Why are people still stomping around in the Waitakere bush?

The short answer is: because they can.

The long answer is: it's complicated. Because although kauri dieback is ravaging the ranges, closing them won't stop that.

Besides, closing them – or more specifically, closing the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park – is practically difficult. There are so many ways to get in. How do you stop them? And what, as councillor Penny Hulse says, do you do with people who do go in? Trespass them? Fine them?

Advertisement

It's also legally difficult. The Biosecurity Act allows a Controlled Area Notice to be issued in relation to an unwanted organism (kauri dieback qualifies), but in December last year, the last time the council debated kauri dieback in the Waitakere Ranges, the council heard from advisers that only the Government can issue such a notice.

That may not be true. Councils do have the right to issue a Restricted Place notice under the Biosecurity Act. It would be temporary but it could be renewed. Council also has powers under the Local Government Act, which it has used before to close the park for weather-related reasons. The council could also ask the Minister of Biosecurity for Emergency Powers.

It hasn't done any of these things. Hulse is chair of the council's Environment and Community Committee, which is all councillors plus two members of the Independent Maori Statutory Board, and she says they have been lobbying the Government to issue a Controlled Area Notice.

That may happen. Translation: the Government may step in and make a decision the council thinks it cannot, or should not, make. Is that a good thing?

Other reasons. It's commercially difficult, because so many businesses and their employees depend for their incomes on visitors to the park. Many of those businesses have been instrumental in fighting kauri dieback, educating their customers and helping with prevention work. They're not bad guys who don't care about the trees.

It's politically difficult because thousands of people seem to think they have an inalienable right to walk in the park. The council has "kauri dieback ambassadors" trying to persuade visitors not to enter the bush. In the week before Christmas, as was reported earlier in this paper, one of them was successful with a dozen people – while nearly 1100 others ignored the advice and just walked right in.

It's also politically difficult because some organised recreational users, including some walking and tramping clubs and endurance sports groups want to keep using the trails.

It's scientifically difficult because we don't really know how to stop the disease spreading.
Yet, despite that, all the independent scientific advisers who appeared before council in December said it was essential to the survival of the kauri that the ranges are closed. They pointed out that kauri nurture the other plant species that grow around them. If kauri die, the bush will die.

Advertisement

The council rejected their advice.

Closure is also difficult because of the risk of unintended consequences. If bush walkers leave Waitakere alone and migrate to, say, the Hunua Ranges, will they take kauri dieback with them?

Are any or these reasons compelling? I don't think so. The long and complex answer is not the right answer.

The right answer is the short one. People are walking in the Waitakere Ranges because they can. And when they do, they spread kauri dieback.

Amid all the hand-wringing and confusion, three facts to focus the mind.

• One: the disease is spreading fast, in 50-metre bands along the walking trails. Pigs probably contribute to that, but it's clear the biggest cause, by far, is people walking it through the park.

It lives in the soil, it likes water: it's spread in the transportation of mud.

• Two: there is no known cure. We can't bring the trees back to life once they're dead and we can't, as yet, assume we'll cure the ones that are diseased but still living.

• Three: the current regime is not working. Forty-four tracks are closed; many tracks have shoe-cleaning stations. But there is no evidence the cleaning stations are effective and many of the "closed" tracks are still being walked on.

The local iwi, Te Kawerau a Maki, has declared a rahui over the whole of the ranges, excluding beaches, public roads and private properties. As far as they are concerned, we're banned from entering the bush.

Auckland Council says it supports "the principles of the rahui". It recommends the public choose other walking and tramping tracks in the Auckland region. (An unfortunate promotion for the Waitakere park this week by its tourism agency ATEED was quickly withdrawn.)

But the council has not banned the public from entering the bush. Why? Because it's complicated. See above.

It has, however, voted to spend around $100 million over 10 years to try to prevent the spread. That's a lot of money and it will help slow the disease. But no one, including, it seems, the council itself, believes it will be effective if the ranges remain open.

The council position on closure sends a message that's so mixed it might as well not exist. They accept we have a crisis and they'd like us not to go there, but they won't stop us.

What do thousands of visitors hear in that? They're allowed to do something they want to do. So they do it.

The rest of us watch in dismay. We'd like to save the kauri.

The council's Environment and Community Committee meets on February 20 and they'll be debating this again. By then the government may have issued that Controlled Area Notice.

That will be a relief in one way. But enforcement will still be required.

It will also mean the council has ceded authority on a local issue it really should be all over. If the government steps in because the council can't, or won't, do the right thing itself, it's not good for Auckland.