Protesters are camped out on Ōwairaka/Mt Albert to stop the owners of the mountain, the iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau, from chopping down 345 exotic trees. How did this happen? Simon Wilson looks at the unfolding dispute and its wider implications.
The news broke on Thursday, November 7, a few days before the protests began. "Auckland residents are up in arms," wrote Michael Neilson in the Herald, "at a native restoration plan that will see hundreds of trees - many of them mature - rapidly lopped off a treasured inner-city maunga."
"The Tūpuna Maunga Authority," he continued, "which manages the city's 14 tūpuna maunga (ancestral mountains), plans to remove 345 exotic trees from Ōwairaka/Mt Albert between November 11 and mid-December as part of a long-term native restoration project."
Neilson's story was long and full. It explained the context and some of the historical background for what the authority was doing. He made it clear, for example, that the owners of the maunga, on whose behalf the TMA manages them, are the iwi of Auckland. Not the council and not the Crown. The iwi were given the maunga in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 2014.
His story noted that "residents were informed of the Ōwairaka tree removal works via a letter on October 29, although they were also invited to make submissions on the wider management plan back in 2016".
He quoted the TMA head, Paul Majurey, at length. Majurey, he said, was "committed to honouring the maunga as some of Auckland's oldest and most important natural, cultural and archaeological landmarks. While short term there could be adverse impacts, they took a long-term view to enhance the areas and native wildlife for 'generations to come'."
Majurey said some of the trees to come down were pests, such as olive and monkey apple trees. Also, some had to come down for "safety reasons".
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• Mt Albert protesters say police, arborists arrived before dawn to start chopping down trees
Neilson also quoted, at length, those residents who were "up in arms". And he reported other relevant points of view too, all of which supported the authority.
And, he noted, "So far 2700 new shrubs have been planted on Ōwairaka, the first instalment of 13,000 natives to be planted over the next few years."
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Despite a great deal of media attention that followed, that story is probably still the most comprehensive account of the issue.
But wow, it had quite a headline: "Auckland residents' fury at plan to fell hundreds of trees in Ōwairaka/Mt Albert". On the Herald website, the link to the story proclaimed: "Mt Albert massacre". Google that story, you get the same.
Fury? Massacre ?
This is an important conflict. It's about land use and property rights. It's about ecological values, cultural values and the processes of civic engagement in a democracy. It's about race relations. It points to the heart of our values as citizens, as a city and as a bicultural community. It's about who we are and who we want to be.
Neilson had been contacted by local resident Anna Radford, on behalf of the protesting group. She told him she "supported the overall project". But she was "concerned about the speed and severity".
"Removing 345 trees all at once will have a huge impact," she said. "It is not a very large maunga, and will be almost bare."
Radford said she's lived on the edge of the maunga for 21 years. She was involved in the local pest-trapping programme and there had been a "massive increase in native bird life". She called the dawn chorus "spectacular". (That pest trapping, by the way, is a fantastic initiative, involving residents near parks and reserves all over the city.)
Radford worried that losing all those trees would mean losing the birds too. "We get fantails, kingfisher, obviously tūī - a whole platter. Obviously the native plants and trees will help with that in the long term, but why can't they do it in a more staged approach?"
She said the new natives would be slow to grow and it "just does not make sense" with the exotics "to take them all out at once".
That was the essence of the objection: It's good to restore the native bush on the maunga, but why can't it be done more slowly?
A few days later Radford and other locals had become Honour the Maunga. They blockaded the road up Mt Albert and the protest was underway. RNZ Checkpoint caught up with the story on November 10. By now, Radford had ramped up her language. She talked about "stopping this madness" and declared: "Exotics aren't evil".
RNZ also reported fully on the other side of the dispute. The TMA's Paul Majurey rejected Radford's claim the maunga would be "almost bare". He said the felling "will not clear the summit of trees".
He said there had been three stages of consultation over three years. And, he said, "Ecologists, arborists, archaeologists, noise and traffic specialists all provided information to support the consent application [to chop down the trees]."
Majurey also said he was "aware of some of the public comment around harm to bird species and the like". He told RNZ listeners those things were "subject to some very detailed conditions in the resource consent".
He said he thought it was "relevant we have support from both the Tree Council and Forest and Bird". He added that drawing the process out over time extends the pain. "Experts suggest it's better to do it now." On other maunga, he said, the process has gone very successfully.
And that was the essence of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority's position. In deciding how to pursue its long-term strategy for the maunga, which the iwi owns, the TMA had not gone rogue on environmental concerns. It had taken expert advice and developed a plan based on it – and was, furthermore, required to do that in law, because it is spelled out in the resource consent.
On November 11, the day the work was to start, the protest blew up. Stuff reported "about 200" protesters were on site and they had vowed to "stay 24/7 until they get a promise the trees won't be chopped down".
