Deep within the Auckland Regional Council, behind a phalanx of public relations people, sits the man Dr Andrew Montgomery calls an "eco-fascist". His name is Jack Craw. He heads the ARC's Biosecurity Department and is responsible for blacklisting a series of popular introduced garden plants.
In January Craw decided to put up a "discussion" list of 51 potential problem plants that the ARC was considering banning. The list was widely publicised. It included three palms - the phoenix, bangalow and Chinese fan palms - which were labelled invasive/and or poisonous and crowding out natives. The list also included favourites such as the common agapanthus, English ivy and Norfolk Island hibiscus.
The list had the desired effect. Auckland gardeners, keen to do their best for the environment, were shocked into action. Hundreds filled in the feedback form, many changed their garden plans. But Craw met his match in Montgomery.
Montgomery's qualifications include an MBChB and a BSc in cell biology. He is also well-connected.
Craw, on the other hand, has a post-graduate qualification in management and is passionate about the eradication of what he calls weedy plants.
In 1995 Montgomery and his entrepreneur brother David opened Metroplants, a business propagating and selling palm trees.
They enjoyed palms and could see a big future for them as Aucklanders fell in love with tropical gardens. Andrew, the father of four small children, wanted to augment his GP's income.
At the time phoenix, bangalow and Chinese fan palms were highly prized. The bangalow industry alone had grown to around $3 million annually.
The Montgomerys started their business in a shade house attached to Andrew's modest Remuera home. Then, in 2003, they bought into Enzed Subtropico in Keri Keri. The work was tough but the money was good.
Enter, in 2002, Jack Craw who had moved to the ARC from a job as a team leader in Melbourne. His new job centred around the re-establishment of native plants - and eventual eradication of "invasive" introduced plant species.
It was a fashionable field. Over the previous decade the native plant revivalist movement had grown ever stronger. Auckland City Council attempted to chop down Queen St's exotics and replace them with natives. Wild ginger plant was identified as an invader. Agapanthus, which many say is the only thing holding some of the cliffs at Piha together, was also declared an invasive weed. Experts said it was wrong to plant kauri and pohutukawa in Wellington because they did not naturally grow there.
Some of the complaints made sense. Wild ginger was encroaching on the native bush. Agapanthus can spread if left untended. But after more than 100 years of propagation, the incidence of self-sown palms is much rarer.
The ARC cited several wild plantings of bangalow, but their regional pest management strategy update lists just three sites, all in urban habitats rather than bush - and only one resembling an invasion.
Sub-tropical plant expert Dick Endt, who planted bangalows through native bush in his Oratia property, says, "Without exception they all died."
The political wing of the ARC's Parks and Heritage Committee, which oversees biosecurity and pests, is headed by chairman Sandra Coney and her deputy Christine Rose, backed by Craw and his 15-strong team. Coney and Craw both have long personal associations with Piha where agapanthus planted on the cliffs are often used as an example of their threat to natives.
Under Craw's leadership, the ARC started its pest control process in January with the public discussion document. He also pointed out publicly that the palms were facing a national ban by the National Plant Pest Accord (NPPA).
Actually, says Andrew Harrison, pest management group manager for the new MAF/Biosecurity New Zealand, the bangalow, Chinese fan and phoenix palms were never considered for banning. "An error was made between Auckland [ARC] and the media. Corrections were issued. 'Hey there's been a mistake made. They [the palms and agapanthus] were never on our radar'."
Unfortunately the corrections did not get through to the gardeners of Auckland and the fallout over the ARC's "discussion document" continued unabated. Gardeners stopped buying palms, cancelled orders. Two weeks after the first story appeared, Montgomery's company delivered a truckload of six big bangalows to an address on the northern slopes of Remuera. "The neighbours came out and told the truck driver he couldn't leave the palms there, that what we were doing was illegal."
The palm side of botanist Malcolm Woolmore's Lyndale Nurseries in Whenuapai, died overnight. From selling 30,000 agapanthus annually at $1.30 each, sales dipped this year to fewer than 5000.
Woolmore says the ARC's stance was mischievous.
"When agapanthus was examined by the NPPA's more stringent experts, it came out the other side untouched."
