Enviro group stumped over swamp kauri court case result

By Lindy Laird & Peter de Graaf -
More than 95 per cent of swamp kauri exports go to China. Photo/File
More than 95 per cent of swamp kauri exports go to China. Photo/File

A Northland group is devastated to lose its fight in the high court to stop the export of swamp kauri stumps in an almost raw state.

The Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) had argued in the court that the stumps were being passed off as artworks and furniture, in breach of the Protected Objects Act and the Forest Act.

The stumps, roots and slabs often had only rudimentary embellishments to qualify as art or furniture, and thus get by rules about exporting the raw material, the NEPS argued.

It disputed that swamp kauri "table-tops" without legs or with light surface carving could lawfully be exported.

NEPS chairperson Fiona Furrell said the group was "absolutely devastated" that Justice Kit Toogood overruled every argument the group put forward.

Justice Toogood ruled in the High Court at Auckland that ancient swamp kauri was not subject to the Protected Objects Act and its export could continue.

He said imposing extra restrictions would "create an oppressive regime restricting the removal from New Zealand, by ordinary travellers, of everyday products which have no particular significance".

He also refuted the society's argument that buried swamp kauri was a fossil worthy of protection under the act, like kauri gum and scrimshaw whale bone.

Justice Toogood noted there had been historical concern around the export of kauri stumps but he was satisfied with MPI's current system which he said had "progressively improved its procedures" since late 2011.

Ms Furrell said the group would now consider whether to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal.

NEPS took some heart in the judge saying the group had brought a valid case and therefore he would review whether to charge the group costs of the case or have MPI cover them.

Northland-based Green MP David Clendon said the export of unworked timber was a "lose-lose situation".

The rate at which swamp kauri was being extracted was damaging Northland wetlands - which, as well as being home to native plants and animals, contributed to flood protection and water quality - but also came at a social and economic cost.

Though rare and unique to Northland, swamp kauri was being treated as a cheap resource, Mr Clendon said.

"We should be treating it as scarce resource for our artists and craftspeople to turn into high-value artefact's that people will want and cherish. Instead we're exporting truckloads of slabs"

In coming to his decision the judge had taken a "fairly narrow interpretation" of the law, he said

A different judge on a different day could have come to a different decision, Mr Clendon said.

If the Greens were in government they would look at changing the legislation and bringing more specific protection for swamp kauri, he said.

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