I've been a part time volunteer restoring native vegetation on Maungawhau, Mt Eden for 30 years. I have also worked professionally in parks and protected areas much of my life and I'm saddened with the trends occurring now in Auckland.
The recent protests and conflicts at Ōwairaka, Ihumātao and Chamberlain Park indicate a lack of understanding of the heritage, conservation and recreation role of our parks and associated urban forests. Other conflicts include the proposed national memorials in the Domain and Parnell, which will take away green space. The list goes on as more demands are made on the finite area of urban parkland.
• 'Exotics aren't evil': Protesters gather to stop removal of trees on Ōwairaka/Mt Albert
• Geoff Chapple: Auckland unfairly losing access to maunga
• Premium - Auckland residents' fury at plan to fell hundreds of trees in Ōwairaka/Mt Albert
• Mt Albert protesters say police, arborists arrived before dawn to start chopping down trees
A failure to communicate - or to pay attention?
These conflicts indicate a lack of consultative governance across the vast Auckland's parks and urban forest estate. Are we citizens informing ourselves enough about the challenges ahead or are we being lazy and leaving decisions to remote politicians and bureaucrats? What should the role of the media be in this?
It appears key issues are not being discussed and debated with the community. In the age of climate change citizens need to be well informed and consulted. The present emphasis on conflict fails to provide the information required for informed debate. These are some of the detailed issues as I see them:
At present, there is no overall parks committee in the Auckland Council and decisions are spread between the Environment and Climate Change Committee and Community Committee. By statute, the maunga or volcanic cones (while funded by the ratepayer) come under the Tūpuna Maunga Authority.
It gets complicated and divided for local boards govern local parks while the massive regional parks come under the above committees. The regional parks, such as Long Bay, are the equivalent of "national parks". Next year, the regional parks management plan review will be reviewed. Will this be rushed through, ignoring the good prescriptive policies in the present plan and substituted with very general ones as found in other council planning documents?
The relatively new co-governance model for the maunga of Auckland has been a marked improvement to decades of poor management by previous agencies. It follows national and international models of managing protected areas. However the situation now appears dominated by iwi verses pakeha and native verse exotic plant issues. Individuals have been vilified in the debate and the underlying larger issues ignored.
The lesson from Ōwairaka/Mt Albert
The integrated management plan and strategies for the maunga gave the community opportunity to be involved and its clearly stated exotic species are to be removed and replaced by native species. However, policies also say "tree removals will be assessed on a case by case basis" and these matters need to be better explained to the community. On Ōwairaka/Mt Albert, press releases and communication have outlined these policies. Expert advice has been given on ecological matters and arboriculture.
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However has information been given on tree amenity, landscape (sight lines), archaeology, climate zero carbon implications and urban forestry considerations? These need to be made more public by the responsible authority.
Over all this, iwi and manu whenua may rightfully have a greater say. However it is still the right in a democratic society for citizens to know the information and to take responsibility to understand the issues.
Auckland also has a Urban Ngahere (Forest) Strategy covering all public and private land. This states; "Planting exotic trees may be appropriate in some cases……and may also be suitable for cultural or heritage reasons in specific locations." Words like "case by case" and "appropriate" need better explanation. Has this slipped through the democratic process and not been discussed with the community through lack of leadership?
The occupation and impasse at Ihumātao
Ihumātao has been another protest site. Protection of this land was discussed many years ago but this intent got lost in the formation of the super city. The good news is that local and central government are finally coming together to solve the housing and heritage issues. Together with Otuataua, Stonefields a new regional park could be formed to recognise our common agriculture and horticulture heritage from the start of human habitation of New Zealand.
Are we brave enough to use part of the site to show where a tragic start of the Waikato war started? This has shaped New Zealand possibly more than any other war. The heritage opportunities are immense and focus needs to go on developing community understanding to gain world heritage for these volcanic field sites. More leadership and citizen involvement is needed.
Teeing off at Chamberlain Park
The other controversy lost in political battles is changing the recreation use of Chamberlain Park. There has been no full outdoor recreation analysis of our public spaces. Most study and funding is directed to organised sport which is less than 50 per cent of use and this may result in vested interests having a major say on public land. This is possibly due to most parks being delegated to local boards and lack of a strong regional strategic park and open space plan.
General top down plans and governance needs to be based more on what's happening on the ground. Taking the volcanic cone of Maungawhau as an example; I help look after the native plants and developing native forest and do the little I can to stop erosion from too much foot traffic on the maunga. I face the practical dilemmas of gradually removing pest plants like the privet and ivy that hold up the maunga on old quarry slopes. I celebrate the large oak trees, their amenity and the community swing that gives enjoyment to the passer-by.
We work well with the contractors and maunga authority staff but there are many unknowns in what I call this human managed, anthropocene forest in the age of climate change.
When native species aren't the answer, what is?
Pohutukawa are main canopy species of this forest but now there's the threat of myrtle rust disease and there's a prohibition on planting them. More research is needed. Possible solutions include gene editing to breed more resistant pohutukawa. However, this is difficult with the present restrictive legislation and the policy is not to change it.
Another dilemma is kikuyu grass that clothes much of the Maungawhau as well as other maunga of Auckland. Kikuyu has flourished following the removal of livestock from the maunga. This was done for cultural, archaeological and erosion prevention purposes. The research trials to replace kikuyu using native vegetation have been a failure possibly due to not acknowledging the complexities of the anthropocene forest ecology.
A fire risk grows each year as elevated dry matter builds up. In an extended dry period with the right weather conditions it will become a major fire hazard that cannot be ignored. The two recent fires on Guy Fawkes are a warning. Other areas in Auckland such as the coastal Waitakere Ranges are other major fire hazard hot spot. The warnings have come from fire scientists, yet I see little policy in council documents.
Four factors for less conflict and better outcomes
In this age of climate change, respect for heritage and changing recreation patterns we still have to relate to a biological world. Greater understanding and research is urgently needed to make wise decisions in the anthropocene forest and parks of Auckland.
As the Commissioner for the Environment said, the status quo needs to change. We need four factors for the future - good professional staff, active citizenship, open communication and more focused governance on all of Auckland's parks and protected areas.
• Kit Howden has a Master of science, and post graduate qualifications in parks, conservation, recreation management and ethics. He spent 30 years in government parks and has spent 16 years so far in the volunteer sector with Friends of Maungawhau, Volcanic Cones Society and Friends of Regional Parks.