The recent Chronicle story ("Council forestry sale gets OIO tick" — September 5) is good news for ratepayers, with the proceeds of the sale earmarked for paying off the city's wastewater treatment plant debt.

But we might now be in a much better financial position if our council of 100 years ago had followed up on advice received from the country's then top horticultural adviser.
Readers may recall my previous article (August 7), which documented the visit exactly a century ago of David Tannock, Dunedin's Superintendent of Gardens & Reserves.

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He had been invited here by the Wanganui Scenery Preservation & Beautifying Society to advise on how best to plant out our public reserves and waste grounds.

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Tannock began his career at Kew Gardens, London, and before taking up the Dunedin position in 1903 had been supervisor of the agricultural school at Dominica in the West Indies.

But he went far beyond his primary role of supervising gardens and reserves, proving himself to be a man who (to use a modern cliché) "thought outside the box".

Not only was he also a pioneering advocate of dedicated children's playgrounds aimed at producing strong, adventurous and well-balanced citizens, he encouraged local councils to plant trees — lots of them.

Perhaps he had been inspired by a thriving kauri he had planted in a region generally regarded as hostile to the species.

"Near his residence at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens," recorded the Wanganui Herald (April 29, 1913), "in a sheltered position, he has a younk [sic] kauri now 7ft high and doing well.

"Members of the Forestry Commission, when here, regarded this tree as one of the sights of Dunedin, since its presence shatters the common belief that the kauri will not thrive in the South Island."

So besides suggestions for our local populace on how to attract new residents, tourists and admiring comments by beautifying our scenic reserves, streets and private gardens, Tannock also had advice for our borough councillors of the day on how to fund the town's infrastructure — by afforestation.

He explained that Dunedin had a large area reserved for the city's water supply but, for obvious reasons, it could not be used for grazing cattle.

However, during heavy rains water poured down the hillsides in torrents, filling the reservoir with mud.

The council's solution was to plant out the area in trees which, in 15 years, would be thinned to provide firewood, mining props and scaffolding poles. Thinning would again be carried out intermittently, then in 30 to 40 years the trees would be felled.

"There was certainly a long time to wait for a forest," recorded the Chronicle (June 25, 1918). "But the improvement was always there. They could go on indefinitely.

"Under proper methods a crop would never be cut out. Some day they would pay off the whole of the debt of the Dominion by afforestation. Wanganui reserves were suitable for afforestation and a handsome return could be secured."

Today the Dunedin City Council's annual after-tax return to ratepayers of its forestry interests (which it has held since 1906) is around 6.8 per cent per annum.

Of course methods and markets have changed since 1918 — firewood, mining props and wooden scaffolding poles are no longer priorities for the forestry industry.

But we can only speculate on how much better the Whanganui District Council's balance sheets would look if Tannock's recommendations had been heeded when he first proposed them and not 60 years later.

Tannock has been described as a man of immense vision, his work permanently enhancing the status of horticulture in New Zealand. In the 1948 King's Birthday honours he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to horticulture.

He died in 1952 — appropriately near Kew Gardens — while holidaying in England.

Murray Crawford is a Whanganui author with an interest in local history. Newspaper references sourced from Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand.