caused by people commuting to Massey University and the other large employers on the opposite side of the river from the city needing to use the bridge at the bottom of Fitzherbert Ave. The issue with the traffic capacity of the bridge and Fitzherbert Ave was first recognised in the mid-1960s. At the time the council proposed an ambitious project called the Eastern Distributor. This roading project planned to create a four-lane cross-city route which began at Tremaine Ave, went through Hokowhitu, crossing the river just north of the existing bridge. It was vigorously opposed by the residents of Hokowhitu and protests were led by Brian Elwood. Not only were residents successful in stopping the planned road, it also provided a profile for Elwood, who became a city councillor in 1968 and mayor in 1971. The failure of the Eastern Distributor plan led to the council looking at other options for reducing congestion. In the late 1960s the council began exploring two ideas. One was to build a duplicate bridge at the current site and widen Fitzherbert Ave to six lanes. To achieve this the road-side plane trees had to be removed and part of the Esplanade taken. At a time when the environmental movement was growing, this option proved too controversial. The council then began looking more seriously at a site for a second bridge. The two options were the bottom of Albert St and between Botanical Rd and Cook St. This option was planned to connect easily to the Massey campus. The Massey option became the most favoured as it would create a direct route to the destination ofmost of the traffic. However, the plan hit a serious obstacle. The territorial authority on the Massey side of the river, Kairanga County Council, was not prepared to allocate any funding to a road which it thought had little benefit for its ratepayers. Without the county council’s support, and Massey and DSIR having concerns about a road disrupting the land they used for research, the idea was dropped. The focus was once again turned on the existing bridge. The collapse of the Rangitı¯kei River bridge at Bulls in 1973 caused concerns about the stability of the ageing structure. In 1981 the Ministry of Works approved the construction of a new bridge at the existing site, which opened in 1987. The new bridge had the capability to become four lanes, but it remained two lanes as Fitzherbert Ave could only take two lanes of traffic. This meant that it did nothing to fix the traffic congestion, so the council began looking again at a second bridge. The local body reforms of the late 1980s, led by ex-Mayor Elwood, meant that the Palmerston North City Council now controlled the land on both sides of the river making the choosing of a site simpler. However, a new impediment to the second bridge was placed in the council’s path. As the new Fitzherbert bridge had the capacity to become four lanes, the government, through Transit New Zealand, refused to help with the funding of a second bridge unless the existing bridge was used to its full capacity. In early 1993 the council began consultation around removing the Fitzherbert Ave trees so that the road could be widened. However, residents of Fitzherbert Ave and their supporters quickly organised to oppose the council. They formed a group called ‘Save the Avenue’which was led by Mark BellBooth and on April 25, 1993, over 600 people marched in favour of keeping the trees. The group kept up its pressure on the council until September 1996 when a special commissioner ruled in favour of felling the trees. Although the ruling was appealed through the Environment Court, ‘Save the Avenue’ began preparing to use ‘‘nonviolent protest’’, spending a night in the trees in early December. Matters came to a head in early January 1997. The council indicated it would begin felling trees from Te Awe Awe St to the bridge on January 6. About 2.30am on January 5 protesters began climbing into trees. The nextmorning the contractors who were to fell the trees were greeted by about 300 people, either in the trees or huddled around them. The police were called but they were unable to remove the protesters, which had swelled to around 1200, so at 1pm the felling was called off. As the protesters disbursed, thinking the treeswere safe, the contractors arrived about 4pm and began work. The police began using ladders to haul the remaining protesters out of the trees, arresting 23 people. The contractors were able to remove nine trees. However, the stand-off continued and the last protester to be removed was Chris Teo-Sherrell, who came down around noon on January 8 after a promise from police not to arrest him. The remaining nine trees were felled that afternoon. Although it was the scenes of the January protests that caught the imagination of the country, the occupation of the trees continued well into 1997. On March 18 there was a small protest when the trees on the eastern side between Park Rd and College St were felled. There were also occupations of the remaining trees, but when the last trees between Park Rd and The Square were removed in August there were no protests. Twenty-five years later the replacement plane trees now have a significant presence on Fitzherbert Ave, although they will never create the green tunnel of their predecessors as the road is too wide. In an echo of the 1960s roading protests, Mark Bell-Boothwent on to be elected mayor in 2001, the protests having raised his profile in the community.