The Department of Conservation is considering whether to prosecute a nurseryman who has been collecting seeds from protected kauri and other native trees.

"We encourage people to plant native trees, but this nurseryman is running a full-scale commercial business and he is required to get a concession for a trading activity," said Northland conservator Chris Jenkins.

Simon Vallings, of Maungatapere, is a director of native plant nursery Forest Floor, and has grown native plants - including up to 20,000 kauri annually - by collecting seeds he believes would otherwise be left to rot.

He grows some seed and sells some to other propagators.

"They've threatened to prosecute me if I keep doing it," he said.

Mr Vallings said he had been seeking a permit for nearly five years, but had encountered difficulties at Whangarei DoC office.

But Mr Jenkins said Mr Vallings was unhappy about paying a fee for processing the concession application, and DoC had offered to waive its internal costs, but was not able to drop the external costs such as consultation with iwi, because that would take money from other conservation work.

Mr Vallings had offered the names of iwi with whom he had worked, but checks showed those people did not support his seed collections, Mr Jenkins said.

"In every case, they said, no, they did not agree with what he wanted to do."

Mr Vallings then questioned the right of iwi to have a say, and said he would not pay for consultation work .

"He wasn't prepared to accept the costs, he wasn't co-operating with us on the consultation, and he was being abusive to my staff - I said I was not prepared to continue processing his concession application," Mr Jenkins said.

Mr Vallings had been warned in 2001 not to collect seed for his business without approval. "The obvious course, if we take it, is to prosecute," Mr Jenkins said. "I have not made a decision yet - we will do so in the next couple of weeks"

The basic issue is that people carrying out a trade or business on DoC land need to have a commercial concession and to know what they were doing so that the ecosystem was not damaged.

Mr Vallings said part of the problem appeared to be that collecting seeds of native trees for a commercial business was not seen to be in line with DoC policies.

But he said many plant nurseries were only able to offer seeds for "local" genotypes of native trees because of collectors like himself.

Some seed collectors had even dangled from a helicopter to collect cones from the tops of the best trees.

He said DoC staff recently confiscated kauri cones he had gathered from outside its visitor centres in Waipoua Forest, as he had done for more than 10 years.

"I've felt for 10 years that what I've been doing is a good thing and the very government department I thought would be on my side is telling me it's illegal," Mr Vallings said.

He said that he applied in 2001 for a permit to collect seed from public land in Northland, but had been unable to get a decision.

The most recent approach had led to a request for him to agree to pay for iwi consultation, without specifying the cost.

He had declined to pay what was potentially an open-ended fee. DoC should be encouraging his work, because it led to more native trees being planted, he said.

"Yes, I'm running a business but I never think I own the trees, I only charge for our labour, potting mix, staff. We're not making a massive profit and frankly it is a lot of hard work."



DoC says:

People carrying out business on DoC land need to have a commercial concession and to know what they are doing so that the ecosystem is not damaged.

Native plant grower

Simon Vallings says: DoC insists on charging for iwi consultation, without specifying the cost which could potentially be an open-ended fee.