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Once again, Auckland's unique volcanic heritage is being treated as a commodity to be exploited, rather than a taonga to be cherished and protected.

For more than a century, the cones were an irresistible source of cheap roading and building stone.

Now the Government - following in its Labour predecessor's footsteps - sees them as riches of a different kind. It's using them as bargaining chips in the race to settle Maori land claims by 2014.

Chris Finlayson, Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, hopes that by transferring a watered-down form of title to 11 of the region's 50 or so volcanoes to a collective of 12 competing tribes, the Crown's Treaty woes in Auckland will go away.

Perhaps they will, but whether the move will improve the future well-being of the volcanoes is less clear.

Part of the deal involves the tribal collective co-managing the 11 cones with the Auckland Council.

That we've been waiting nine years for the feuding claimants to One Tree Hill to agree on something as simple as who should plant a single new symbolic tree there raises grave doubts about how workable a committee of tribal representatives is going to be.

Unfortunately, what happens once the settlement is signed and sealed is not the Government's big concern. All it wants is to be able to honour its election pledge to end the Treaty settlement process by 2014.

The volcanoes are up for grabs because they happen to be the only large pieces of "unoccupied" Crown land on the isthmus available for compensatory purposes.

The attempt to create a collective-ownership model follows the Waitangi Tribunal's rejection, in 2007, of the previous Government's proposal to award sole ownership of Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), Maungawhau (Mt Eden) and Puketepapa (Mt Roskill) to Ngati Whatua.

Other tribes objected, and Judge Carrie Wainwright agreed. She said various tribes had occupied Tamaki Makaurau over the centuries and "in dealing with cultural redress the Crown must confront the reality of layers of interests accreting over centuries".

Even if Ngati Whatua were predominant in 1840, "Maori history did not begin then", she said.

At the time, I suggested that if history didn't begin at 1840, then what about a seat for Ngati Pakeha at the table too? The Government's proposal that the statutory board running the 11 cones will have equal tribal and Auckland Council membership acknowledges this.

Other conditions include the restriction that maunga can't be sold or mortgaged, and that Auckland Council retains financial control.

Which takes us back to what is best for the volcanoes. Neither the white nor brown tribes have an unblemished record here.

As recently as 2003, the state road builder, Transit New Zealand, was planning to drive a motorway through the northern face of Mt Roskill.

More recently, Ngati Whatua leased part of the Orakei Basin crater tuff ring to apartment developers to hack and destroy.

This is a cone the Geological Society of NZ says is "one of Auckland's more iconic volcanoes, arguably the city's best-preserved example of a tuff cone with a wide, water-filled crater".

What the Government, the local tribes and the new Auckland Council should be focusing on is a plan to protect and enhance the volcanic field as a whole.

Fragmenting off 11 of the "elite" cones under their own statutory board in order to advance an unrelated election promise is counter-productive. What hope for the lesser cones, then?

The move is particularly ill-timed, coming just when the region - cones and all - is coming together for the first time under one umbrella governance structure.

In 2007, at the time Judge Wainwright was rejecting the Ngati Whatua claim, the Crown announced its intention to seek Unesco World Heritage status for the whole field.

Both the judgment and the Crown's world heritage status bid were reminders that this unique geological phenomenon does not belong to any one tribe or nation, but to the world as a whole. What we really want is a declaration from Government that it will finally take the cones and the World Heritage campaign seriously.

A good first move, as Auckland Volcanic Cones Society spokesman Greg Smith advocated yesterday, would be some central government funding to back up the burden Auckland ratepayers now bear alone.