Māori land near Kerikeri could be turned into a kauri sanctuary to help protect the species from deadly kauri dieback disease.
Takou 439 Reservation Trust, which has about 200ha of land at Takou Bay, between the Bay of Islands and Matauri Bay, is working with local hapū Ngāti Rehia and the Crown research institute Scion to investigate setting up a disease-free kauri sanctuary.
The northern side of the Takou River was once used for kumara gardens but is now dominated by pine and gorse.
Using a Department of Conservation grant, the trust is clearing the weeds, planting 10,000 native trees and plans to restore wetlands.
A whare hui built in 1935, Whetu Marama, was restored some years ago.
Trust secretary and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rehia trustee Nora Rameka said options for the rest of the land included setting up a 45ha kauri sanctuary, where the species could be protected from the dieback threatening Northland forests and iconic trees such as Tane Mahuta.
''Kauri is precious to the whole of New Zealand. It would be an honour for Ngāti Rehia to contribute to the protection of our taonga.''
The first stage of the project is being funded by a $250,000 grant from the government's Provincial Growth Fund.
Rameka said the sanctuary would create employment but, more importantly, it would help the young generation take pride in their whenua and become good kaitiaki (guardians).
If Scion found the land was not suitable for a kauri sanctuary it would be replanted in other native species.
''The project is to enhance our land, to bring back the trees and birds we've lost. The kauri sanctuary is just one part of that vision.''
Scion chief executive Julian Elder said scientists would work alongside Ngāti Rehia over the next six months to assess the site's suitability and share knowledge about kauri dieback.
Scion would also help Ngāti Rehia with a management plan, predator-proof fencing, seed collection and planting, and ensuring kauri dieback was not introduced into the sanctuary.
Indigenous tree scientist Greg Steward said setting up a sanctuary on a disease-free site with a large number of new plantings — up to 50,000 for a 45ha site — would be a major step forward in protecting the species.
''Introducing kauri from the widest range of populations acceptable to Ngāti Rehia will lead to the development of a significant resource where diversity would be a strength, and offer opportunities to manage kauri for a range of cultural, biodiversity and other outcomes,'' he said.
If the plan went ahead it would be the biggest new planting of kauri for many years. In the past the NZ Forest Service had planted kauri on a few thousand hectares but that was for future timber harvests rather than long-term security of the species.
Takou Bay was within the natural range of kauri, he said.
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said the aim of the project was to create an area that was isolated from other pockets of kauri around Northland and wouldn't fall victim to dieback.
''Ngāti Rehia has agreed to set aside some of their land and the Crown will give the pūtea (money),'' he said.
■ Takou Bay has special significance because it is the reputed resting place of the waka Mataatua, which brought the ancestors of Ngāpuhi and other tribes to Aotearoa.