This week the iwi with the greatest number, biggest and most famous kauri trees in its rohe went public with its proposed kauri dieback response plan.

Te Roroa, the people of the Waipoua Forest where the killer disease is creeping ever closer to the Lord of the Forest Tāne Mahuta and other revered giants, presented its long-time-coming draft plan at the Northland Regional Council meeting.

As far as kauri go, there's no doubt it's do or die time — which is why the term "response plan" seems slightly out of kilter considering the disease has been a dire threat to the Waipoua, as it has to other kauri growing areas, for nearly 10 years.

But its arrival comes like a breath of fresh air.

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Taoho Patuawa, of Te Roroa, addressing the Northland Regional Council. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Taoho Patuawa, of Te Roroa, addressing the Northland Regional Council. Photo / Michael Cunningham

A phalanx of council members, staff and visitors such as Northland Inc bosses nodded, asked polite questions and offered words of support as Te Roroa's science adviser Taoho Patuawa talked about the iwi plan's proposed "stand alone project with an organisational structure that doesn't yet exist", including governance, a co-ordinator role and on-ground work.

The optimism — "we can do this" — and the glimmer of hope even talking about an action plan brings is refreshing, but it takes nothing away from the serious situation which could be likened to holding back the tide, or rather the river.

Tāne Mahuta has the killer pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida almost lapping at its feet. The disease is spread mainly through water, whether mud on paws, hooves or boots, runnels of rainwater or catchment overflow.

Waipoua's special to Te Roroa but not only to us, to the rest of New Zealand as well. It's one of the most-visited, iconic forests in the world, and it has been neglected.

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Until recently Tāne Mahuta stood in its own clean realm, its drinking source unshared and uncontaminated by sick kauri across a stream 100 or more metres way. But the water or soil borne pathogen has jumped the creek and now a kauri only 60 metres from New Zealand's most famous tree is sick.

"A bit of a worry," the mild Patuawa said in understatement.

Tāne is only one of thousands of kauri.

Te Roroa and DoC are trying to manage the spread of dieback and control thousands upon thousands of visitors who use two tracks to get near notable, possibly 2000-year-old, still healthy kauri. And they have to tend the greater, 9000-hectare forest.

Take the feral pig problem in the forest; there are herds of them in the forest and Te Roroa and Department of Conservation (DoC) have identified seven preferred "mobbing" sites.

Tane Mahuta has a deadly pathogen lapping at its feet. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Tane Mahuta has a deadly pathogen lapping at its feet. Photo / Michael Cunningham

In the year 2016/17 cullers killed 273 wild pigs. It knocked back the population hugely but then there was no 2017/18 cull programme.

"It's a funding issue. We haven't got the money," Patuawa said.

Nevertheless, Te Roroa's kauri dieback response plan includes a five-year programme for the ultimate eradication of pigs from the Waipoua.

'Waipoua's special to Te Roroa but not only to us, to the rest of New Zealand as well.
"It's one of the most-visited, iconic forests in the world, and it has been neglected. The road through it needs work, there's a lack of signage, a lack of parking, there are two toilets for all those people driving through or stopping," Patuawa said.

"It's not Te Roroa's job to provide those."

It spilled out in a moment of frustration, but it resonated.

Heads around the room nodded sympathetically at the position of the iwi.

But moving on with something Te Roroa can lead, if enabled to: The protection/management plan includes surveying and managing waterflows and soil movement, having a GSP map of every tree and its condition, endless monitoring, closing the public tracks at night and increasing security (yes, there are tree huggers out there), inviting international scientific research and rigour, practising rongoa (traditional plant husbandry) and considering rahui or banning people from certain areas.

An NRC councillor asked who would pay for the scientific expertise. Would overseas researchers really be that interested, where are these people?

Google them. "Just put the name Tāne Mahuta out there, and then see the interest. They will come," Patuawa said.

Once the pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida infects a kauri, there is only one result - a dead tree. Photo / File
Once the pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida infects a kauri, there is only one result - a dead tree. Photo / File

Far more than a concept, not quite ready to fly, the plan is also not actionable at this stage because it needs buy-in (read: financial support) from several other agencies and Treaty of Waitangi partners, not least the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Also on hand to hear the ins and outs of the plan at the NRC meeting were staff from Te Roroa's Treaty of Waitangi partner and its close working partner, DoC.

Where is MPI in all this, someone mumbled pointedly. Patuawa was either too polite or cautious to agree the ministry does appear to be missing in action. He himself is on the MPI-led Kauri Dieback Management Committee whose momentum, he assured the media after the NRC meeting, is speeding up. And its direction is being straightened up, he assured the audience.

Bureaucracy in action — working on its momentum and direction — saw MPI's kauri dieback team hold a recent round of meetings in kauri growing regions.

Many people turned up to the three Northland hui expecting to hear some proactive plan rolled out because, after all these years, washing footwear, sticking to tracks, boardwalks being better than paths, not moving soil, not letting animals run around, etc, is pretty basic knowledge. In case the conservationists, landowners, local government staff, iwi, media and other interested parties weren't quite sure, that information was reiterated at the meetings.

The audiences soon learned, though, the meetings were part of a consultation round, not about a kauri dieback strategy being action-ready, but about a new draft National Kauri Dieback Management Plan.

The national team wanted to know if interested parties including the public were okay with the progress so far. If not, why not? What did people think of ideas for the model of organisation that would implement the plan to protect kauri?

And, the new strategy would be ready in, oh, a year.

No wonder Te Roroa wants to jump in and get its own management/response plan under way; no wonder DoC is walking that fine line between being a good partner to iwi, a good citizen and a good servant of the Government.

And all the while, for nearly 10 years, this invisible slayer of giants has continued its relentless, deadly creep across one of the world's most remarkable rainforests.

It could kill all kauri, warns Forest & Bird
Kauri dieback is caused by a microscopic spore that attacks the roots and trunk of kauri trees. It damages the tissue that carries nutrients and causes the trees to starve. That process can take many years but the disease has no known cure and once a tree is infected it is doomed.

Forest & Bird warns kauri dieback disease could kill all kauri and devastate the forest ecosystem that relies on them.

Forest & Bird has been scathing of the national Kauri Dieback Programme, saying it has been seriously mismanaged by the Ministry for Primary Industries. Forest & Bird wants the establishment of an independent, pan-representative National Pest Management agency to manage the programme.

It also wants the total closure of all public forests with infected kauri unless they have tracks that stop soil movement, and adequate cleaning facilities.

Among F&B owned or managed kauri forests is its only Northland one, Matthews Reserve near Kaitaia. In July DoC proposed a mass closure of high-maintenance, high-risk and low-visitor tracks in kauri growing regions, including Northland.

Auckland Council has closed forested areas of the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park and higher risk tracks in the Hunua Ranges Regional Park, with exemptions in both places where a Controlled Area Notice is in place. Kauri Park on the North Shore and Albany Scenic Reserve also closed.

Northland Regional Council has a kauri dieback mitigation plan aimed at supporting private landowners, not the public estate, contain and control the disease.