Opotiki residents are uniting against a proposal to close the local Department of Conservation area office, saying it would undermine crucial conservation projects and negatively affect the community and iwi.
In the past two weeks, 1500 people have signed a council petition protesting against the plan, which would involve DoC splitting the Opotiki district between two neighbouring conservancies and moving the area office to Whakatane.
Eighty per cent of the area is nativevegetation and locals believe protecting the diverse wildlife involves working closely with DoC staff.
"Conservation's really, really important to us in Opotiki, really important," Mayor John Forbes said.
"If we want to maintain and look after the blue duck and kokako and the kiwi, the best way is to do it together."
Mr Forbes said DoC had been a presence in the town for decades, and the area office staff worked with young people and iwi on projects such as monitoring native bird populations and creating "inland islands" to clear land of predators and rejuvenate rare plant species.
"These things, with bad relationships, will fall apart. [What's] going to suffer at the end of the day is indigenous flora and fauna."
DoC's Opotiki area office has 14 staff. Under the plan, a smaller office at Murupara would also close and move to Whakatane.
DoC says the proposal is designed to improve efficiency by grouping staff in one office to enhance management and ultimately make conservation projects more effective.
"It's not about pulling out from the work," said North Island general manager Barbara Browne. "It's simply where we position our staff."
She said the location of an office was of limited importance when most staff were out in the field, but locals argue the plan ignores Opotiki's central location in relation to conservation estates and the extra distance DoC officers living in Opotiki will have to travel.
"What is proposed does not make sense, either fiscally or practically," said Jane Allen in the Opotiki News.
Opotiki District Council chief executive Vaughan Payne said the council received no rates from DoC land and removing the area office was "a kick in the guts for small rural communities where around 70 per cent of our district is administered by the department".
He said some DoC tracks were already suffering from neglect, and, if anything, more investment in the district was needed.
Treaty settlements were also an issue because little crown land was available for return, making the conservation estates important to iwi in negotiations.
"It's premature for the department to be looking at shifting resources away from the area when they actually may need to increase their local capacity as a result of these settlements."
Green Party candidate Catherine Delahunty feared people struggling with high petrol prices would have to travel further to get hunting permits if the area office closed.
But DoC acting area manager Fiona Hennessey said it was possible arrangements would be made for other places, such as sports stores, to sell hunting permits, and she also stressed that DoC's work in the district would not change.
"The staff will still be going into the hills in the same location, at the same times, to do the work because the work won't be disappearing."
* Opotiki locals oppose a DoC proposal to split their district between the Bay of Plenty and East Coast/Hawkes Bay conservancies and move DoC's area office to Whakatane.
* They fear conservation projects will suffer when 52 per cent of the Opotiki district is DoC land and a further 20 per cent is Nga Whenua Rahui, or Maori land administered by the department for conservation purposes.