Meanwhile, the controversy did lasting damage. "People who grew plants used to be the good guys," he says. "Stuff like this creates uncertainty in people's minds, which is the worst thing for the garden industry. People are too scared to plant a tree because once it's over 3m they can't trim it, can't cut it down. New leafy suburbs will never happen again under current legislation."
Three months later the ARC (which is still in the first stages of its lengthy consultation process, meaning none of these categories is binding) downgraded the bangalow and Chinese fan palms from "surveillance species" (banned from sale, propagation, display and distribution) to "research organisms" (undergoing further research). But the damage was done.
All this would have been avoided if the industry had been approached for input before the list went public.
Master horticulturist Dick Endt could have provided valuable insight. His field trials on the habits of bangalow palms in New Zealand, including, in 1989, planting seedlings in the foothills of the Waitakeres. His conclusion: only those palms planted in prepared, cultivated ground survived. "I have the greatest confidence that the bangalow palm poses no threat to established native bush."
A new edition of Plant Me Instead published in June 2005 under Craw's direction, contains several errors, incorrect endorsements and one glaring slip: agapanthus was upgraded to a pest plant - which says Woolmore, shows Craw's agenda.
Craw's discussion emails in August 2003 are also illuminating: "We argue that people import plants almost always for one reason, PROFIT." He then goes on to suggest that a standard charge of "[say] $5000 per sp[ecies] for all new species could be fed into the national research programmes for weeds, especially biocontrol. The justification could be that because we don't know which taxa are going to be weeds, and when that is going to happen, BUT WE DO KNOW THAT IT IS INEVITABLE FOR A PERCENTAGE OF SPP [SPECIES]. The money needs to be channelled into research, ie abuser pays."
Two years earlier, another email referred to the methods Craw used when putting together the Good Plant Guide for the Northland Regional Council: "Most of these decisions were completely arbitrary, based usually on a combination of other attributes or a vague knowledge of suspect growth forms. Occasionally my decisions were based on gut feeling or utter prejudice!"
Montgomery, backed by a collection of major plant players, took three months' leave to research the ARC's handling of the plant bans, then hired a team of lawyers from Hesketh Henry. Their brief: to identify flaws in the ARC's process and establish the credentials of Elizabeth Aitken, the council's primary researcher.
The ARC closed ranks, forcing Hesketh Henry to go the Ombudsman to establish that Aitken was a BSc graduate with few relevant qualifications. Experts say her report was internet-based, relating to how plants performed in other countries. Says Woolmore: "It's a sham - not science."
Even the ARC's field research showed that around 100 years after the first bangalows were planted, seedlings were growing wild in three sites: Birkenhead, Alberon Park and St John's Theological College in Meadowbank. Only those in St John's could remotely be termed invasive.
A cost benefit analysis designed to show that the cost of getting rid of a weed plant is less than the economic benefit derived from the plant lends itself to some interesting extrapolations. For example, the ARC claims that 4000ha of land is already infested with agapanthus and that 287,000ha will potentially be infested. Given the entire Auckland region is 510,000ha, the estimates seem ludicrous.
Craw is not permitted to comment to the media. "There's definitely some process issues and areas that need to be improved [at the ARC]," says Harrison of MAF/Biosecurity New Zealand.
"But they have taken some positive steps."
Bob Wynyard, who handles the Nurserymen's Association's relationship with the ARC, is more forthright: "The tactic of the Regional Council is to try and make as much noise as possible before something actually happens to dry up demand. The research category is a holding pen for the cemetery, really."
ARC communications manager Mark McLauchlan says they made a mistake, but it's all over now. McLauchlan is sceptical that a "discussion document" has financially damaged people like Montgomery, Woolmore and Endt, but the figures are plain. The bill from Hesketh Henry topped $10,000, the Montgomery brothers' palm sales are down around $50,000, and Woolmore's bangalow business has all but folded.
They are considering asking for a judicial review of the conduct of the ARC.
Says Montgomery: "I am not going to stop fighting. This is not just about three species of palm trees, it's about corruption of the scientific and democratic process at the ARC. They are demonstrably incompetent. What they have done is utterly dishonest and toxic. It's ecofundamentalism, and it has to stop."