A long-running community-driven project to a restore a rare and culturally-significant 55ha Far North dune lake is the latest initiative to benefit from central government funding for the removal of wilding at locations around Northland.
Lake Ngatu, inland from Waipapakauri Ramp, is a Department of Conservation recreation reserve, popular with watersport enthusiasts, day visitors and locals alike, where NgāiTakoto, the Northland Regional Council, Far North District Council, DOC and private land owners are working together to tackle huge wilding pines, some a century old and two metres thick, that were threatening to dominate the lake and its surrounds.
Regional councillor Colin Kitchen said the Lake Ngatu wilding pine work was one of a growing number of projects funded by a $1 million Ministry for Primary Industries' fund that was providing employment for forestry workers affected by Covid-19 job losses.
One of the Sweetwater dune lakes, it provided a habitat to a number of threatened animals and plants, including the dune lake dwarf inanga and the New Zealand dabchick, while Kaio Hooper, NgāiTakoto's environmental asset manager, said it was an historic site and an ecological taonga for the iwi, not least as home to kutā, a native reed that filters out pollutants in the water. The species, which only grows in the Far North, is used to make korowai.
"Kutā is very important for our iwi, and it's in hot demand all over our country for weavers," Hooper said.
"Keeping the lake healthy isn't just about the lake and its ecosystem, it's also about the tikanga and the cultural health of the people using it."
Cr Kitchen said wilding pines originally spread to the area from nearby Aupouri Forest, disrupting native species and taking up precious water, sunshine and nutrients. Eradicating them was a significant step in ongoing efforts to protect the area's special biodiversity.
Hooper added that NgāiTakoto had been working with The Bushlands Trust, DOC and other members of the community to protect and beautify the lake for some decades. He remembered planting native trees there "when I was at Awanui School as a young fella," to help improve water quality and the habitat.
He agreed that felling the pines was a crucial step in protecting the lake for future generations.
"We needed to get professional contractors in and remove them safely," he added.
"These pine trees are in the wrong place, overhanging DOC tracks and recreational areas where people are having picnics. There's a big cost just to trim off broken limbs and maintain them."
Removing the trees also provided a good opportunity to further highlight the positive changes happening at Lake Ngatu.
"We can plant natives, have community events and educate schoolkids about the significance of the lake and the area's history. We can reiterate why this place is special for us, and bring the community together," he said.
Kaitaia-based contractor Dan O'Rourke and his crew of five local forestry workers have been working at Lake Ngatu since early July, fresh from similar work clearing hundreds of problematic trees, including wilding pines, along the Awanui River. He noted that some of the Lake Ngatu trees were growing near power lines, roads, houses and public walking tracks, which made felling them down a tricky, technical job.
"The trees haven't grown in uniform, straight lines like a typical forest plantation; we're needing to use lots of different cutting techniques to get them down safely. Sometimes we need two machines to assist us in bringing (them) down," he said.
Keeping workers and the public safe was vital, and two DOC workers were on-site at all times, managing the public on foot, while the FNDC was responsible for traffic control and land owners were helping with tree disposal.
O'Rourke said the move to tackle wilding pines provided job security for forestry workers at a time of economic uncertainty.
"Forestry's been pretty up and down in terms of the market, so this line of work has been very good for the crew. It gives them some stability, and it's great to be part of something that adds to bettering our environment," he said.
Meanwhile, Cr Kitchen said the council was getting more enquiries from iwi and community groups wanting to tackle wilding pines, and there were plenty of forestry workers in Northland who were ready to get involved as funding became available.
"The type of work we're seeing at Lake Ngatu is a win-win situation: it creates employment for skilled locals and protects the natural environments that make Northland unique," he said.
"Wilding pines become a pest when they grow in the wrong areas, and right now they're a big problem around our dune lakes, wetlands, reserves and scrublands."
By working together with the council's partners, he expected to see significant impact, and the potential eradication of wilding pines from part of the region, over the next four or five years.