Graeme Platt: Make it attractive to plant trees

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The Government has rekindled the long-running, emotional debate regarding the collective benefit of privately owned trees within the cityscape, versus the constitutionally enshrined right of people to manage their private assets for their exclusive benefice.

Key's action to remove tree protection on private land was guaranteed to provoke a flurry of action in the trenches along the suburban front.

The fundamental provocateurs in the conflict are entirely those who possess no trees, imposing their will on people who do. Responsible property owners deeply resent being patronised with edicts on how they should manage their personal tree assets to support the nebulous concept of the common good.

The emotion surrounding the management of privately owned trees was further inflamed by statuary-empowered council bureaucrats - many of whom proved to be botanically and ecologically illiterate - enforcing laws with considerable powers of prosecution that should never have been enacted in the first instance.

It's vital to be aware that a blend of diligent toil by six generations of dedicated Auckland landowners, and the city's unique maritime climate, have combined to create one of the most diverse collections of trees to be found anywhere on earth.

Auckland's leafy suburbs constitute a sprawling world-class botanical garden and unique urban forest. The climate of Auckland is a convergence of tropical and temperate elements that allow a wide range of trees to grow together in a way rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere.

Auckland's spectacular urban forest of shady trees was created in an atmosphere of complete freedom, unhindered by the slightest hint of bureaucratic dictate and compliance. Generations of landowners and Auckland gardeners were free to grow whatever tree they wanted, wherever they wanted, and manage them as they saw fit.

This highly desirable situation commenced to unravel with the rise of the conservation ethos of the late 60s and 70s, when a blend of well-intended conservation-minded people - and the ever-present rag-tag band of drab-soled do-gooders - decided this privately owned treasure required statuary protection and bureaucratic control.

Regardless of its noble intent, the introduction of laws to control the rights of landowners and the gardening public was fundamentally flawed, to such an extent that it all but killed overnight the market for large shady trees in the nursery trade. Once landowners and gardeners lost the freedom to manage their trees, people ceased planting them. It is now nearly two decades since the demand for large shade-producing trees was destroyed by regulation, with disastrous effect on the on-going development of the city's urban tree asset.

The National Government is - not before time - in the process of reinstating the freedom of landowners to plant and manage their tree assets as they see fit.

To further encourage the planting and retention of trees within the city and across the countryside, 25 per cent of a landowner's current property rate burden should be converted into an Environment Tax.

Owners of properties with covenanted collections of mature trees and sound environmental landscaping, and those properties with carbon neutral status, should be fully exempted from paying any Environment Tax. The current policy of penalising people who create spectacular gardens with shady groves of trees with increased property rates, while letting those who contribute nothing towards a better environment have a free ride, is unacceptable in this day and age.

The two greatest threats to existing mature trees across the city exist in the form of so-called property developers and recent suburban recruits. Newly arriving residents migrating out into the leafy suburbs are a menace.

These suburban pioneers feel they have to mark their recently acquired territorial gains with a chainsaw, within days of arranging their furniture and locating a place to put the rubbish bin. Both property developers and suburban pioneers would embrace a much more affectionate relationship with trees, once they became aware their barren property or treeless development was going to attract a 25 per cent Environment Tax on top of their annual rate bill.

Furthermore, urban trees are capable of playing a significant role in carbon sequestration to assist with global warming mitigation. An environment levy on treeless properties would go a long way towards levelling the playing field and retaining the city's treasured trees.

* Graeme C. Platt is an ecologist and authority on New Zealand native plants.

- NZ Herald

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