Razed plot in Bukit Batok raises concerns

The plot of land razed (at centre) had been covered with non-native Albizia trees, which are considered vulnerable to storms and more prone to falling because of their brittle wood structure and shallow roots. NParks is now replanting the plot with n
The plot of land razed (at centre) had been covered with non-native Albizia trees, which are considered vulnerable to storms and more prone to falling because of their brittle wood structure and shallow roots. NParks is now replanting the plot with native plants.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

NParks removed fall-prone trees for public safety but experts worry about impact on plant species, wildlife

A once-vegetated plot of land opposite the Bukit Batok Nature Park was last month razed by the National Parks Board (NParks) over public safety concerns.

The plot of land had been covered with non-native Albizia trees, which are considered vulnerable to storms and more prone to falling because of their brittle wood structure and shallow roots. NParks is now replanting the plot with native plants.

But the move has drawn concerns from conservationists, who worry that a blanket removal of vegetation could result in rarer species being cut down too, and also have an impact on wildlife.

Environmental consultant Tony O'Dempsey said: "I support the removal of potentially dangerous trees and I applaud the move to immediately replant the areas.

"However, I would like to see a more analytical approach to tree removal, where trees are assessed and removed only where necessary and with care so as not to damage the remaining vegetation... This is particularly important in areas such as this, where native animals such as the colugo, civet cat and flying squirrels are likely to be affected."

NParks' group director of streetscape, Mr Oh Cheow Sheng, said decisions to remove trees are made in the interest of public safety after careful consideration.

In the Bukit Batok case, the Albizia trees with a tree-fall zone overlapping the road were removed together with a smaller number of dead trees and those in poor health, he said. Three sturdy and healthy trees growing in the area were retained.

A tree-fall zone refers to the area that will be affected by a tree when it falls, said botanist Shawn Lum, a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment. He noted that a falling tree may also cause collateral damage.

If a tree is, say, 30m tall, its potential tree-fall zone will be a circle of at least 30m around the tree in all directions, said Dr Lum, who is also president of the Nature Society (Singapore). "Factor in the extra distance a tree may fall or slide to if it is on a slope, or the fact that a falling tree may knock over other trees in its path... then a conservative radius of a tree-fall zone may be considerably wider than its height."

The importance of tree maintenance here was highlighted after a 40m-tall tembusu heritage tree in the Singapore Botanic Gardens fell and killed a woman in February. St George's Church in Minden Road recently inspected a 30m-tall tembusu tree on its premises after the incident. The tree was deemed unhealthy and felled.

Asked if NParks had taken more steps to reduce the chance of trees falling since the February case, Mr Oh said the board has had a comprehensive tree management programme in place since the early 2000s. He added that there have been fewer cases of fallen trees and branches annually - from about 3,000 in 2000 to about 800 cases last year.

The Albizia, one of the fastest-growing species of trees in the world, can reach a height of more than 40m - about 11 storeys.

However, its rapid growth means that lower branches are shed quickly as they get shaded out by the branches above, said Dr Lum, and can pose a danger to people. But he added that Albizia trees fill an important habitat role as their height makes them important to wildlife such as eagles that roost or nest only in very tall trees.


Reforestation work in Bukit Batok: http://str.sg/trees

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Razed plot in Bukit Batok raises concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe