Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Don't let them banish the birds

Proposed changes to tree protection laws will give the chainsaw brigade a free hand to wreak havoc.

Birds have returned to Auckland's suburbs, as this tui feeding in Epsom shows. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Birds have returned to Auckland's suburbs, as this tui feeding in Epsom shows. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

A few weeks ago, an injured kaka was rescued from a Queen St gutter and is now in a new home at the Auckland Zoo. Around the same time, a tui family took up long-term residency in my neighbourhood. Their constant chatter is taking a bit of getting used to - when do they ever sleep? - but it is nice that, as in Sydney, native birdlife is increasingly a feature of suburban living in Auckland.

How long this will last, though, with the Government's latest effort to de-green New Zealand's towns and cities, is cause for great concern.

Tagged to the new Resource Management Reform Bill, just introduced into Parliament, is a second attempt to remove the general tree protection rules in urban areas. The first attempt, in 2009, to allow the chainsaw gang to go wild in the privacy of their own backyards was stopped in its tracks in May 2011 by Environment Court Judge John Jackson, who ruled the 2009 amendments to the 1991 Resource Management Act did not provide for the free-for-all the Government had envisaged.

He ruled that many of the general protections for groups of trees provided for in the old act, such as shoreline pohutukawa along the North Shore beaches, were still safe despite the amendments.

The Property Council is currently endeavouring to relitigate this decision before the Environment Court, but the Government has decided the easy solution is to try again. The new bill explains it does that by "clarifying that a tree protection rule can only apply to a tree or group of trees that is specifically identified in a schedule to a plan by street address or legal description of the land, and that a group of trees means a cluster, grove, or line of trees that are located on the same or adjacent allotments identified by precise location".

At present, for example, the local authority can create a coastal protection zone along the East Coast bays of the North Shore and proclaim all coastal pohutukawa within the zone part of a protected group. The 2011 Environment Court decision upheld this ruling. But under the proposed legislation, council officials will now have to traipse up and down the coast identifying the exact site of each tree and the street address/legal description, then add it to a vast Domesday Book-like schedule.

A bemused Environmental Defence Society chairman, Gary Taylor, says this requirement runs completely counter to the Government's stated purpose in respect of the RMA, which is to simplify and streamline. He argues that "obviously the intention" of "imposing a massively bureaucratic responsibility on councils is to make it so difficult to protect urban trees that people won't bother, or if councils do, it will force them to pick notable examples instead of groups".

He asks what will happen in the eastern foothills of the Waitakere Ranges, long a battleground between owners who want to part-clear and subdivide, and the wider community, which wants to preserve the bush-clad fringes of the protected ranges beyond.

But it's not just the city fringes. Mt Eden and Remuera are traditionally leafy suburbs, but in the 30 or more years that I have lived in the inner west, the greening of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay and beyond has been dramatic.

The tui that have joined us in recent times seem to have set up house in a massive kerbside gum tree, cruising back and forth around backyards, feeding on trees both native and exotic that have matured in recent years.

Much of the planting took place 20 or more years ago, before the latest wave of newly rich moved in, with their desire for larger garages and swimming pools and designer gardens. I worry for the trees and the birds they attract.

Not all planting is appropriate - there's a sun-blocking pest across my back fence I'd love to see severely topped - but I do fear that removing all controls and forcing Auckland Council to identify every tree worth saving, by street address, will prove a task too hard - and too expensive to undertake. The 2009 act didn't come into effect until January 1 this year but thankfully, by then the Environment Court had emasculated it.

With the drive for housing intensification within the existing city boundaries, our urban forest was already under threat. Now it faces a double whammy. If ever it needed our help to survive, it's now.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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