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Dying kauri near Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitākere Ranges
Dying kauri near Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitākere Ranges

AucklandDecember 13, 2017

The kauri, the Waitakere and the rāhui

Dying kauri near Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitākere Ranges
Dying kauri near Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitākere Ranges

What exactly, asks Simon Wilson, has the council decided to do about kauri dieback? Why did the Māori board members contradict themselves and which trails have been closed?

The Auckland Council voted on Monday to substantially increase spending on the environment, including the fight against kauri dieback. Surprisingly, that’s a first. But it turned down a proposal to go further, by rejecting a more comprehensive approach to pest control, species protection and fighting dieback . The previous week it did something similar, voting to increase funding to fight kauri dieback but rejecting a call to actively support the rāhui imposed by the local iwi. On that occasion it decided not to do what it could to close the regional park.

The earlier vote was proposed by the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB). But the second vote was opposed by the IMSB. And that opposition made the difference. The IMSB pleaded with councillors to vote for the most effective possible campaign against kauri dieback one week, and then voted against funding that would help do that the next.

To recap, on December 5 the Environment and Community Committee (all councillors and two members of the IMSB, chaired by Cr Penny Hulse) debated an attack plan to deal with kauri dieback in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. IMSB members Renata Blair and James Brown made an emotional appeal to the committee, moving and seconding a motion to close the park. “If we don’t do this,” Blair said, “how can we go home and face our families?”

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

James Brown reminded the meeting that the mana whenua and every independent expert who had submitted to the council had said the same thing: a cure for kauri dieback has not been found, the disease was being spread by humans walking it from one trail to the next, and there was no good evidence that disinfection and other existing control measures were working. “They could not have been more desperately clear,” he said. “So how do we respond?”

The committee responded by voting 7-11 against Blair and Brown’s motion and deciding instead on a range of measures that include more trail closures and education. Our story on that here. But the park remains open. More on that below.

The council’s Environment and Community Committee in session, with chair Penny Hulse at right, Renata Blair obscured by kauri leaves and James Brown in t-shirt. (Photo Simon Wilson)

And then, the second meeting

Then, at a meeting of the Finance and Performance Committee on Monday (also comprising all councillors but with two different IMSB members, and Cr Ross Clow in the chair), options for environmental spending over the next 10 years were considered. The big option was to vote $356 million to this work, and it was lost 9-12 with IMSB members David Taipari and Terrence Hohneck voting against. If they had voted in line with their colleagues on the Environment Committee the week before, the vote would have been 11-10 in favour.

To be clear, the Finance Committee did vote to support a big increase in funds for fighting kauri dieback and other environmental measures. But it didn’t go as far as it might have.

The committee was considering the proposed 10-year budget for council, put forward by the mayor, Phil Goff. Currently, just $5 million over 10 years is allocated to fighting kauri dieback. Given that we’ve known about this terrible disease for 10 years now, it’s pathetic. The committee basically agreed with that, and resolved to include two options in the draft of the new 10-year budget that will go out for public consultation early next year. One is to allocate an extra $83 million over 10 years to the campaign; the other ups that to $100 million.

Council officers judge the current option carries an 80% risk of kauri dieback spreading. They say the extra $83 million will reduce that risk to 30-50%, and the $100 million option to 10-20%.

The option voted down by the Finance Committee, which was proposed by Crs Alf Filipaina and Penny Hulse, would have increased the kauri dieback spend to $113 million over 10 years and taken the risk figure close to zero.

Strong words were spoken. Mayor Goff was against the biggest option. He said, “We don’t live in a perfect world. We could have put more money into sporting and cultural activities, climate change, homelessness, things like that. But if we spend $80 million more in this area it’s $80 million less in other priorities, unless you just want to add that to the rates burden.” He called both the other two options “a massive, massive increase already”.

