Australia's coconut palms: hammock peg or noxious weed?

Striding purposefully down a pristine white sand beach in northeastern Australia, Hugh Spencer ignores the bikini-clad sunbathers and instead heads straight for a thick grove of coconut palms.

"Look at this – there are no native plants left. They've all been pushed out by the coconuts," says Dr. Spencer, who heads the Australian Tropical Research Foundation. "The national parks service won't lift a finger – they're seriously underfunded, and they don't want to deal with the issue because it's so contentious."

Swaying coconut trees may symbolize the laid-back lifestyle of the tropics, but in northern Queensland, they are the focus of an acrimonious public debate which has left locals anything but relaxed.

Tourism operators say Cocos nucifera palms are essential to the state's tropical ambience, offering the promise of long lazy days spent swinging in hammocks, sipping cool drinks, and gazing out at the azure waters of the Coral Sea.

But local governments (known as councils) take a dimmer view, fearing hefty lawsuits if the trees drop their hairy harvest on the heads of unsuspecting, and increasingly litigious, tourists. Conservation groups loathe the coconut palm, saying it is an alien, invasive species that is encroaching on native vegetation and crowding out a narrow band of littoral rain forest – one of the rarest types of forest in the world.

"Coconut palms are a particularly aggressive nonnative," says Spencer. "Of the nuts that fall to the ground, a large majority germinate. Coconuts, urban development, fires, all mean that the littoral rain forest in Australia is vanishing."

To some ecologists, the trees are public enemy No. 1, on a par with the hated cane toad, which was introduced to Queensland from Hawaii in the 1930s to control a type of beetle but has since bred in millions and spread across the continent.

So passionate is the debate that Spencer and a band of volunteers are poisoning the trees in a covert campaign of sabotage. Digging through the leaf litter in a particularly dense stand of palms, he points out a tiny hole at the base of a particularly tall specimen. "We put poison in there. We have to do it on days when the weather is bad and there's no one on the beach."

Poisoning the palms is not strictly illegal because they are not a protected species. But at the very least it is "illicit and unauthorized," according to the environmental biologist, who says he would welcome some form of prosecution by the Queensland national parks service because it would raise the profile of the issue.

The group's guerrilla tactics have made them enemies. Spencer says he's received hate mail for leading the counter-coconut charge. "Some members of the local council would like to hang me from the nearest coconut tree. But others would like to give me a knighthood," he says.

Coconut palms are one of hundreds of thriving plant species introduced to Australia since British settlement in 1788. Coconuts were first planted here by 19th-century pioneers and later spread along the remote coastline of northern Queensland by postwar settlers and, in the 1970s, bands of hippies.

The problem of nonnative trees is not unique to Australia. For example, Greece and South Africa are infested with Australian eucalyptus trees. Fast-growing, rot-resistant eucalyptus were planted as windbreaks and for their timber. British woodlands are choked with rhododendrons, an ornamental species originally from the Himalayas. In the US, Chinese tallow trees have invaded forests of Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina; while Florida struggles to control the Brazilian pepper tree, mimosas, and two fast-growing Australian imports: melaleucas and casuarina pines.

In Queensland, many people now consider coconut palms an irreplaceable part of the state's tropical appeal. Towns like Cairns and Port Douglas, gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, have boomed in the past decade thanks to resorts with enticing names like Palm Cove and Paradise Palms.

"This is a tropical destination, and people expect to see coconut palms, especially on the beaches," says Barry O'Brien, of Preserve Our Palms, a community group set up to challenge any threat to the spindly trees. "We have other dangerous things up here like crocodiles and snakes and stinging jellyfish, but no one is suggesting we kill them. I've lived here 13 years and to my knowledge there's been no one killed or seriously injured by a coconut."

Local authorities say the lack of injuries is testimony to their readiness to remove dangerous trees. Their vigilance is prompted by a growing culture of US-style litigiousness in Australia. Douglas Shire Council, which administers a swath of idyllic coastline north of Cairns, is one of the local authorities to have taken such precautionary measures, chopping down dozens of trees overhanging footpaths or playgrounds over the past three years.

The effort did not please the local tourism industry. "When the council chopped down 100 palm trees at a local beach, everyone was outraged," Mr. O'Brien says.

Less offensive to local businesses is the twice yearly "de-nutting," when contract workers climb the palms in spiked boots or use cherry pickers and long saws to remove the dangling fruit. (A coconut palm can produce up to 75 fruit a year.)

But for cash-strapped local councils, it is an expensive business – coconut maintenance costs about A$80,000 a year (US$61,500) in Douglas Shire alone, one of a dozen or more local authorities in Queensland that have to manage the problem.

Other councils are experimenting with "coco-nets," specially designed nets that catch the coconuts before they crash to the ground. But that, too, is pricey, because the nets have to be emptied on a regular basis.

Eradicating the palms altogether is not an option, however. "Having coconut palms scattered along the coastline adds to the tropical appeal of our beaches," says Bob Jago, the Douglas Shire Council's environmental officer, striking a conciliatory note in the debate. "I would only support removing them where they are growing in national parks."

Meanwhile Spencer and his volunteers feel they have right on their side. In a survey of visitors to the Cape Tribulation wilderness area carried out by the group in 2004, 650 tourists were asked whether they preferred seeing native tropical vegetation or a South Pacific-style coconut palm landscape. Ninety percent said they favored native vegetation.

The next stage in the great coconut confrontation will be a fresh assault on the palms by the conservationists. As with earlier campaigns, they will rip out germinating nuts, cut down smaller trees, and poison the big ones.

"We've done a huge amount of coconut removal already," Spencer says. "If they're left to their own devices, you end up with a monoculture. But if you tell people [coconut palms are] a weed, they go berserk."

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