One by one, Auckland is losing the green canopy that gives the city life. Whether the destruction is legal or not, Auckland has a tree problem.
But it isn't alone. Irreplaceable trees and whole habitats are being cleared on privately owned land all over Aotearoa. Between 1996 and 2018, New Zealand lost 84,000ha of native habitat, most of it in private ownership.
Having their homes cut down from under them is a big part of the reason why 80 per cent of our native birds, 88 per cent of lizards and all our native frogs and bats are threatened with extinction.
And yet, when nature thrives, we thrive. Aside from the joy of living alongside native birds and plants, healthy forests hold water and protect downstream communities from flooding, fire and drought; wetlands filter sediment protecting our fishing grounds; dunes and mangroves buffer our homes from coastal erosion; trees sequester carbon. They all provide a home to our native animals.
The instances of destruction that we – the public – notice and report to authorities tend to be close to home or near roads, like Auckland's majestic pōhutukawa. But many other areas are lost to wanton destruction away from the watchful eye of locals and experts.
From high-country drylands all the way to coastal wetlands, satellite data tells us that 12 of 13 native habitat types are being whittled away year after year.
Many important trees, species and habitats are now nearly entirely restricted to private land. Even though we have fantastic national parks and reserves, most of New Zealand's conservation land is mountainous and rugged. Lowland habitats in private ownership are important homes for wildlife because sometimes that's all that's left. Private ownership is a responsibility, not a right.
Last year, Forest & Bird reported that one in three councils across the country had no records of any unauthorised vegetation clearance. This is like one third of DHBs saying they have no record of cancer.
The other councils were sitting on hundreds of reported instances of habitat destruction, but nearly a quarter of those were never even checked on by council staff. Fines and prosecutions are rare.
So, if you want to gain a view by destroying a tree that's home to native bats, or want to replace one of the last remnants of lowland forest in your district with a paddock, the implicit message from authorities is go ahead.
The risk of being fined is low, but if you're unlucky, the return on your investment will be well worth the trouble.
In Auckland, the four lane South-West highway is about to be built through the protected coastal wetland of a local bittern population, a group of birds that are secretive, beautiful, and nationally critical. The next rung down is extinction. Expect to see Forest & Bird in the Supreme Court as we try to save their supposedly protected scrap of a home.
When a Christchurch farmer destroyed nearly 30 per cent of the entire wild population of shrubby tororaro on his land, it wasn't the council who took legal action to protect the remaining plants, it was an environmental charity.
On the South Island's West Coast, a handful of unique skinks were found living in a tiny patch of coastal vegetation on farmland near Hokitika. Uniquely equipped with a prehensile tail for gripping branches, the kapitia skink evolved climbing through a vast coastal forest. But before this species was recognised, their habitat was cleared for dairy farming.
Many of New Zealand's unique plants and animals are like the bittern, shrubby tororaro, or kapitia skink – localised, hidden, and becoming homeless in their own land.
We have the tools to bring them back, but we need leaders in Government and councils to get serious, and get cracking.
Councils need strong guidelines requiring them to uphold their environmental responsibilities. The draft National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity (NPS-IB) would see councils employing the experts they need to identify and protect the important trees and wildlife in their regions.
Another opportunity is David Parker's RMA reforms, which must reinstate Auckland's blanket tree protection rules. And in the meantime, we need councils to show determination in defending the rules that do exist, and take strong action against environmental vandals.
It's time to make room for wildlife in our cities and our country. The solutions exist. We can bring back nature, protect our climate, and our future. But it will take all of us, and every tool we have.
So speak up. Tell your councillors and MPs we need nature back among us, that you're doing your bit, and they urgently need to do theirs.
• Lissy Fehnker-Heather is the Auckland and Coromandel regional conservation manager for Forest & Bird.