Hulse responded by saying she agreed with “90% of what the mayor said”. Then she said the problem was that the whole debate was being conducted from the premise of having “a conservative rates rise” (just 2.5% average, as promised by Goff in his election campaign). What they had not done, she said, is ask, “What does it take to run this city?” And constructed a budget accordingly.

She said to Goff, “We’re trying to give you some air cover, Mr Mayor. It’s not your fault if we go out with options outside the 2.5% envelope.” In other words, Goff has promised a ceiling of 2.5% for raising rates but he is only one vote on council. If they override him and go a little higher, it won’t be his fault.

It wasn’t just the kauri dieback campaign that would benefit from the extra spend: a whole raft of other species protection and pest-control measures was proposed.

Hulse said, “I have a lot of respect for the mayor, because finally there is some decent support for the environment. Believe me, it’s been lacking the last six years. But you can’t blame me for pushing the envelope a bit further.”

The environment, she said, “is the biggest challenge we’ve got”. She suggested that if they needed to find the money from somewhere else they could maybe not build so many new roundabouts or “a slug of roading”. The 10-year budget, she said, is the chance for the council to “really make its mark”.

When the vote happened, there was surprise in the room, because most people seemed to assume it would pass. The IMSB members hadn’t spoken, but their support for the local iwi was assumed. Didn’t happen.

As chair of that committee Hulse has done a remarkable job in getting the environment featured alongside transport as a major strategic plank of council spending. She failed at that final hurdle, but the higher of the two approved options – in total, $279 million over 10 years (it’s for more than just kauri dieback) –  is still a big win. It’s to Goff’s credit, too, that this is such an important part of his 10-year budget.

The lower option – a total of $123 million over 10 years (also for more than kauri dieback) – is less impressive. Lowering the kauri dieback risk to 30%-50% is really not good enough: the survival of the species is issue enough, but the very survival of the bush as we know it is under threat. The public campaign starts now, to get the higher option supported.

Dying kauri near Maungaroa Ridge Track, Piha catchment, Waitakere Ranges. (Photo supplied)

What does the rāhui say?

Te Kawerau a Maki says: “The rāhui has been laid over the Waitakere forest itself to quarantine or prevent human access. As a matter of tikanga (customs), the purpose of the rāhui is to enable the environment to recuperate and regenerate without the presence and impacts of humans. Its purpose is both physical and spiritual protection. The placement of a rāhui in this situation is focused on the forest, and is not limited or constrained by infrastructure or property boundaries. As the forest is more than simply the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, the rāhui will extend beyond the park boundaries. It applies to and follows all kauri ecology within and up to the boundary of the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area…

“In acknowledgement of the distribution of the forest and complexities of land use, the rāhui takes a pragmatic approach. Within the rāhui area public access to parks will be completely prohibited. Access will not be restricted to: (1) beaches (nor open spaces adjacent to beaches), (2) the Arataki Visitors Centre, (3) public roads, or (4) private property.

“The rāhui will cover areas of private property that fall within and are inseparable from the forest/WRHA, but will not impact upon any private property rights or uses. It is hoped that property owners within the rāhui area/WRHA will understand and respect the rāhui and be empowered to act as part of and guardians to the forest. In essence we want to work in partnership and collaboration with property owners to ensure that the threat of kauri dieback is contained and managed within their individual properties to help safeguard the whole.”

For more information and a map of the rāhui area, see here (note that the beaches and public roads are not included).

What does the Environment Committee chair say?

Penny Hulse came in for quite a bit of abuse for the council’s decision not to close the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. She posted on Facebook in response:

“After reading the abusive emails and angry social media directed at me over the last few days, let me clarify what we decided on Tueday: councillors voted to support the principles of the Rāhui……we did NOT vote against the Rāhui. We noted that as council we could not yet legally close the ranges but would work with Te Kawerau to support the Rāhui.

We voted to IMMEDIATLY close the medium and high risk tracks (this has been done) we asked staff to work on a plan for further track closures…….17 more closures are underway.

