The Winter Road

True Crime Turns Into An Absorbing Non Fiction Read 

Kate Holden
Black Ink Rrp

Kate Holden dedicates this book, based on true events, in part to… “the dispossessed, to the dismayed and to the defenders…”

Well count me among the distressed, dismayed and a defender where I can be when it comes to indiscriminate and illegal land clearing. This book cuts very close to home in the electorate of Lyne where MidCoast Council rules. And where we are losing prime koala habitat, breathtaking coastal land, and where there is illegal clearing, including murder if you count the demise of Michael McGurk  in 2009 who allegedly had a hand in a land development at North Hawks Nest  as well as nefarious Sydney dealings. The Hawks Nest deal subsequently stalled after McGurks murder. 

But now the war over desecration and preservation continues as property prices soar.

I asked Kate to fill us in a little about her book which, with its lengthy and helpful Bibliography and notes, is a wonderful insightful read of more than a murder but also of the dispossessed, the psychology, history and landscape as well as the motives of men for money. It culminates in a deliberate death, the result of a long duel between a land owner and a dedicated environmental officer. While it ended for Glen Turner in 2014, his murderer, landowner Ian Turnbull, died from heart disease in prison less than a year after being convicted.

But a war rages on in backrooms, kitchens, paddocks and plush city offices between some developers, realtors, farmers, councils and environmental warriors over loss of creatures’ habitat, old growth forest, trees and native flora and fauna, along with prime agricultural land going under highrise luxury units and ugly crammed together, suburban housing estates. Profits from scrubby, seemingly forgotten blocks of land, can enrich the greedy in allegedly illegal and corrupt deals done in councils, backrooms, at the kitchen table or out on a road.  

Is it happening in our backyard? Will MidCoast Council’s recent and rather imprudent decision to adopt the ‘Urban Release Areas Report’ which proposes widespread development areas right across the entire local government area, and refer it to the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment for endorsement, lead to the creation of a billionaire developers playground? One shudders to think what may happen around Hawks Nest, Tea Gardens, and North Arm Cove. 

Time will tell.


(Here Kate outlines the bones of her insightful, compassionate and illuminating book.)

. . . .

It is just over seven years since Glen Turner, a NSW environmental compliance officer, drove down Talga Lane with his colleague Robert Strange and pulled their work vehicle to the side in order to take photos of what they strongly suspected was the last of the illegal landclearing by the Turnbull family of Croppa Creek, near Moree. That cold July twilight Turner didn’t have Ian Turnbull on his mind, and was on an expedition to examine a completely different case, but he knew that part of Croppa Creek well, as he’d been there half a dozen times a few years previously to investigate Ian, his son Grant and grandson Cory. He’d been looking at their activities on two wooded blocks in the Brigalow Belt, also the middle of the Golden Triangle, some of the richest agricultural land in the continent. Turner had watched, frustrated, as two years of departmental investigation had seen the Turnbulls face court, conviction and fines, but continue to defiantly push protected native vegetation until the last of the endangered ecological communities of mixed brigalow, belah and box woodlands were pushed. They were pushed, then raked, stacked and burned. It was the burning beacons of those last trees that caught Turner’s eye that night and made him pull over. Forty minutes later he was dead. 

Ian Turnbull was the elderly patriarch of a wealthy land-developing family, starting his business in the 1960s—on the rising tide of industrial farming and pathological devotion to pesticides and herbicides—with grazing, but changing, through the purchase and conversion of nearly a dozen properties in the area, into broadacre cropping. Broadacre is big in the northwest of NSW, with vast blocks devoted to monoculture—wheat, barley, chickpeas and other grains—in a landscape that looks like brushed carpet. It used to be the traditional open woody grasslands of the Bigambul/Kamilaroi people, but those traditional owners were largely destroyed or moved off in the frontier wars of the 1840s, and though First Nations people remain a significant presence in the district the traces of their millennia of responsible custody have largely been removed through self-mulching soil, laser irrigation and nearly two centuries of colonial activity. The Turnbulls were not untypical of their community. They lived outside a small, prosperous agricultural settlement, they did local good works, they made lots and lots of money through conversion, and they worked in a culture that felt itself virtuous through its codes of shared silence, its remoteness from urban know-it-alls, its conservative patriotic traditions and its staging of the great Australian narrative: making the land pay its way. 

