By ANNE BESTON environment reporter

Kit Howden has been accused of being obsessed with Hamlin's Hill.

On a clear day, this barely noticed piece of grassland in the heart of industrial Mt Wellington provides sweeping views from the Tamaki Estuary and Coromandel Peninsula in the southeast to the faint blue outline of the Manukau Heads in the west.

It is an impressive vista from what is essentially a 48ha paddock beside the relentless drone of the Southern Motorway.


To the south, factories and hoardings have slowly crept up the hillside while at the top sit two empty reservoirs owned by Watercare Services.

But Mr Howden, Auckland chairman of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, and thorn in the side of softly-softly-stepping local authorities, sees something quite different.

"In a few decades this could be the new Cornwall Park. All we need is a little imagination and the debate of ideas - there's too much paperwork and not enough action."

It has taken three years for the Auckland City Council, which owns 23ha of the land, and the Auckland Regional Council to come up with a joint-management plan for Mutukaroa - Hamlin's Hill.

Just released for public comment, the 50-page document is filled with council-speak ranging from the blindingly obvious (the city tree policy should ensure "active extension of the public tree resource") to the constant repetition of a list of goals which can be condensed to: put up some signs, plant trees in the gullies and make sure visitors don't trample over Maori and early European archaeological sites.

But 12 submissions have already been made to the ARC parks committee about Hamlin's Hill and at least half of them are calling for something quite different.

Conservationists have long set their sights on Mutukaroa being a wildlife sanctuary, along the lines of Wellington's Karori Wildlife Sanctuary - a 1km-square, fenced, predator-free piece of bushland in the heart of the city. Spotted kiwi were released into the sanctuary two months ago, the first time in a century they have lived on the mainland.

But the idea is not favoured by Maori. Mutukaroa is archaeologically and culturally significant to the tangata whenua and the 24ha of crown-owned land is subject to Treaty of Waitangi claims.

The land is sub-leased to the Mutukaroa Trust, with representatives from Ngati Whatua, Ngati Paoa and Tainui, and administered by the ARC. But the lease runs out in 2006.

Ngati Paoa have made it clear they will gift the land as public open space if it is returned under the treaty.

"The ARC has been steadily planting the land and I want to see that continue way past 2006," says ARC parks chairman Bill Burrill.

"It would make a whole lot of sense to vest the land to the people of Auckland but we have to institute a formal process for that to happen."

The management plan makes it clear the hill's archaeological sites are a priority for protection.

The issue has proved contentious. In June last year the ARC dug up hundreds of trees planted by Forest and Bird volunteers because they were planted too close to the site of an early European farm.

The council apologised for the lack of consultation but suspicion remains on both sides.

"There's a strong anti-tree feeling and it's come from the conservatives on council," says maverick ARC councillor and former parks chairman Mike Lee. "There has been a struggle going on."

Forest and Bird will continue to fight for at least some of the land to be planted so that native birds can return.

"If it's healthy for birds to live here, it's probably healthy for us too," Mr Howden says.

Public submissions on the management plan will be open for two months at a date yet to be decided.