Stuff said they were "local residents", although that wasn't true for all of them. Some of the people who have tried to stop bike lanes and street safety programmes elsewhere in the city – like Lisa Prager – also turned up.
Their concerns were reported as:
• Getting rid of all the trees at once would cause harm to birds and wildlife and give "no protection for growing saplings".
• Lack of "adequate consultation": They had known for only a week.
• Lack of response to questions. Rachel Langford, a member of the local board, said her questions had "gone unanswered". She said, "Residents just wanted to understand the reasoning behind this 'drastic approach'."
• The timing of the felling: Right now, birds are nesting.
It was as if, in the days prior, Majurey had never opened his mouth. Radford was quoted saying, "This madness on our maunga has to stop."
Now it was "madness". Now the demand was not to slow down, but to stop. And now it was "our" maunga.
The Stuff story then reported Majurey's responses. Among his points:
• Ecologists had surveyed trees scheduled to be removed, and "a small number of exotic trees with nesting native birds had been marked and would not be removed at this time".
• It was important to restore and enhance the original features of the maunga where possible. "One of the priority goals is restoring and reconnecting native ecological networks within and between the maunga and the wider landscape. Proactive management of exotic plant species and reintroducing indigenous flora and fauna is a vital step towards that outcome."
• The TMA acknowledged there was a range of views and staff were "working through a backlog of emails".
• There had been discussions about holding a public meeting.
The story also noted that "public consultation for the Integrated Management Plan Strategies ran from July 6 to August 16".
Stuff also reported that under the plan for the 14 maunga, more than 100 exotic trees were removed from Ōhuiarangi/Pigeon Mountain in April and 150 trees were felled on Māngere Mountain in March. Last year, about 100 pine trees were cut down on Maungarei/Mt Wellington, and 10,000 natives planted.
On the same day, November 11, the Herald reported there were "more than 60" protesters on the maunga. Like Stuff, the Herald revealed the demand was now for the TMA to abandon its programme altogether.
Radford told the paper that planting seedlings to replace mature trees didn't make sense. "This madness has to stop," she said. "Trees support wildlife, birds, insects, all sorts of creatures we can't see ... there is no need to cut down 345 trees just because they're exotic." She added: "Exotics aren't evil."
The Herald then repeated the TMA's explanations and also talked to Ngahuia Owena Hawke, who it said "grew up in Mt Albert and has ties to many Tāmaki iwi". A different local voice.
Hawke said it was a "bit rich" for people to be criticising Māori for a perceived lack of consultation, when Māori were not consulted over earlier uses of the maunga by Pākehā. "It is quite a slap in the face, just ignoring all of the history of the area."
She pointed out that since the 2014 Treaty settlement the TMA and the council had done a lot of work to enhance the maunga and maintain public access.
Although iwi own the maunga in law, Hawke said the matter ran deeper than that. "We don't own them - nobody owns them," she said. "But we said let's put it back to what it was like, before even Māori were here. Revert the maunga to places where all wildlife flourish."
That's the principle of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land. Hawke "encouraged concerned residents to read more about the restoration plans, and visit their local marae to hear the Māori perspective", said the Herald.
TMA deputy chair Alf Filipaina was quoted. The TMZ has equal numbers of iwi and council reps on its board, along with one independent person appointed by the Crown: Filipaina is a council rep. He said "the correct consultation process" had been followed in June and July, including information in the local papers and the engagement of local boards. They'd received 34 submissions and were "happy" with that.
On November 11 MediaWorks' Newshub also weighed in. It said "150 people" had come together for "a funeral procession, concerned about the 'environmental destruction' caused by giving the long-established trees the chop. Some are calling the trees 'pests', others claim they are the homes to entire ecosystems."
Without any other context at all, it conducted a poll on whether people supported the tree felling. After a week, the poll was running 86:14 against the TMA's plan.
Councillor Christine Fletcher got involved, saying she would do what she could to help the protesters. Councillor Fa'anana Efeso Collins chimed in on the other side, accusing the protesters of "cultural ignorance".
The Tree Council spelled out its position. The council is an activist and research group, heavily involved in tree planting and often quick to denounce anyone cutting down any kind of trees. "The Tree Council has always recognised the positive role that large established trees can play in our environment whether they are exotic or native," a spokesperson said.
On this occasion, however, it did not share the protesters' concerns. "The long-term outcomes of removing exotic and weed species and restoring the native ecology, not just on one maunga but between all of them, will be hugely positive for both Mt Albert residents and the whole of Auckland."
The spokesperson said the first stage of restoring the maunga began in August. About 2700 native shrubs were planted on the slopes with the goal of a further 13,000 natives planted in the coming years. "The second phase is the removal of approximately 345 exotic trees from Ōwairaka."
