East Coast iwi are calling for the Government to back a "shovel-ready", job-creating and climate-conscious project to save their sacred forest that is dying under a plague of introduced pests.
The Raukūmara Conservation Park, to the northeast of Gisborne, is feared to be on the verge of ecological collapse as deer and possum numbers explode because of minimal predator control over the past few decades.
Recent surveys have shown graveyards of 1000-year-old totara, minimal birdlife, and increasing levels of erosion as the forest holding the fragile soils together disappears.
Amid warnings from environmentalists the forest collapse was nearing the point of no-return, Te Whānau ā Apanui on the northern flanks and Ngāti Porou to the east partnered to run a series of community wānanga to rally support to save it.
Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones both visited the forest last year, and indicated support for a restoration plan.
The iwi put in a funding bid in November for their project, but say they have heard nothing since.
With the Government now calling for "shovel-ready" projects to fund during the Covid-19 economic recovery, and the East Coast hurting as forestry jobs dry up, Te Whānau ā Apanui spokeswoman Ora Barlow-Tukaki said the timing was right to get started.
"Forestry is basically non-existent at the moment, and many whānau are struggling," Barlow-Tukaki said.
"A lot of our people are out of work, and we could re-train them in conservation and they could stay local, and be working to save Te Raukūmara.
"Our project is 'shovel ready' and our aspirations are clear: we want hapū and climate-conscious development.
"Covid-19 could be something that stays with us for some time, so we need projects that can help recover our national and local economy."
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The $35 million project would run over five years, and provide jobs for about 40 people, including project managers, trappers, and training and educating locals in the environmental space.
Predator control would involve expanding deer and goat control to cover 150,000ha, reducing the population 80 per cent over four years, and landscape scale aerial operations over 120,000ha to control possums, rats and mustelids.
"Our aim is to bring back taonga that we have lost - like tītī, kīwī and pekapeka the native bats," Barlow-Tukaki said.
"These and other taonga have disappeared from our areas in a single human lifetime because of introduced animals.
"We want huge flocks of kererū and kākā again and the death of ancient trees to stop.
"We want rongoā plants to return, we need to address deforestation and sedimentation that fires downstream and ends up in our coastal waters.
"This plan is iwi-led, jobs-rich and a ready-to-go proposal that will stimulate the local economy."
The project was also climate-focused; the restored forest would act as a carbon sink and provide crucial research opportunities.
East Coast iwi were already working with scientists at Niwa to set up research stations to see how much carbon dioxide was being lost as the forest dies.
"This research will also monitor the carbon dioxide that gets locked up as the forest becomes healthy again."
Long term, Barlow-Tukaki said they could see Te Raukūmara providing unique tourism opportunities.
"We are quite isolated from tourism at the moment, and lack a lot of the infrastructure other parks have, such as in Fiordland.
"But, long-term plan, we would like to look at how people can experience the uniqueness of this coast.
"It is not just trekking, but learning something about the people and how we are intrinsically connected to Te Raukūmara.
"It could be a really unique tourism experience, connecting people to the land."
The bid comes as the Climate Change Commission, along with a group of environmentally-focused NGOs, have been calling for the Government's to apply a "climate change lens" to its Covid-19 economic recovery and not lock New Zealand into a high-emissions future.
Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said no decisions on the Raukūmara project had been made yet but restoring the forest was a "priority" and she recognised the urgency.
She was "very aware" of the "devastating effects" deer, pigs and possums were having on the Raukūmara forest park having witnessed it first-hand during a visit last year.
"I have discussed the project several times with iwi representatives since that visit, as the Department of Conservation and iwi have worked on project planning."
She was working with other ministers to ensure investing in nature would be part of the Covid-19 economic recovery.
"By looking after nature we not only restore the homes of Aotearoa's unique species but also help clean up streams and rivers, and reduce the effects of climate change.
"Restoration projects such as Raukūmara Pae Maunga are also a key focus as a way of ensuring people have meaningful work in regions affected deeply by Covid-19 impacts."