Environmentalist Geoff Reid is an angry man. He believes there’s a rapidly unfolding disaster in rural New Zealand and we’re barely even talking about it. It’s the damage caused by invasive plant species.
You can see it for yourself, driving through almost any stretch of bush. Privet crowding out the indigenous saplings. Convolvulus and other creepers smothering whole forested hillsides. In places like the Dome Valley, ginger is choking everything.
They’re all weeds, Reid reminded the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) conference in Auckland last month. It’s long been a problem but the scale is now enormous.
He spread the blame among successive governments, local bodies and landowners, but directed most of his anger towards the Department of Conservation. “Key leadership positions in DoC have been taken up by people who are either lazy or incompetent,” he said.
And for all the benefits of fencing farm animals off from streams and estuaries, he said that policy has also become part of the problem. “Riparian waterways have become weed dispersal corridors. There are no animals to eat the weeds down.”
As for plant nurseries, they’re “the weed meth labs of the problem”. Even those agapanthus plants you bought to border your section: If they get away they’ll crowd out the regenerating native bush.
Reid is a former DoC ranger and now heads an outfit called Re-Whenua, which works on rewilding projects, especially on marginal land. He seems almost overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.
To make weeds a “top ecological priority”, he said, will require new strategies, more accountability and a lot more money. “No more 30-second spray and walk away. Think hundreds of hectares with people two metres apart, spot spraying.”
Sometimes, more than sometimes, an environmental problem seems so huge, we end up doing almost nothing. But it doesn’t make the problem go away. “When the huia became extinct,” Reid reminded the conference, “they already knew it was going to happen. But they did too little to stop it.”
Rewilding is the process of returning the environment to its presettled state. In New Zealand, that means indigenous forests, wetlands and unchannelled rivers, tussock grasslands and ocean sanctuaries, everywhere it’s appropriate.
It was a key theme of the EDS conference, not least because of the awful impact of Cyclone Gabrielle.
Eugenie Sage from the Green Party reminded the conference that our first commissioner for the environment, Helen Hughes, warned about the dangers of planting pines and then clear felling them.
In the wake of Cyclone Bola in 1988, though, she was ignored. “On the East Coast,” said Sage, “the Government encouraged the clearing of kanuka and manuka to plant pines, and we’ve seen the result.”
Dame Anne Salmond, who lives in Tairāwhiti, complained to Environment Minister David Parker about the way the Emissions Trading Scheme had supercharged that process. Parker devised the ETS during the term of Helen Clark’s Government and it has “enabled us to create a catastrophe before our own eyes”. She, also, was talking about pine plantations.
We know pines are not the answer. Even in parts of the country hit by Gabrielle but not as devastated as Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti, the damage was severe. On the Central Plateau, the storm snapped hundreds of pines in half and tore out whole trees by the roots.
And absolutely nobody wants more slash. Allowing industries to let their byproducts ruin the environment and destroy people’s health and livelihoods used to be common, but it isn’t now. Why is it legal for the forestry sector to cause so much misery and damage with the “unintended consequences” of its practices?
In a statement over Easter, Simon Millar from the think tank Pure Advantage called for rewilding to be taken seriously. “We need to recloak Papatūānuku,” he said, “to restore the whenua for climate resilience, carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and economic sustainability.”
Or as EDS chief executive Gary Taylor put it at the conference, “Plant the right stuff in the hills. Let the rivers be free to roam. Re-establish coastal wetlands to soak up the water.”
Probably everyone supports this, to some degree, and many farmers, local councils and others have embraced the idea. It’s happening.
But not enough. There are big disputes about exactly which land should be rewilded and how much money will we put into it.
Nathalie Whitaker told the conference about her company Toha, which creates investment opportunities based on “nature-based solutions”.
“We reckon we might be the only climate fintech in Gizzie,” she said. She calls it “mobilising the regenerative economy”.
Her company is active in the cleanup and rebuild after Gabrielle. In her view, “it’s important to treat time as money and not get sucked into narratives of volunteerism”.
She means there is economic value in ecological and regenerative work. We should stop treating it as something done on the side, while the “real work” all happens in agriculture, horticulture and forestry.
Or, as she also put it, “The people getting their hands dirty restoring the land should see the bulk of the benefit.”
David Norton, emeritus professor in conservation biology at the University of Canterbury, argued for indigenous forests to be front and centre of climate-change strategies.
“The crisis is here and we will not be able to move forward if we are not ambitious,” he said. “The Climate Change Commission has called for 300,000 hectares to be planted. Let’s have a million.”
Norton isn’t thinking only about marginal land, but also “large areas of the cutover forest”. When the pine plantations are felled, he wants many of them replaced with permanent indigenous bush.
He also wants local communities mobilised. “Why not a week every year where school kids do restoration work? Why not offer travel subsidies to young people if they do the mahi?”
The conference also heard, via video link, from one of the world’s foremost rewilding exponents, the British writer and climate activist George Monbiot. He believes – shockingly – that the biggest threat to our survival now is livestock pasture farming.
Farm animals, Monbiot pointed out, use 26 per cent of the world’s ice-free land, but produce just 1 per cent of the protein we eat. If the current patterns of economic growth and evolving diet continue, we will need another planet just to feed ourselves.
This has such profound implications for New Zealand I’ll address it in a separate column. For now, though, the difficult lesson in all this is that the age of looking at land primarily through an economic lens is coming to an end.
Rewilding, for the sake of everyone living downstream from plantation forests, and for the sake of planetary health and our own survival, is coming to the fore.
Russel Norman from Greenpeace made the closing address at the EDS conference.
“Ecology,” he said, “must be at the very centre of public policy for the rest of the century. Ecological sensibility must become common sense. Living within limits must become the norm. The idea of doing a bit more for economic reasons must become a laughable anachronism.”
He pointed out that ecology is redrawing the map of social conflict. “Some conflicts are lethal: The escalating murders of ecological activists in the global south. But most conflicts occur along the lines of greenwashing. All corporates have a green cloak and our job is to sort the genuine from the fake.”
Change won’t just happen, Norman said. People who want ecology at the heart of decision-making have to “build the social norms that underpin our idea of happiness”. That means “building the analysis, engaging with the political process to make change and never excusing bad behaviour”.
Gary Taylor announced that the next EDS conference, in September, will focus on Climate Change and Business and “will identify the real change agents and call out the greenwashers”. It can’t come soon enough.