Has the council done enough to save the Waitakere Ranges kauri?

The council has voted to close tracks in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park and spend a lot more money trying to stop the spread of kauri dieback. But, asks Simon Wilson, is it enough?

It’s quite good to think of kauri dieback the way you think of Alien, or The Walking Dead, or any other sci-fi thriller about an organism that will one day kill us all. Kauri dieback lives in soil. It can lie there dormant for at least eight years and then germinate – we know this because eight years is how long they’ve been doing that particular experiment. It might be nine, or 20, or who knows?

It’s spread by people. We know this because 71% of the dieback zones in the Waitakere Ranges are within 50 metres of a walking track. Maps of the way it has spread follow the walking tracks. It’s like a Predator, actually, camouflaged in the bush, stalking you through the park and out of the park to other sites. You can spray your footwear at a cleaning station when you leave an infected area, but nobody even knows if that works. The councils – the old Auckland Regional Council and Waitakere City Council and now the Auckland Council – have been trying to deal with kauri dieback since 2008. They have failed.

Kauri dieback, or Phytophthora agathidicida if you want to get up close and personal, was discovered in Piha in 2006 and it has now infected 60% of the denser areas of kauri in the entire Waitakere area. It kills kauri and it jumps to other species which it also kills. Even if it didn’t do that, close to 20 other species are dependent on the kauri, growing around it and being sustained by it. Kill the kauri and you kill them too. You kill the forest.

Te Warena Taua, kaumatua of Te Kawerau a Maki, the local iwi, told the Auckland Council yesterday that if we leave the bush alone it will survive. But there is no known cure. Researchers are working on it, desperately.

Jack Craw, who used to be the manager of biosecurity with various Auckland councils and is now a consultant, told the same meeting: “You cannot make a muddy track safe. The management regime has been a total failure, due to people not complying with the rules. There will be no kauri left in 40 years. Future generations will curse us all.

It is Te Kawerau a Maki that has placed the rāhui on the forests of the Waitakere Ranges. As far as they’re concerned it’s all off limits. They fronted to the council (meeting as the Environment and Community Committee, which comprises all councillors and two members of the Independent Maori Statutory Board – IMSB) to ask for council support.

The council decided not to do that, but not because it didn’t want to. There were some legal issues; there was opposition from businesses with tourism concessions in the park; more to the point, there were practical issues: how exactly could the council ban people from a place with roads, homes and holiday baches, Auckland’s most famous beaches, and many large areas where there is no kauri and therefore no kauri dieback?

Instead, the council decided to close all high-risk and medium-risk tracks. It went further than the recommendations of its own officials, who had put up five options and recommended the one in the middle, option 3, which was to continue doing what it’s doing now but step it up.

“What it’s doing now” came in for a lot of criticism in the meeting. Cleaning stations for your footwear that run out of cleaning detergent, not enough signage, far too little public education. When you walk in the kauri areas of the Waitakere bush, you are walking on kauri roots and, especially when it’s muddy, which is often, you are tracking the spores of the dieback pathogen to wherever else you walk. Since 2006, despite warnings, what the council has been “doing now” is allow us to spread kauri dieback through the bush.

From the start of the meeting, it was hard to detect any enthusiasm for option 3.

Council officers recommended this option but the council itself went further. The red tracks were recommended for permanent closure and the orange tracks for temporary closure. (Image supplied.)

The rāhui was reflected in option 5: close the regional park and then, if the science permitted, gradually reopen parts. Support for that was moved as an amendment by the two IMSB members, Renata Blair and James Brown.

Blair dismissed suggestions it would be too hard to do. The mechanism is a controlled area notice under the Biosecurity Act, he said. (He didn’t say it, but just imagine if there really were Predators in there – they’d close the park soon enough if they felt they really needed to.) “If we don’t do this,” said Blair, “how can we go home and face our families?”

Earlier, he had asked Te Warena Taua what it would mean for the iwi if dieback won the battle, and Taua had replied with a proverb. Blair provided the translation: If the kauri dies, we die too.

James Brown, also from the IMSB, asked the meeting what they thought Treaty obligations really meant. “The mana whenua have appeared before us with a clear and urgent message,” he said. “They could not have been more desperately clear. So how do we respond?”

Earlier, he had asked the officials if they felt they had accommodated the position of Te Kawerau a Maki in their option 3 recommendation.

Mace Ward, general manager of parks, had said: “It doesn’t fully accommodate it.” In fact, it contradicted it. The iwi wanted council to close the park; the officials proposed to keep most of it open.

Blair also asked, if you could set aside the budgetary and practical issues, would your recommendations be different?

Phil Brown, the council’s manager of biosecurity, answered that by saying: “If we thought we could keep people out of the ranges, it would be different.”

That is, the best way to fight kauri dieback in the Waitakere Ranges, according to everyone in the room, is to close the regional park. They all agreed. It’s just that most of them didn’t think it was possible, and some of them didn’t want to do it regardless.

Pip Madis appeared for “hundreds of local businesses” that would be affected. Jobs lost. There’s an interesting circular argument here. Activist (and currently Waitakere Local Board member) Sandra Coney has long argued that commercial activity in the park should be limited as much as is humanly possible, to keep the environment safe. Now, businesses in the area are arguing, in effect, that we shouldn’t keep the park safe because they can’t afford the consequences.

Coney was at the council meeting, along with the rest of her local board. In fact, they didn’t support option 5, the total closure option, because they could see it might be impossible to enforce and therefore could be counterproductive. They wanted option 4, the one that involved closing the high-risk and medium-risk trails.

The option chosen by council: red tracks and yellow tracks are all scheduled for closure, although some of the yellow tracks may be reassessed. (Image supplied.)

Mayor Phil Goff took that line as well. “I feel this just as much as anyone,” he said, and then described kauri as “iconic”. He did not think it was possible to enforce total closure. “If people are determined to go into the park, they will do so without hygiene stations. If we close every path, we won’t be able to prioritise the safe or safer ones.”

Cr Penny Hulse, chairing the meeting, agreed with that. Blair and Brown’s amendment got seven votes, 11 against. Goff’s own motion, for a “modified” option 4, was carried on a voice vote, with no count being called. It had several clauses and some of them related to the importance of putting a lot more money into this fight.

Goff has already foreshadowed that with his draft 10-year budget, which contains a targeted rate for environmental spending, on kauri dieback in particular. Penny Hulse has been instrumental in getting that targeted rate proposed, and the council will vote next week on whether it becomes policy. Then it will go out for public consultation.

Environment and Community Committee chair Penny Hulse (at right) and other members of the committee consider the plight of the kauri. (Photo Simon Wilson)

Option 4 was a good outcome. There’s going to be a big change in the way council deals with this disease, with all the main affected trials closed, and many others too. With enough funding there will be a big education campaign and a rollout of practical ways to limit the spread caused by people in the park. It’s the government’s job to lead the way on scientific research, but council may need to support that too.

So, the council did good. But did it do enough good? As Jack Craw noted after the meeting, the committee made its decision without discussing the capacity of each option to reduce the biosecurity risk. He quoted a study conducted by the council’s own biosecurity officers but not presented to the committee, suggesting that option 3 would have reduced the risk by only 15.5%. That’s obviously nowhere near good enough. For option 4, the same study expects a risk reduction of 69%. Is that good enough?

Or is it the equivalent of fleeing the hostile planet at the end of the movie, only to discover the creature is still clinging to the outside of your spaceship?

Best way to avoid that? Observe the rāhui. Tell your friends.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz  @simonbwilson

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