A group that started five years ago with just a handful of volunteers and a few dollars in the bank has embarked on a four-year, $2 million project to clean up Hokianga Harbour and the rivers that drain into it.
Hokianga Harbor Care's funding injection will allow the group to raise 250,000 seedlings, plant 80ha of stream banks and fence 70km of waterways and erosion-prone land.
Perhaps even more importantly, the project is creating employment and a network of locals dedicated to looking after the harbour in the long term.
Project manager Olly Knox said Justin Blaikie, now a Northland Regional councillor, came up with the original vision in 2017.
The group started small, running on grants and donations, until in 2020 it secured funding from the Government's One Billion Trees programme.
That meant a full-time co-ordinator and a few part-time nursery staff could be hired. It also allowed the group to build up a good track record by the time it applied to the Freshwater Improvement Fund, part of the Jobs for Nature scheme, for more funding.
The application process took almost a year but paid off in December with a $2m grant over four years.
Apart from the planting and fencing targets mentioned above, the group also has to carry out 60ha of pest plant control and engage with the community. It runs planting days, seed-collecting wānanga and school programmes, among other activities.
Knox, a former Department of Conservation ranger who lives at Waimamaku, said the project was a "dream opportunity" to put his skills to use.
The latest grant had allowed the group to expand to five full-time and five part-time workers, as well as buy equipment such as a ute, trailer and side-by-side vehicle.
It had plant nurseries at Kaikohe, Wharekawa and the former NorthTec campus in Rawene producing flax, mānuka, cabbage trees, kahikatea, karamu, rushes and grasses.
While funding for many planting programmes was restricted to public land, Hokianga Harbor Care worked on private land, whānau/hapū land and conservation land — anywhere there was a need, Knox said.
"When private landowners get in touch, we go out, take a look, and see if the land meets the criteria. We also see what else is happening in the area. We always try to form linkages between different projects."
Last week, for example, the group lined up a new planting site that will link up with a major project in the lower Waimamaku Valley by environmental group Reconnecting Northland.
The group's focus was on the main catchments of South Hokianga from Waimamaku in the southwest to the Waihou River in the east.
"The health of the harbour and surrounding catchments has decreased drastically since human settlement and intensive land use. It's sedimentation, excess nutrients, deforestation and general pollution," Knox said.
"These challenges are common around the world but Hokianga is extremely valued as a culturally significant area of New Zealand. It's the birthplace of Aotearoa."
It was too early to say if the group was making a difference but in the long term he expected to see better water quality and clarity, greater biodiversity and less sedimentation.
That, however, was only part of the story.
"Aside from plants in the ground and fencing built, the biggest aim is developing capability, creating employment, and building a network of people who can help improve the management of freshwater."
Some of the group's new employees had previously worked in hospitality, labouring or logistics, while others had been unemployed.
"But they all love doing this mahi, they're all locals and have a really strong connection with the land and what we're doing," he said.
"The need for this doesn't stop in four years' time when we've done 70km of fencing. There's 10 times that much to do. But by then we hope we'll have built a strong network of people we've worked with, and have some key successes we can use to leverage further funding."
Grandfather's example, memories of clean creeks drive Cy's work
Memories of clean creeks he swam in as a child and the example set by his grandfather are the things that motivate Cy Jenyns when he heads off to work each day.
Jenyns, of Ōpononi, is one of five full-time workers employed by Hokianga Harbor Care to grow and plant seedlings and fence off waterways.
He originally started his own plant nursery to revegetate part of the family farm.
"Then I just fell into this. Joining up with these guys gives me a chance to do something bigger and more impactful. It gives me a chance to give back to the whenua and plant trees in the land that helped raise me," he said.
"There's creeks I used to swim in as a kid that you wouldn't even dip your toe into now. It's about getting them back to how they were before."
Jenyns credited his grandfather, the renowned kaumātua John Klaricich, for sparking his passion for restoring the environment.
"He'd take me along to plant pōhutukawa as part of Project Crimson when I was 8 years old. I'm carrying on what he started."