The removal of branches and ring-barking of what remains of a hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) outside the vicarage at St Saviour's Church in Kaitaia has outraged some descendants of the mission founders.
The tree as reportedly planted by William Gilbert Puckey in 1846, some 12 years after he and Rev Joseph Matthews founded the mission. It was topped in the 1960s, by which time its height was becoming a concern.
Now most of the remaining branches have been removed and the stump has been ring-barked, Matthews descendant Malcolm Matthews describing the action as wanton vandalism.
The tree, he said, was the last living link with Matthews and Puckey on the mission site.
It was the oldest tree of its kind, and one of the oldest exotic trees, in the country.
It had been marked with a plaque, which had been removed at some time.
Mr Matthews said it might have become illegible but clearly identified the tree as significant.
It was not listed with the Far North District Council, however. He believed it had been listed at one time, but "some idiot" had removed that protection.
Heritage NZ Northland area manager Bill Edwards said the hoop pine could live for thousands of years, and it was sad that something planted by some of the first Pakeha in Kaitaia had now gone.
"It was a tangible link with the past that would have lasted many more hundreds of years. The hand prints of the ancestors of a lot of people were on that tree, and an important connection with the past has been severed."
Mr Edwards was sorry that the tree had not been listed on the council's district plan, and urged people to ensure that things important to them were not overlooked.
The plan was under review. Trees, buildings and wahi tapu could be listed so people would know they were significant and would be preserved.
"We as a community need to think and talk about the things that are important to us," he said. The remaining timber would be extremely valuable.
"There will be a significant amount of timber, with real financial and huge sentimental value. It is extremely durable, and extremely rare, and it would be nice to think that it will be used appropriately."
Malcolm Matthews' son Kevin said last week that he would examine the tree to see if there was any hope of saving it.
Mr Edwards suggested that it be examined by an aborist urgently. It was now at risk of attack by insects, rot and borer, and would at least need bandaging.
He said the entire area should be considered of historical value, and should have been made a historic precinct in 2003 by the FNDC "instead of them putting it in the too hard basket. Now we have trees cut down, contractors digging holes and an anything goes attitude."
"At the very least Heritage NZ should be asked before any work takes place. Some say graves are unmarked. We are still looking for Joseph Matthews' half-brother William Matthews' two sons, who were drowned here. They are no doubt buried at Saint Saviour's somewhere."
The remains of the first road on the south side of the church had also been interfered with by gates and overlaid with gravel.
What price on history?
The decision to remove the pine tree outside the St Saviour's vicarage was not made lightly, according to vestry member and church manager Robyn Reeves, but was the only practical option.
The vestry had double-checked to ensure that the tree was not listed with the Far North District Council before removing branches and ring-barking it, as the only option to resolve the damage it was doing to stormwater pipes and potentially threatening the vicarage itself.
Mrs Reeves said the tree had been causing problems for years. Its removal had been discussed some time ago but was not pursued. Now the time had come to take steps to protect the vicarage.
"We maintain this whole property purely from giving to the church," she said.
"None of the work that needs to be done comes cheap.
"We are investing a lot of time and money in preserving and acknowledging the history of the site. We know this decision has upset some people, but it is not a case of us trampling on the history of the site or their families."
She disputed the claim that the pine was the last living link with the mission site, saying the missionaries had also planted the oak trees outside the church and the Norfolk pines in the church grounds.