Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Open season on trees arrogant and lunatic

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So tell me again, and slowly: we have a Government that in one breath is trying to find a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions, yet in the next is fast-tracking a law declaring open season on every urban tree in the land. Has no one told them trees eat the nasty gases and getting rid of them mightn't be such a smart move?

All we need now is some blue-green Nat to try to save the day by proposing to levy a carbon tax on every felled coastal pohutukawa and we'll have all the proof needed that the lunatics are running the asylum.

Earlier this year, when Environment Minister Nick Smith announced plans to strip local authorities of the power to protect their urban treescape en masse, I stupidly laughed it off as a hollow post-election salute to National's property developer mates and Act Party allies. It was so extremist, and so anti-community, I thought it would die a quick and silent death.

Silly, trusting me. It should have been obvious they meant business the day the select committee began its Auckland hearings and chairman Chris Auchinvole stifled discussion by lunchtime of the first day.

The topic, he ruled, had been "thoroughly canvassed" and if people didn't have anything new to say, go home.

Recently the committee reported back supporting the scrapping of "blanket tree protection rules in planning documents". The only glimmer of common sense came in the final paragraph, which admitted "a number of us" regarded the proposed law "as unsatisfactory and would have preferred a more comprehensive solution for protecting urban trees".

The amendment, which could be passed by next week, will give local councils two years to wipe existing blanket protection from the bylaws. Every tree in the urban landscape will then be at the mercy of any chainsaw-wielding king of his own domain. That's except for the lucky few trees that council officials can individually identify and list in time. But that's a long-winded and expensive process and vulnerable to appeal to the courts.

In its submission, North Shore City Council feared for the longevity of the iconic coastal pohutukawa both decorating and holding up the Waitemata cliffs. Any bets on how long the remaining Orakei Basin coastal forest will survive? In the 30 years I have lived in Auckland's inner west, areas like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn and Newton have been transformed into leafy suburbs. I'm hoping my neighbours won't be revving up their chainsaws the moment the law changes, but who can be certain?

Particularly worrying is the fate of Waitakere foothills. Only last year, after a 30-year struggle, the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act was passed, over the vociferous objections of local MP Paula Bennett and who else but Minister Smith. The latter thundered that the bill was designed to take private land by stealth to create reserves and that "I will not stand by silently if councils are going to abuse their powers over landowners and turn people's private land into parks".

The act didn't do that at all, but Dr Smith seems to have been mesmerised by his own rhetoric and now appears intent on payback. In the process he's putting huge additional areas of privately owned bush, including all of Laingholm and Titirangi, at risk of deforestation.

His new act classifies as "urban" - and therefore free of blanket tree controls - any property under 4000sq m - the old 10-acre block - which has a house or place of business with reticulated water and sewerage.

The result could be as devastating to the Waitakere foothills treescape as a forest fire or an opportunistic palm oil plantation owner.

Once more it's a case of Beehive nannies telling Aucklanders what's best for us. Six of the region's seven councils have general tree protection rules. Rodney dropped its in 2000, but popular support saw it reintroduced in 2007.

Trees are as vital to the community as roads and drains and sportsgrounds. They provide shelter from sun and rain, and are highways for bird life. They're good for the soul. Aucklanders across the region have decided we want to protect them in this way. What right has an interfering Wellington politician to now say he knows better and must be obeyed.

- 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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