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SocietySeptember 16, 2020

Holding the diggers at bay: Avondale’s fight to protect its native trees

(Photo: supplied)
(Photo: supplied)

For 71 days, protesters have been locked in a battle with contractors to save 26 native trees in the Auckland suburb of Avondale.

The fight to save 26 100-year-old native trees – what remains of an original 46 – came to a head this morning when more than 200 people showed up to prevent diggers from entering the Canal Road site in the Auckland suburb of Avondale. Police, security and contractors were met with vocal opposition, while protesters dismantled fences and linked arms across the site to prevent entry.


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After blanket tree protection in urban areas was removed from the Resource Management Act in 2012 (unless councils specifically identified “notable” trees for protection in a plan), the natives in the cluster were protected only by an informal arrangement with the land’s former owners, the Burgess family (who planted the original plot of native trees), and the current owners, the Raymond family. According to locals, the Raymonds’ children are cutting down the trees as part of the condition of sale to a developer. However, they offered the property to the Auckland Council for purchase nine years ago and again only a year ago.

Activist Steve Abel called the situation a “failure of political leadership”.

“Right now the immediate solution to Canal Road is that mayor Phil Goff and the council need to acquire this site and turn it into a public reserve,” he told The Spinoff.

“[Goff] hasn’t responded to my correspondence with him, hasn’t been to the site. I don’t know if any single city counsellor has been to the site in the last 71 days. Which is very disappointing.”

Abel was involved in a frightening incident in July, when a contractor felled a rewarewa tree that crashed into the puriri he was occupying. That day Abel and four others were arrested and charged with wilful trespass, and another, Mark Lockhard, was arrested in late August. The six appeared in court last week.

The occupation began on July 8, when local man William Lee stood in front of the trucks that were starting to cut down the trees on the property. Today about 10 people are occupying the canopy, using a network of ropes and pulleys to ensure someone can remain up there around the clock. Four people have chained themselves onto felled trees, and another three have locked themselves to two half-tonne barrels blocking the entrance, he said.

“Right now we have someone locked onto the digger on Wairau Ave, so the road is blocked and the digger can’t move,” Abel said. “People are gathered in large numbers at different parts of the site to stop contractors from getting on. There are arborists occupying the canopies of these beautiful big native trees. So we’re currently holding the line thanks to these members of the public. If it’s wasn’t for them it would have been hard for us to stop them from getting on.”

He described the occupation as “intense”.

“People are constantly anxious that the chainsaws are about to arrive. But it’s wonderful to see the huge community turn out; Aucklanders are sick of seeing beautiful, big trees cut down.”

At the beginning of September, Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara kaumatua Rihari Nahi placed an aukati rāhui on the site, preventing anyone who intended to harm the trees from entering. Nahi, who works as a guide and cultural adviser to Auckland Council’s parks and recreation services, told The Spinoff he doesn’t always support his employer’s actions.

“I’ve been exposing our young people to the environment, to the bush and the rivers here in Tāmaki Makaurau for about 30 years.

“The 2012 legislation that was lifted that protected the trees has contributed to the devastation of the mauri of the rākau.”

He says the council’s failure to act in Avondale and in the Dome Valley in Kaipara, where mana whenua have been fighting to prevent a waste management site that could affect the area’s waterways, are linked.

“Everything that happens in the environment impacts the people. I support the whānau here in trying to preserve and protect native trees in line with mana whenua iwi environmental plans. So I came at 6am on September 6 as a representative of tribal Ngāti Whātua to place an aukati rāhui to prevent anyone from harming the trees.”

Abel said that there are solutions out there, council just needs to come to the table.

“The solution can be found in a combination of a private developer who’s willing to save the trees, and potentially the council and potentially Kāinga Ora could acquire the site. And those are all solutions that could see it become a public reserve that would see these trees protected for ever, as they should have already been. It is a terrible blight on the Auckland Council that they refused an opportunity to purchase this site not only nine years ago but again last year,” he said.

“Auckland city, these are your people! You need to step up and protect these trees.”

Auckland mayor Phil Goff was unavailable for comment, however a statement from John Duguid, Auckland council’s general manager of Plans and Places, said: “A large number of individual trees and groups of trees are protected under the Auckland Unitary Plan, however, changes made to the Resource Management Act by the Government in 2012/13 prevent the council from protecting a much larger number of trees through ‘blanket’ tree protection.

“Prior to 2013, ‘blanket’ tree protection was used by many councils in New Zealand (including Auckland Council) to protect most trees above a certain height or girth (eg a number of the trees at 52-58 Canal Road, Avondale) within their city or district. Recognising the limited ability the council has to protect trees on private property, a number of initiatives are in train to retain and enhance trees throughout the city.”

A spokesperson’s for the mayor’s office noted that the council is not in a financial position to be able to purchase the land at Canal Road. They said Goff has written to the environment minister “a number of times” about the need to strengthen tree protections in the RMA, and quoted a Stuff article where the mayor stated: “There are groups of trees like this all over our city that have no protection. We need to reverse the amendments [made] in 2012 and the best way to protect these trees is to get change in the legislation to get group protection.”

This story was updated at 2.25pm to include comments from John Duguid and the mayor’s office.

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