Tree protectors have done their case no favours by fudging the issue on which they object to one of the Government's imminent changes to the Resource Management Act. They have implied that trees in parks and coastal reserves are at risk. They are not. The Resource Management Amendment Bill specifically protects trees on public reserves. The real issue is the protection of urban trees on private property.
The right of councils to impose blanket protection of large trees on private property is an issue environmentalists perhaps believed they could not win, but nothing has been gained by framing their case in confusing terms. Councils impose community interests on private property owners for all sorts of good reasons.
Constructions and drainage must conform to some common rules. Pools must be fenced. Boundary space must be respected. It is not unthinkable that big trees on private property may be a feature of the neighbourhood and have value for the whole community.
Indeed, well-established trees may be valued more highly by the neighbourhood than by the latest owner of the property. It has therefore been deemed reasonable that the property owner should need the consent of the community's representatives before destroying a feature of its skyline. Several Auckland councils have adopted rules protecting all trees over a stated height. The Government is about to remove that protection.
No tree on private property will be protected unless it is individually designated on a council plan, which is plainly impractical for all but exceptional specimens. The Government has justified this change in the name of reducing "red tape", yet the procedures of individual tree protection would place far more red tape in the path of protectors than the current rules impose on felling.
No doubt the current rules could be simplified and clarified, and some form of appeal ought to be provided for property owners refused a tree removal consent. But in banning blanket protection the bill goes too far. Blanket protection has been weak in practice; it relies on the responsibility of arborists to inform property owners when a tree is of a size requiring a permit for removal.
For egregious acts of vandalism, usually involving a mature native tree, fines have been imposed. More commonly a tree is felled in ignorance, real or convenient, and the most the council's inspector will do is measure the stump and wave a finger at the owner or contractor.
This is hardly a frightful interference with private property rights. The community has rights too. The highest property values in our cities are generally found in areas where generations of home-owners have allowed trees to grow large and splendid, over-shadowing their homes and frequently their neighbours.
Sadly, these "leafy" older suburbs are not spreading. Too many urban dwellers regard a tree as a problem the minute it casts an unwanted shadow or drops leaves on their roof. No home is an island in this regard. There may be pleasure in occupying a clearing in a bush suburb, but it is hard to maintain an oasis in a suburban desert.
Rules governing the urban environment should be left for local councils to decide. The Government is grossly overstepping its responsibilities. The Prime Minister says we are "not going to see some sort of chainsaw massacre - councils can protect trees through individual notifications." If he believes that, he is dreaming. When he wakes up, he will wonder where all the foliage has gone.