We have given staff the right to exceed the current budget whilst we finalise the LTP [long-term plan, the legal name for the 10-year budget] which increases the budget by 10 times the previous budget…”

She also noted that council is now looking at its legal options and monitoring the rāhui. She said its position is in line with the course of action proposed by the Waitakere Local Board, which is true, and that councillors “remain utterly committed” to the campaign to defeat kauri dieback.

The rahui says don’t go walking in the Waitakere Ranges and the council says it supports that “in principle”. If you ignore that advice, don’t ignore this: use the footwear cleaning stations properly. (Photo supplied)

What does that mean?

According to advice provided to The Spinoff by a council spokesperson on December 8, 42 tracks have been permanently or temporarily closed, including some that were already closed. But Rebekah White, editor of NZ Geographic, says there are 71 high- and medium-risk tracks in the park. She knows the area well and has counted them up using topographic maps.

The view that council does not have the legal right to close the park has not been tested. The Biosecurity Act allows a Controlled Area Notice (CAN) to be issued to control an unwanted organism and kauri dieback certainly qualifies. But it may be that the government, rather than council, needs to issue such a notice.

The council spokesperson also said: “Further work is required to fully assess the implications of closing the additional high and medium risk tracks. As discussed at the [environment] committee meeting it is important that further closures will not result in perverse (unintended) outcomes such as increasing risk to non-diseased kauri areas. This work will be reported back to committee in February 2018. In the meantime there may be additional closures that can be implemented…”

It’s a work in progress. “It is important to note,” said the spokesperson, “that the risk profile of tracks has been developed taking into account track condition or ‘muddiness’ – with the recent dry weather the track surface conditions have changed resulting in reduced risk on a number of tracks.”

I asked why the councillors had not been told about the work done by the council’s biosecurity officers to assess the risk level of each option available to them. They were not told, for example, that the officers considered the councillors’ preferred course of action would reduce the risk by something less than 69%.

The answer was that managers “did not consider that this assessment was robust enough to present to Councillors”.

So what’s happening now? “It is important that track closure is carried out in a way that will not put the public at risk,” said the spokesperson, “so information, including brochures and websites, needs to be updated and new signage for the closed tracks needs to be produced and installed.”

“The council will be publishing information on the full range of current track closures on its website over the coming days.” That doesn’t seem to have happened yet, but you can find out more about the council’s campaign to combat kauri dieback here.

The council website also has good information on bush walks open clear of kauri dieback and open to visitors in south, central and north Auckland.

Of course, commitment to “the principles of the rāhui” means an education campaign, signage and a lot of on-the-ground efforts to discourage people from walking in the regional park, particularly on any of the at-risk trails. There’s so much that could be done, and the council has agreed to start spending money doing it right now. We look forward to that building up over summer.

In the meantime, here’s the list of closed trails as supplied to The Spinoff on December 8.

Closed tracks in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

Permanently closed tracks

La Trobe Track

Robinsons Ridge

Summit Track

Nugget Track

Taumata Track

Walker Kauri Track

Bob Gordon Track

Lucy Cranwell Track

Nihotupu Ridge Track

Temporarily closed tracks (probably closed for at least 2 years)

Andersons Track

Christies Track

Clark Bush Track

Farley Track

Home Track

Kura Track

Lower Kauri Track

Maungaroa Ridge Track

McKenzie Track

Pukematekeo Track

Quarry Track

Twin Peaks Track

Upper Huia Dam Track

Wainamu Bush Track

Zion Ridge Track

Pole Line Track

RGB Track

Waitakere Tramline Walk

Chateau Mosquito

East Tunnel Mouth Track

Ferndown Track

Filter Track

Forbes Track

Goodfellow Track

Hettig Track

Sharp Bush Track

Tom Thumb Track

West Tunnel Mouth Track

Arthur Mead

Peripatus Track

Tom Thumb By-Pass Track

Waitoru Reserve Track

Browne Track

For more information and advice on what you can do to help the campaign on kauri dieback, see here.  @simonbwilson

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