That 40 mature native trees can be legally felled in an Auckland suburb already suffering a "chainsaw massacre" has been labelled a "disgrace".

A section of land on Canal Rd, Avondale, was recently sold to developers, with local residents under the impression it was on the condition about 46 native trees, believed to be about 100 years old, would not be removed.

The site's future has long been a point of contention and so on Thursday as arborists started their work protesters turned up, and managed to stall the chainsaws after about 10 trees were felled.

Veteran environmental activist and now Green Party candidate for New Lynn Steve Abel took it a step further on Friday, scaling a large pūriri to keep it safe.

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Police arrived but following discussions with officers and a landowner representative, who agreed no more trees would be felled that day, Abel came down, receiving a trespass notice in the process.

No work took place over the weekend, and Abel was back on Monday to ensure that continued.

"I'll be here until we get a commitment these trees will be saved," Abel said.

"It is crazy they can be removed without any legal challenge. We have beautiful big tōtara, kahikatea, karaka, pūriri, even a rare New Zealand cedar."

Steve Abel says it is
Steve Abel says it is "crazy" 40 mature native trees can be felled legally in a climate and biodiversity crisis. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The problem stemmed back to changes under the previous government to the Resource Management Act in 2012, which removed blanket protections of trees in urban areas.

This meant trees without any formal protection on private land could be legally removed, regardless of their age or biodiversity values - even a threatened kauri tree estimated to several hundred years old could be felled.

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It has been well detailed that in the years that followed the RMA changes Auckland, and many other parts of the country, experienced a "chainsaw massacre" of sorts as developers rushed to take advantage.

There are estimates as much as a third of Auckland's urban tree cover was lost between 2013 and 2016.

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"Now more than ever we need these massive stores of carbon," Abel said.

Abel said reinstating blanket protections in the RMA was a priority for the Green Party.

Steve Abel has harnessed himself to a native pūriri tree to save it from being cut down from a property in Avondale, Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve Abel has harnessed himself to a native pūriri tree to save it from being cut down from a property in Avondale, Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"There is no good reason to remove these trees, just a developer with zero imagination who wants a blank space on which to put a big box.

"There is a wonderful opportunity to retain them, and to build a sustainable housing project around them - there is plenty of flat ground. This has got to stop, which is why we need the regulatory framework in place."

The Tree Council - which is not involved in the protest - has been engaged in discussion for several years with Auckland Council, seeking to find ways to save the green space on Canal Rd.

Representative Dr Mels Barton said the land had been sitting there for a long period, and they feared it could be sold off and developed.

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They approached the council, suggesting it purchase the land or look at land swap options, including the public reserve down the road which has comparatively few trees.

But nothing happened, and this year they discovered a sale had gone through, with a condition the trees be removed.

An Auckland Council spokeswoman said it had no plans to purchase the property.

Canal Reserve, which was on the same road, already served the community's open space needs, she said.

While the council could not stop unprotected trees on private land being felled, it had various strategies and programmes to plant trees on council land, including the Urban Ngahere Strategy and the Million Trees programme.

Barton said they agreed the RMA changes meant there was little the council could do to stop the trees being felled, but it needed to be "more imaginative".

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"The reserve they refer to is incomparable - it is just a grim little square of grass.

"It could have been an incredible gift to the people of Avondale, it is a beautiful site, but instead their approach has been a disgrace.

"It illustrates what is happening every day across Auckland, and what already happened here in this suburb in the past - it is a chainsaw massacre."

In 2017 Auckland Council came under fire for an error that led to three protected trees in Avondale being cut down.

"They can have all of these programmes, but if you cut down a tree that is 80 to 100 years old, it will take that long to replace it."