The Auckland Council has decided to close the bush in the Waitakere Ranges.
The kauri dieback disease has doubled in scope in the last five years and the council has recognised that existing measures to control it are not working.
Technically, they haven't quite closed the ranges. What they've decided is that they intend to close the ranges, and will spend the next couple of months consulting the public on that decision. They expect to resolve formally to implement the closure on April 10. It would come into effect on May 1.
The entire area of the kauri forest in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, which covers the ranges, will be affected. Beaches and pasture are excluded, as are private property and public roads. Certain tracks will be reopened to the public, probably very soon, when they can be clearly identified as not being at risk.
The council has also decided to close a number of tracks in the Hunua Ranges. Kauri dieback has not been detected there yet, and they want to keep it that way.
The decision came at a meeting of the Environment and Community Committee this morning, chaired by Cr Penny Hulse, who represents the Waitakere ward. The committee includes all councillors and the mayor, along with two members of the Independent Maori Statutory Board.
Last December, this same committee rejected appeals from scientists, iwi and environmental groups, and kept the ranges open. The committee reasoned then that full closure would be too harsh. Instead, it closed a little over half the tracks in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, put in cleaning stations so visitors could get the mud off their shoes, and appointed "ambassadors" who would try to convince visitors to stay away.
It didn't work. As earlier reported by the Herald, one ambassador in the week before Christmas said she'd talked to 1200 visitors and been able to persuade only a dozen that they should not enter the bush.
The local iwi, Te Kawerau a Maki, has imposed a rahui, or ban, on the area. The council declared in December that it supported the rahui in principle and asked visitors to respect it. But that was not the same thing as reinforcing the rahui with a ban.
At the meeting this morning council officials bluntly advised the council that its earlier strategy had failed. The carparks have been full and as many people are walking in the park as ever.
They also know that the disease lives in the soil and is spread principally by mud on boots and shoes. It kills the kauri and as yet there is no known cure.
The officials reported the despair of one of their ambassadors, who'd told them it's not tourists doing the damage. It's Aucklanders. In fact, when committee chair Penny Hulse spoke to the Herald after the meeting, she said it's more specific than that.
It's locals. People who live in the Waitakere Ranges and regard it as their right to walk in the bush.
The committee decided to "propose to close the forested areas of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, with exceptions, such as beaches, pasturelands and areas which would reach the requirements of a controlled area notice".
A controlled area notice (CAN) is the mechanism they believe will give them the best means of preventing people from entering the prohibited area, and bringing court action against those who do.
The motion specifies that they will consult with Te Kawera a Maki and the local board, and with "concessionaires, businesses and recreational groups who use and benefit from the regional park and with people who live within the Waitakere Ranges".
There will be targeted patrols, tracks will be physically blocked and carparks closed. Prevention measures like this are expected to cost $3.8 million in the first year. This spending is not budgeted.
Some tracks will quickly be reopened, if they are known to be especially popular, well-maintained and clear of kauri dieback. They are likely to include the Arataki Nature Trail.
Cr Hulse said that this was "the heart of the matter" and "exactly the point we are trying to reach". The message will be: the park is closed, but in these specific, defined areas you are still very welcome.
Cr Wayne Walker told the meeting he thought they should be doing more, and called for live streaming from the tracks for everyone to see and shame users. He also suggested there could be an app "that sends a message to every phone that goes into the area".
Officials responded that nothing was being ruled out at this stage.
Cr Mike Lee expressed his disappointment that no money was being allocated to finding a cure. Cr Hulse and the officials explained that the Ministry of Primary Industries wants to fund that research "100 per cent".
"They've told us they are happy for that to be an important part of their contribution," said the council's director of infrastructure and environmental services, Barry Potter.
Lee was not deterred, although he did not make it clear why he was advocating that council spend millions of dollars it doesn't need to spend because the government will do the job instead.
Mayor Phil Goff declared himself a forceful supporter of the proposal. He said it was one of those moments where he wanted to have an answer when a grandchild asked him, "What did you do to save the kauri, Granddad?"
He added, "Our message has been confusing. We've been asking and they haven't been listening. Now we need to say, 'This is a prohibition.' We've got to change the culture of Aucklanders."
All councillors except Dick Quax were present. Christine Fletcher left early, after expressing strong support for the proposal. No one spoke against. When it came to the vote, it was unanimous.
It's a beginning, though, not an end. Enforcement will not be easy, as several speakers noted.
And next month, the Auckland Council will start consulting on its new 10-year budget. A special levy to fight kauri dieback has been proposed: close to $100 million, spread over the 10 years. Council will be asking us what we think about that.