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‘Massacre on the Maunga?’

by Toni Reid

It beggars belief that at this critical point in earth’s history when climate change is making its presence felt, Auckland city is set to lose thousands more trees.

We have already lost one third of our tree canopy between 2012 and 2017 according to Dr Mels Barton from the Tree Council. In the Waitematā Local Board area alone, a 2018 report recorded tree canopy loss of an area equivalent to 61 rugby fields over a decade. As our urban ngahere (forests) shrink, so does the amount of air cleaned by trees, the homes and food available for native fauna and of course a reduction in the all -important ability to store carbon. In some cases trees are being replanted but these tiny saplings can’t fulfil the same role as decades-old trees.

At the prestigious Yale University in the USA, environmental scientist William Moomaw says preserving mature forests is key to fighting climate change. Older trees sequester far more CO2 than immature trees; in fact the single largest thing on earth removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is forests. This is where Auckland Council’s Million Trees initiative falls down – just planting new trees is not enough. We need to protect those we already have.

At a time when we’re in danger of losing the iconic kauri from die back, funding has not been made available to combat it. Yet millions of dollars are earmarked to be spent removing huge numbers of exotics like oak trees, olive trees, cherry trees and Morton Bay figs from Auckland’s volcanic cones.

The majority are not diseased, dangerous or even ‘pest’ species; instead they have been classified as inappropriate by the Tūpuna Maunga Authority. The TMA are a statutory authority established under the collective redress act, composed 50/50 of representatives from Māori and the Auckland City Council, plus one crown representative. They intend to undertake a cultural restoration of the maunga, part of which entails replanting each cone with native plants, shrubs and trees. Whilst this is a laudable plan, the destruction of the existing forest canopy along with its ecosystem is harder to appreciate.

Using helicopters and cranes the TMA will denude Auckland’s maunga of nonindigenous greenery, leaving behind a multitude of plastic pots placed on top of the ground, containing native grasses, shrubs and trees. Perched on steep volcanic cones in the scorching sun, attrition would be high amongst the plants in the type of dry, hot conditions we are currently experiencing. It is known that succession planting practices can involve establishing native vegetation under the shade and shelter of existing vegetation and in fact this is already happening naturally on the maunga. You only have to look at Maungakiekie / One Tree Hill to realise how difficult it is to grow a tree on a bare volcanic cone. More than $20,000 is being spent in the hope of having a single native tree survive to replace the hardy old Monterey Pine which stood for 125 years.

Removing the majority of mature exotic trees is detrimental not only to the native birds, insects and reptiles which exist on the maunga but also to the public enjoyment of these spaces. It may be decades before the pleasant green covering of the maunga returns. A whole generation of children could miss out on the enjoyment of sitting under a shady giant on a hot summer’s day, listening to the native bird calls or walking the trails in the dappled light of a grove of trees.

Sadly, all of this destruction will be generously funded by you, the ratepayer, to the tune of around $80 million until mid-2020 when they are able to apply for more funding.

Opposing the loss of these treasured urban forests is community group Honour the Maunga who have mounted a round the clock watch on Ōwairaka/ Mt Albert to prevent tree felling operations. Some news stories have tried to frame HTM’s opposition to the TMA as a racial issue, ignoring the fact that members fully support the replanting of the maunga. The dispute lies only with removing hundreds of healthy mature trees at once, during a climate emergency. Accusations of racism divert attention away from the Treaty settlement which vested ownership of the maunga to a collective of 13 iwi / hapu on the basis that the maunga are held in trust for the common benefit of the iwi / hapū of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau and the other people of Auckland.

The ‘other people’ includes Māori who were not part of that Treaty settlement, as well as people from other ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, over at Half Moon Bay, Ōhuiarangi / Pigeon Mountain has become a barren wasteland since the Authority destroyed more than one hundred trees in April 2019. Now the area is a mass of dry grass, tree stumps, logs and dying plants in pots. Likewise Te Pane o Mataoho / Mangere Mountain has been similarly defiled. Ironically, as these trees were being cut down at huge expense, it was said families were sleeping in their cars at the base of the maunga. This is the Auckland of today in a microcosm – millions spent on projects of dubious value while some of the city’s less influential inhabitants lack basic human requirements.