That an ancient and endangered kauri can legally be cleared is "ridiculous" and flies in the face of Auckland Council's climate emergency declaration, a top ecologist says.

University of Auckland associate professor Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng refers to a more than 350-year-old kauri, named "Awhiawhi" by tāngata whenua, that has been threatened by development since 2015.

Macinnis-Ng estimated Awhiawhi stored six tonnes of carbon - three above ground and three below. It would take 32 newly-planted kauri 100 years to make up for the amount of C02 it stored if felled.

She was also "very concerned" about the impacts its removal could have on erosion and flooding risks, which would also increase with climate change.

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University of Auckland ecologist Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng said the remarkable recovery of Awhiawhi had invaluable potential for kauri dieback research. Photo / Jos Wheeler
University of Auckland ecologist Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng said the remarkable recovery of Awhiawhi had invaluable potential for kauri dieback research. Photo / Jos Wheeler

Consent was granted for the kauri to be cut down by developers John Lenihan and Jane Greensmith in 2015 to make way for two houses on the Paturoa Rd site, but the community rallied to save the tree. Activists even suspended themselves in the branches for days to prevent its destruction.

It gained a temporary protection, but that ended in the Environment Court this year, which described the tree as "remarkable" but said it was powerless to protect it. A High Court challenge to extend its protection had also now been withdrawn.

The original building consents for the property had been revoked, but Auckland Council had granted a certificate of compliance to remove the kauri in April, leaving the fate of the ancient kauri now in the hands of the landowner.

Macinnis-Ng had kept her views out of the public sphere to maintain independence during court proceedings, but was now speaking out as the case appeared to have come "to the end of the road".

University of Auckland ecologist Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng said it was
University of Auckland ecologist Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng said it was "ridiculous" a more than 350-year-old kauri was not protected from being cut down. Photo / Supplied

Kauri, which is under threat from dieback disease, is classed by the Department of Conservation as a "threatened species". Nature Scientific Reports last year ranked it as the world's fourth most-threatened conifer species.

"It is terrible such trees are not protected," Macinnis-Ng said.

"More broadly, there is a big decline internationally in tree numbers, so when you have a tree over 350 years old that could be chopped down, it is ridiculous. You can't replace these trees by just planting a few more."

Alongside its carbon storage and biodiversity values, Macinnis-Ng said such old trees were important land stabilisers and for protection from flooding.

Mana whenua applied rongoa to Titirangi kauri Awhiawhi in 2015 after a ringbarking attempt to kill the ancient tree. Photo / Jos Wheeler
Mana whenua applied rongoa to Titirangi kauri Awhiawhi in 2015 after a ringbarking attempt to kill the ancient tree. Photo / Jos Wheeler

A kauri of that size and age soaked up a bathtub of water a day, and its canopy prevented about 40 per cent of rainfall even reaching the soil.

With climate change predicted to increase the intensity of storm events Macinnis-Ng said such trees were immense assets.

"If I was a neighbour of that property I would be seriously concerned."

The kauri had also survived a ringbarking attempt back in 2015, made while a protester occupied the tree.

The kauri in 2015 after an attempted ringbarking. Photo / Jos Wheeler
The kauri in 2015 after an attempted ringbarking. Photo / Jos Wheeler

Normally such a process would kill a tree, but after mana whenua applied rongoa (traditional medicine) including a beeswax seal around the affected area, the kauri performed a remarkable recovery.

Four years later Macinnis-Ng said the tree was healthy, and more importantly showed no symptoms of kauri dieback, which was ravaging surrounding areas.

Macinnis-Ng said the way kauri dieback killed trees was akin to ringbarking, and discovering how Awhiawhi recovered and remained unaffected could potentially be applied to other kauri suffering from the devastating disease.

"My role is around science, I am not a lawyer. But if the law cannot save this tree, something is wrong with the law."

The kauri in 2015 after mana whenua applied rongoa to the affected area. Photo / Jos Wheeler
The kauri in 2015 after mana whenua applied rongoa to the affected area. Photo / Jos Wheeler

Mayor Phil Goff previously told the Herald the council's hands were tied due to changes under the previous government to the Resource Management Act, which removed blanket protections of trees in urban areas.

But those fighting to save the tree say the council had made errors in developing its Unitary Plan and not including the property, and Awhiawhi, in a significant ecological area. It also had the option to list it as a notable tree.

Goff did not address those questions when posed to him, but in a statement said council staff had advised him "all legal avenues have been exhausted".

He said he had written to the Minister for the Environment about amendments to the RMA to help protect heritage trees.


Call for developer to "do the right thing"


Mana whenua Chris Paraiama, of Te Tao and Ngāti Whātua, told a meeting of the council's planning committee this month the tree was a "living example" of the power of rongoa, and needed to be saved. Its resistance to dieback was also invaluable to mātauranga Māori, and the fight against the disease.

Titirangi resident Steve Abel said he was "disappointed" in the council, but was now calling on developer John Lenihan to step up and "do the right thing".

Lenihan was a director at RCG Group, an architecture and property firm which listed on its website designs that incorporated "te ao Māori", including bringing "mauri" into Māori Television's new building on East Tāmaki Rd, and a luxury spa in Rotorua.

Abel said surely Lenihan would be able to use his architectural skills to build around Awhiawhi.

"We are appealing to him to not cut the tree down. He can cease to be the villain in this story and can become the landowner who did the right thing. He can be the man who let this ancient kauri live."

Abel, who is also a Greenpeace campaigner, said it was "absolutely ridiculous" the tree could be allowed to be cut down by the council, especially given the climate emergency declaration last week.

The kauri Awhiawhi pictured recently showing its recovery after a 2015 ringbarking. Photo / Jos Wheeler
The kauri Awhiawhi pictured recently showing its recovery after a 2015 ringbarking. Photo / Jos Wheeler

He said the RMA process did not account for climate-change arguments, which urgently needed to be addressed.

The developer has not responded to requests from the Herald for comment.