Green advocates see red over vandalism

DESPITE being a secondary forest, and before that, a rubber estate, Bukit Gasing is a popular beginners’ hiking destination for central Klang Valley residents.

However, trekkers, especially seasoned ones, are decrying the destruction of trees and natural landscape taking place on the Petaling Jaya side of the hill, known as the Bukit Gasing Educational Forest.

This destruction goes on despite signage at the forest’s Jalan Tanjung 5/4 entrance informing visitors they are not allowed to damage or destroy the trees in any way, and are liable for a fine of up to RM50,000 if caught doing so.

StarMetro spoke to several hikers, including veteran hiker and Friends of Bukit Gasing member (FoBG) Chris Wong, who pointed out that irresponsible visitors were destroying trees and the natural landscape.

Some trekkers decried replacing the wooden entrance gate at Bukit Gasing's Jalan Tanjung 5/4 with a fibreglass one, athough the council justified the replacement, stating that hte old wooden boards had already been too termite-damaged. Moreover, MBPJ officer Khairudin explained that the metal pillars had also been put up after motorcycles were seen riding in all the way up to the clearing 300m in.

Wong led StarMetro through Bukit Gasing’s Main Trail heading up to the Sivan Hindu temple.

Just 300m into the trail, we came upon a clearing leading to either the now defunct look-out tower, or the temple.

“There used to be saplings planted here in a recent corporate-sponsored tree-planting exercise. These are all gone – someone has cut it all down,” said Wong.

Wooden planks piled along one of the "jalan tikus" exits onto Jalan Tanjung 5/4, a possible cache for the unknown group of civilians cutting into Bukit Gasing's soil paths to make steps.

This information was corroborated by Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) staff who visited the site the next day to document the damage.

Still within the clearing, there were also trees which had been debarked, exposing the pulp to insects and diseases. Cuts and scores made by blades were also visible on the trees.

Walking further up the trail, there were more than 60 trees that had been cut in half with clean edges.

“Sometimes, the culprits even use chainsaws,” Wong said, showing gaps in a tree root used by the vandals to cache fuel for future trips.

Hikers who prefer a "natural" setting decry attempts to civilise Bukit Gasing, including putting in items such as tiling on what's supposed to be a soil path.

The battle for the soul of Bukit Gasing is being waged between groups such as FoBG, who are trying to retain the hill’s natural forested character, and another unknown group that has been cutting into the natural trail, creating steps with wooden planks and using metal pipes to hold the former in place.

While some hikers felt the steps helped them climb steeper parts of the trails; those who preferred a natural setting often removed the wooden planks.

But the metal pipes hammered into the ground remained, posing a danger to hikers.

Sunny Neoh, who had been trekking the hill four to five times a week for the past eight years, said many of the steps were unnecessary.

“Maybe about 20% to 30% are actually useful to hikers.

“The rest are unnecessary and can make the trail more dangerous because they have terraced flat parts of the trail and cut down trees that offer natural handholds while climbing,” said Neoh.

A Section 9 resident, who only wanted to be known as Munisah, said many trees in the forest seemed to be dying because of termite infestations.

“There seems to be a lot of termite mounds and many trees are under attack, especially those on the trail leading to the old lookout tower,” said Munisah.

Despite new signboards clearly ennumerating the forest's regulations both at the trail entrance and 300m in where the trail divides, tree vandalism was still fresh and visible.

Petaling Jaya Old Town resident Mary Yap said she had seen people widening existing trails or cutting down plants to make new paths.

“The path is only for one or two people to pass at one time, but nowadays more and more people come, so they cut down plants to make space for up to four or five people to walk at the same time,” Yap said.

Similarly, Cheah Tak Yan, who had been hiking Bukit Gasing since it transitioned from a rubber plantation, said people were also seeking a new “challenge” by cutting new trails.

“I can see how people want steps at some parts, because heavy foot traffic means the path is slowly eroding on its own, but you are also disturbing the natural surroundings when you bring in tiles or metal pipes,” said Cheah.

Many of those interviewed by StarMetro said the vandals should stop treating the hill forest like their own garden.

MBPJ public relations officer Zainun Zakaria acknowledged that vandalism on the hill was a major problem.

“People do not care whether this is on the Kuala Lumpur side or Petaling Jaya side. They just clear paths to make their own hiking trails all the way from Kerinchi to Gasing,” she said.

Along one trail to the Sivan temple at one of Bukit Gasing's hilltops, StarMetro and trekker Chris Wong counted over 40 trees along the trail which had been chopped down, as evidence by the clean cut surface of the stumps.

Although the council has by-laws, along with fines and penalties regarding plant destruction, the challenge was to catch the culprits red-handed.

MBPJ’s enforcement unit patrols the hill, usually on the weekends when the crowds are biggest, as well as on occasional weekdays.

“Even then, we can only patrol the main trail. The enforcement officers mark down changes along the trail such as plants which have been cut down and collapsed or dead trees, which we will clear or section away,” said Zainun.

The issue of people cutting steps into the natural path had also irked MBPJ environment officer Mohamad Khairudin Ramly.

“This group has never approached us. They just bring planks, tiles and bricks, and pile them outside the park. When no one is around, they start work,” said Khairudin.

Returning the soil steps to their natural state would be an issue, as the altered soil stability and lack of tree roots to retain the soil meant that the environment unit had to make a new trail first, then cover the steps area.

To help with the tree-planting situation, MBPJ had sought the expertise of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) back in April.

“We were told by FRIM researchers that although Bukit Gasing has good, healthy trees, these all have lifespans of less than 100 years,” said Khairudin.

To encourage biodiversity, the environment division, under FRIM’s guidance, will begin re-tagging the existing trees, as well as planting new species such as jati and nadir (fruit-bearing trees) to encourage a diversity of trees.

With the presence of fruit trees as a food source, the council hoped the fauna diversity would increase as well.