When I came to write The Winter Road about the killing of Glen Turner and the landclearing of the Turnbulls I immediately saw that this was a story with deep roots: the harvest, as it were, of something cultivated and sown long ago. The origins of the conflict between the men lie in Europe, in the ecology of wet, fertile Britain, the Enlightenment culture of improvement that was brought with the First Fleet, and the imperative, if the Colony were to have legitimacy, to declare the continent vacant or unused, the land terra nullius. From the outset non-Indigenous occupation of Australia has meant working the land, because Indigenous ‘non-use’ of the land was what made settlement legally possible. Improvement of the land meant making it work in the way that Europe works: growing European crops, rustling with European species, moving in European seasons. More, a man could have property here and if he had property he had rights. Fortunes were made under the explosion of land-grabbing squatting and then selection: politics was always part of the story. The land didn’t cooperate of course: ill-advised agriculture brought on erosion, biodiversity loss, salination, infertile soil, drought conditions and despair. 

It’s a peculiarity of Australian culture that we feel more valiant the worse we’ve had to suffer. In the perplexity of experience and heartbreak on the land we made our heroes, the ‘battlers’ wiping sweat from their brows as they endlessly chopped trees, cleared scrub, tamed the land and forced it to produce what we expected. Just to raise a crop of wheat is an immense victory here, and a town like Croppa Creek is proud of its shining expanses of valuable produce. 

Ian Turnbull was made of that culture, and when the two last forested blocks came up for sale he knew that the soil, nitrogen-rich below its shield of brigalow, would make a fortune. In the northwest land sells for thousands and thousands of dollars a hectare; he could set up his grandson on one block, and help out his son Grant on the other. Everyone knew, however, that permission to clear would be hard to get, for brigalow is a threatened species. The Turnbulls began to clear even before the exchange of contracts, and despite warnings, cautions and inspections by the authorities, they continued. They continued to clear despite questions in the Senate, despite ecological testimony about the biodiversity on those blocks – despite the evidence that koalas, threatened and now protected, were present in the trees that were being felled by dozers throughout 2012 and 13. 

In the end Turner and his colleagues did get the Turnbulls into the Land and Environment Court of NSW, and they were found guilty of illegal clearing. They appealed; they were given reasonable fines and remediation directions, and they appealed the conditions of those orders. No remediation was done. Instead the Turnbulls ploughed it all over, pulverised the surviving groundcovers, sprayed and sowed. There was only a little scrub left by then.

Glen Turner was just one hardworking member of a beleaguered department and the two men hadn’t spoken for two years but Turnbull decided it was his fault when, in July 2014, he received notice of a further prosecution. When an employee came through on the short-circuit radio saying Glen Turner was in the area watching that last bit of scrub burn, Turnbull wordlessly got into his ute, drove, paused to take out his .22, and went to find the two government men. Within an hour he was on the staff radio himself: ‘Scott? It’s me, Ian. I’ve just shot Glen Turner. I think he’s dead.’

Turnbull pleaded manslaughter, claiming Turner had persecuted him and claiming to have been disordered of mind. He was convicted in 2016 of murder, sentenced to 35 years’ prison, and died in his bed within the year, aged 81. The Turnbull estate is yet to pay out for the damages awarded to Robert Strange and Turner’s family, while the two properties have recently been sold for millions of dollars, unremediated. On the anniversary of Turner’s death people are encouraged to plant a tree. 

Kate Holden.

This article was written on unceded Dharug country of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to elders of this country, and acknowledge their continuing connections here. Always was and always will be Aboriginal land. KH.

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