The field of volcanic cones that stretches across the Auckland isthmus from Manurewa to the North Shore provides the city with a unique setting. This has not always been appreciated, and the cones have not been as well protected as they should have been. That treatment would surely be a thing of the past, however, if their uniqueness was recognised internationally. That, in itself, offers good reason to support a new push by the Government to see the cones endowed with Unesco World Heritage status.
The planning for this is in its early stages, with a feasibility study under way. But the prospects should be good, and the timing may be propitious. If the field of cones cannot compete with, say, the Canadian Rockies for grandeur, it is, nonetheless, incomparable not only as a single geological entity but as the home for more than a million people. It also happens that at the moment Unesco is making an effort to broaden the natural and geographical spread of sites on the World Heritage list. It believes the current 936 sites include a surfeit of castles and cathedrals.
Inclusion on the World Heritage list would mean the field of cones was considered, internationally, to have a special physical significance. Unesco would be saying, in effect, that it was in the interests of the global community to preserve it. The status would generate tourism and ensure a greater degree of protection. In the past, too many of the cones have been ravaged by quarrying and otherwise sullied. Successive city councils, which have administered the reserves on behalf of the Crown, have proved lax guardians. All too recently, a motorway was to run through the north face of Mt Roskill, a project thwarted only late in the piece by the Volcanic Cones Society using an obscure act of Parliament.
World Heritage status would surely put an end to such threats. The penalty for continued infringements would be placement on Unesco's Endangered Heritage list. Just last year, Istanbul was given an ultimatum: protect its listed architectural treasures properly or be named and shamed on that list. Such humiliation is not something that any country would invite.
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Auckland's volcanic field has been tagged for nomination since 2007, but this was put on hold during Crown Treaty of Waitangi negotiations involving them. Now the Conservation Minister, Kate Wilkinson, and the Culture and Heritage Minister, Chris Finlayson, are rekindling the process. But it may not be helpful that a Treaty settlement involving 11 of the 50 cones includes co-governance between the Crown and local iwi. This indicates that fractured administration, which served the cones poorly before the creation of the Super City, will continue.
In presenting a case to Unesco, it might help if the Department of Conservation played a dominant role in administering the field. Such governance - with iwi as a partner - would reinforce the fact that this was a single geological feature. The Volcanic Cones Society suggests this could be achieved by the Auckland Council surrendering its stewardship of the isthmus cones to the department. That makes sense, if only because the council and its predecessors have, incongruously, been responsible for the administration and upkeep of what are, in the main, Crown reserves.
Most importantly, it would ensure greater protection for the cones. Even if they do not become New Zealand's fourth natural site deemed worthy of World Heritage status, they warrant more respect. Their unique nature has been taken for granted for too long.