The Tree Council didn't say so, but the trees include pines, gums, monkey apples, olives, and some mature oaks. It's the oaks that probably mean the most to many of those worried by the plan.
Despite claims of a lack of consultation, the Tree Council said the public was notified in April 2016 and invited to make submissions then.
Also: "Over the last 12 months the Tūpuna Maunga Authority has been running regular public hui in relation to all aspects of their management of each of the maunga. These hui have provided an opportunity for any member of the public to raise their concerns about the Integrated Management Plan and for the authority to explain the rationale behind specific elements of that plan."
The Tree Council called the dispute "a cultural issue as much as an ecological one".
The round-the-clock vigil continued. At 4.15am on November 13, reported the Herald, police, security guards and tree fellers from the company TreeScape turned up. When the blockade wouldn't let them through, they left about 5am.
Radford was certainly furious now. She called the incident "cowardly and disgraceful".
"We would prefer they didn't evict us at all," she said, "but if they're going to do it, at least do it in the light of day."
She said it was "absolutely shocking" and "I'm really disappointed the Tūpuna Maunga Authority has taken a cowardly approach". Also, "To send in the police in the wee small hours of the morning, to wake up and terrify a group of peaceful people who are sleeping - it's shocking."
But was any of that true?
Police Inspector George Fanamanu told the Herald police were asked to be there by the Tūpuna Maunga Authority. "Police's role was simply to ensure the public's safety and the safety of all those who attended," he said. "It was also to maintain the peace."
He added, "We recognise and respect the public's lawful right to protest, while also acknowledging people's right to go about their day-to-day business and to feel safe."
On November 13, The Spinoff published an opinion piece that was strikingly different from most of the other media reports. It was by Ben Thomas, a former press secretary to National's Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Chris Finlayson.
"Letting go can be hard," he began, "even if it's for the best."
His said the protesters on Ōwairaka were "entitled to feel sad that some familiar landmarks to them are passing. They can love the maunga, cherish the foreign trees."
But, he said, that didn't make their position right. "Like a dear friend being counselled through a relationship break-up, they should be told it is okay to grieve, it's good to tell their stories and that they will always have their memories. But just like a break-up, they should remember that loving something doesn't mean owning it."
He criticised the protesters for having "whipped themselves into a fury on Facebook to the point where their noise has attracted the support of noted race baiters Hobson's Pledge".
It's an old adage: Be careful who your friends are, for what it might say about you.
Thomas argued there was a basic misunderstanding behind the protesters' actions, in particular their appeals to the Prime Minister and the council and the implication in their protest that as ratepayers their views should prevail.
There is, he said, "a strong sense that decisions about the maunga are ultimately for the 'people of Mt Albert' or Auckland or New Zealand or whatever, and not for the iwi who own them".
He reminded his readers the maunga are held in trust by the iwi for the "common benefit of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau and the other people of Auckland", and have reserve status. The Tūpuna Maunga Authority exercises its powers on behalf of iwi having regard to "the spiritual, ancestral, cultural, customary, and historical significance of the maunga to Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau". This is what it means to give effect to the Treaty of Waitangi: Māori actually do get some rights.
Then Thomas rubbed the point home. "What's really grating about the Ōwairaka protesters," he said, "is an almost brattish refusal to recognise that this is just one more act in a long tradition of iwi generosity in Auckland".
It was time for a history lesson. "Sir Douglas Graham, the first minister for Treaty settlements, noted that shortly after the signing of the Treaty in 1840, the Crown bought 1214ha of what is now downtown Auckland for £281 from iwi. Within six months, it had sold just 36ha of that land on to settlers for £24,500 (a mark-up of around 8500 per cent). Auckland was literally built on Māori capital. But metaphorically, it was built on their manaakitanga – the welcoming of guests."
Do we understand that, even now?
Thomas went on: "The iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau continue to welcome guests with open arms. And they continue to have it thrown back in their faces by a small but noisy minority, ranging from over-entitled residents like Lisa Prager to cynical politicians like Christine Fletcher and the divisive creatures of Hobson's Pledge."
He noted the TMA says its plan is ecological best practice and it has the backing of "heavyweight experts" on that.
"But that's really beside the point. So long as the plan is legally compliant, it's not up to the authority to put aside its vision of what's best for the maunga in favour of some noisy neighbours' own personal views."
On social media and elsewhere, there's a common theme among people supporting the protesters that this should not be made into "a race issue". But is it really up to Pākehā to decide that?
Anna Radford told TVNZ on November 17 that protesters feel misunderstood. "What they're trying to do is position us as bunch of racist rabble-rousers who are here illegally but that is so not what we are about," she said.
There's still no sign of a public meeting. Radford has asked the mayor to chair one. She says he's declined.
This has become an ugly dispute between people who are not ugly. Chairing a public meeting is a good role for the mayor, I would have thought.