The whispering pine trees that stand as though to separate Opoutere Beach from the world beyond are being mysteriously poisoned — with 400 trees now dead.
The community of Opoutere is being called upon to find a way to end the illegal and clandestine destruction of pine trees, which has forced the closure of a large area of Department of Conservation reserve leading to the beach and left archaeological sites and breeding sites of endangered birds at risk.
The trees were planted decades ago by an early farming family for erosion control and as a windbreak.
DoC said the police were contacted immediately after rangers were alerted to the poisoning in 2017.
Trees have also been poisoned on the ridgeline of Maunga Ruawahine, which encircles the settlement.
In frustration, some residents have taken to putting up signs in a bid to shame the person — or people — responsible.
But DoC said it was unable to stop the destruction and has been quoted $100,000 to remove the dead trees.
"At this stage DoC has no evidence of who is poisoning the pines within the reserve," said Ian Imrie, acting operations manager for DoC Hauraki District.
"With no valid evidence DoC cannot prevent this from occurring. Local iwi, the local community, council, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, as well as the police, have all been notified."
Whangamata Police said it was interested in receiving any information from anyone who may know who is responsible.
DoC was again notified by locals after several 20-litre containers of poison were found lying in the beach reserve.
DoC removed them and placed them in a chemical storage facility. It is estimated thousands of dollars worth of chemicals would have been required to carry out the work.
"Health and safety is the priority," said Imrie.
"With the increased risk of dead branches or whole trees falling on people, one DoC track has had to be closed and signs advising of the danger have been put in place around the entire closed area. However, despite signs to prohibit access the public still continue to use the closed track and enter the site. Signage has also been damaged and removed, requiring replacements."
The department has removed pine trees within the margin of the open track to the beach for public safety, and in combination with FENZ, is assessing options for management of the pines.
"The community will be advised once the assessment has been completed and a plan of action is confirmed."
A community collective agreement was now being drafted in a bid to stop it and find agreement on alternative planting as weeds set in.
Resident Glenda Betts is working on the agreement and said the community must identify unique values of the whole reserve.
"It's not just about the pine trees. There are lots of archaeological sites in the dunes that aren't listed and the pines protect them," she said.
Fellow resident Penny Rich said she believes to reach an agreement, everyone must be included in the conversation.
"If we all have a common view on what we would like here for the next 50 years, we'll be better able to get government funding for what we replant and how we do it," said Rich, who said the goal is to include everyone in the consultation over what to do — from formal groups to the grandchildren of bach owners.
"Everyone knows about the poisoned pines and is upset about it - it's been going on for five or six years."