< May 2024 newsletter

The Great Tree Massacre

Photo: Once was a magnificent Moreton Bay Fig

In July/August 2023 the Tūpuna Maunga Authority destroyed around 60 healthy mature trees on Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond. Their crime - they were not native. And it has said it is coming back for more.

The Authority applied for a non-notified resource consent to chop down 278 exotic trees on the maunga, nearly half of its entire forest canopy. Ōtāhuhu locals and people from the wider Auckland community say they are shocked at this devastation. Many of the trees have historical significance. The local community embarked on a beautification project in the late 1800s and early 1900s, planting a significant number of trees. As a result, Mt Richmond has the greatest variety of exotic trees of all the maunga (volcanic cones) of Auckland, many over 100 years old. Of particular significance are multiple examples of a variety of huge trees, many over 20 metres in height. This includes magnificent specimens of Elm, Moreton Bay Fig, and Oak.

The removal of non-native trees from Auckland’s maunga is part of what the Tūpuna Maunga Authority calls a ‘restoration’ plan. However, this has become a highly charged issue, so much so that local woman, Shirley Waru, leader of the community group ‘Respect Mt Richmond / Ōtāhuhu’, filed a judicial review claim in the High Court, challenging the Authority’s plan to cut down any more exotics on the maunga. 

This is the second judicial review initiated against the Tūpuna Maunga Authority and the Council in relation to the intention to rid Auckland’s maunga of non-native trees. The first review filed relates to the planned felling of 345 exotic trees from Ōwairaka Mount Albert, most of them also well-established. However, this was met with determined protest by locals. Despite given little warning about the impending tree cull, on the day scheduled for the tree felling to begin, 200 people turned up to Ōwairaka Mt Albert to save the trees by preventing tree-felling equipment from entering the site. This resulted in the formation of a group named ‘Honour the Maunga’, which maintained a presence day and night on the maunga for more than 800 days, until a judicial decision gave the trees a reprieve.

The judicial review went as far as the Court of Appeal, which found that the tree removal plan breached the Reserves Act and didn't carry out appropriate consultation with the public. It ruled that both the Tūpuna Maunga Authority and Auckland Council had acted unlawfully for not consulting the public when issuing a resource consent for cutting down the 354 non-native trees on Ōwairaka Mt Albert, particularly given the historical significance of some of the trees and the adverse effects on the environment of removing them. The Council’s decision to grant the resource consent to remove the exotic trees was accordingly also set aside.

The Tūpuna Maunga Authority plans to clear-fell all exotic trees on the 14 Auckland maunga under their control. This wholesale removal of exotics began in 2018. The first lot of trees felled under the Authority’s direction was a grove of 100-year-old olives on Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond. This was followed in 2019 with the removal of 150 trees from Māngere Mountain, 112 trees from Ōhuiarangi Pigeon Mountain, and the removal of 180 trees began on Maungarei Mt Wellington. The Auckland Council Senior Arborist said of the Mt Wellington Resource Consent application:

“I do not support the proposal to remove these trees from Maungarei for the reasons stated in the Application. There is no arboricultural reason to do so and I do not believe that the visual effects of the proposal can be dismissed as minor. I do not consider that the tree removals are in the interest of all of Auckland’s communities and generations to come. The proposal places no value on the European historical and cultural links with the site, which is documented as predominantly the planting of the existing trees (both exotic and indigenous)." 

Under the Authority’s plan, the trees are to be replaced with native vegetation. This has begun on some maunga, but most of the plants are ferns, grasses, flaxes, and low growing shrubs, many of them struggling to survive. Very few of the new plantings are trees that will achieve a height more than 5 m at maturity, which could take 50 - 80 years.

Honour the Maunga have made it clear they accept the Authority’s long-term vision to cloak the maunga in native plants. However, they do not support the environmentally destructive nature of the proposed process.

Waging utu on non-natives

The Authority has admitted that the priority is cultural not ecological restoration. According to operations manager Nick Turoa, the restoration plan [which includes the removal of exotic trees] is seen in the wider context of colonisation, land confiscations, and the alienation of Māori from their whenua and culture.

About Tūpuna Maunga Authority

The Tūpuna Maunga Authority was created as a co-governed entity under a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. It consists of six members from 'Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau' (a group of 13 iwi/hapu), six from the elected members of Auckland Council, and one Crown representative (without voting rights). The chairperson is elected by the iwi representatives, with the deputy chair elected by the Auckland Council appointees.

The Treaty settlement, the Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau Collective Redress Act 2014, vested ownership of 14 maunga in the collective on the basis that they are held in trust for the common benefit of those iwi/hapū and the other people of Auckland. The settlement required each maunga to be a reserve, under the Reserves Act 1977, which guarantees public access.

The Tūpuna Maunga Authority governs the maunga. It has decision-making powers and functions independent of Auckland Council. It is effectively outside the control of democratically elected representatives, making it unaccountable to the citizens of Auckland even though it is funded by the ratepayers. The council is responsible for routine management tasks which must be carried out under the direction of the Authority. It is also responsible for funding the capital works.

In theory the elected council appointees on the Authority are there to represent community voice, but in practice they mostly acquiesce to the wishes of the the representatives of ‘Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau.’ Under the legislation, the Authority must have regard to “the spiritual, ancestral, cultural, customary, and historical significance of the maunga to Nga Mana Whenua o Tamaki Makaurau”. But it also provides that the maunga are held “for the common benefit of Nga Mana Whenua o Tamaki Makaurau and the other people of Auckland”.  According to Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations when the Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau Collective Redress Act 2014 was passed, “This phrase was inserted to emphasise the legitimate ongoing interest of the broader community.  It was accepted that the community generally loved the maunga and no-one had a monopoly on care for the maunga. Sensitivity to the broader community’s aspirations is relevant”.

The trees aren’t out of the woods yet

The reprieve for the trees on Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond and Ōwairaka Mt Albert may well be temporary. Unless the Authority has a change of heart, the exotic trees on all 14 maunga are still in the firing line. The chainsaws could start up again at any time, without warning under a non-notified resource consent.


This article was first published by elocal magazine.

Go back to the May 2024 newsletter


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