Clear call for action on wilding invasion

Wilding conifers are spreading fast across North Otago's Quailburn Station.
ROB TIPA

Wilding conifers are spreading fast across North Otago's Quailburn Station.

Much of Otago is under threat from the spread of conifers, and the Otago Regional Council has been given a clear message from residents that it should take a more active role in controlling the problem.

 The wilding conifer invasion, especially in inland parts of the province, poses a significant threat to the tourism industry regionally and nationally. Experts estimate more than 300,000 hectares of land in the region have some wilding infestation and that figure is likely to triple to 900,000 hectares in the next 20 years if nothing is done. 

If left uncontrolled, wilding pines are predicted to spread across 20 per cent of the country within two decades, at a cost to the economy of more than $1.2 billion.

The Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago districts have active wilding conifer control groups operating already with the Wakatipu Wilding Control Management Group, a charitable trust, now spending more than $1 million a year on control operations around Queenstown alone.

Most respondents - 93 per cent - to a recent online survey conducted by the Otago Regional Council (ORC) were concerned about the issue and its impacts on the region.

The top three issues identified by respondents were loss of scenic landscapes, damage to environmentally sensitive areas and reduced water availability in rivers.

They want the council to support the work of community groups already actively controlling the spread of wilding conifers.

ORC chairman Stephen Woodhead said he was pleased with the public response to the survey and the very clear message it had given the council.

The survey, completed by 589 respondents, closed on January 22. The largest number of responses came from the Queenstown Lakes District (277), followed by Dunedin City (132), Central Otago District (128), Waitaki District (23) and Clutha District (15).

Asked how important it was to reduce the spread of wilding conifers across Otago landscapes, only 6 per cent of respondents thought it was not important.

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Woodhead said the council was unlikely to be directly involved in wilding control but would consider supporting existing groups, and in some cases funding new groups to cover a wider area.

The council had not yet considered the scale of likely funding but a draft annual plan workshop would decide the direction the council would take and how it would fund it.

"This preliminary feedback is useful as we consider whether to propose funding for community-based wilding conifer management projects in our draft 2016-17 Annual Plan and develop options for public consultation," he said.

Woodhead said people would be able to comment on the issue and any proposed options through the annual plan submission process. A draft plan consultation document will be publicly available from late March and submissions will close on May 2.

Grant Hensman, co-chairman of the Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Management Group, said he was delighted with the strong support for wilding control but added he was not surprised considering the groundswell of public concern.

The charitable trust has an annual operating budget of $1.4m. It has lobbied the Otago Regional Council for funding for the last five years and will again be asking it for a contribution of 10 per cent of its budget this year.

Hensman said the Queenstown Lakes District Council had contributed about $330,000 annually to the group's control efforts and was looking to increase that funding to $500,000 in its long-term plan.

"They are doing a great job," he said. "They recognise the problem and know that unless they get behind it we're going to get beaten."

"We think that unless this is elevated to a national issue and the Crown gets behind it, ultimately we will all lose this battle," Hensman said. "It is a national problem and seeds don't respect boundaries; they go from Otago to Canterbury to Marlborough. It has to become a national issue and it has to be addressed at that level.

"You can talk and do all the surveys you like, but unless we actually spend the money, the problems just grow. Every year it gets bigger."

In September the Minister of Conservation, Maggie Barry, told the Otago Regional Council to "step up to the plate" and take action on wilding trees.

Speaking at the launch of a community programme for controlling wilding conifers on the slopes above Queenstown, Barry said the regional council was "dragging the chain" and warned the Government would take further measures if it and other councils failed to take action.

"The time for sitting back and waiting for miracles to occur has long passed," she said at the time.

Woodhead rejected the minister's suggestion that the ORC was "dragging the chain" saying a co-ordinated regional and national approach was required while it was still possible to contain the spread of wilding conifers.

He said the bulk of the problems with wilding spread started on Crown land and the council believed the Crown was a key player in controlling that spread, working alongside regional and district councils.

"It's a national problem and we would like to see the Minister of Conservation and her colleagues commit some funding to it nationally," he said.

The Ministry for Primary Industries launched a National Wilding Conifer Management Strategy in late 2014 with a vision to plant "the right tree in the right place." Its goal is to prevent the spread of wilding conifers by containing or eradicating established areas by 2030.

The strategy has the backing of a wide range of parties including forestry and farming industries, the Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand, the Defence Force and regional and district councils.

The group says wilding conifers are changing iconic high country landscapes, altering ecosystems and displacing native vegetation. They can reduce water yields in sensitive catchments, reduce grazing land, limit land use options and cause damaging wild fires.

Forestry experts estimate 6 per cent (1.7 million hectares) of the country's total land area is already affected by wilding conifers and their spread is increasing at a compounding rate of 5-6 per cent annually. At current rates, that spread equates to an increase of 90,000 hectares a year.

Six species most prone to spreading are Pinus contorta and Douglas fir, followed by Scots pine, dwarf mountain pine, Corsican pine and European larch. All have small seeds which can be wind-blown considerable distances.

The other two common wilding species are ponderosa pine and Pinus radiata which carry a larger seed and therefore pose a reduced risk of spread by wind drift.

All of these species were planted extensively for their shelter or landscape values, for research purposes, erosion control and production forestry up until the mid-1900s.

Since then, Pinus radiata and Douglas fir have emerged as the preferred species for production forestry, with Douglas fir the species causing the most concern on inland high country sites.

Experts agree if action is delayed, the impact and costs of control will increase exponentially as infestations increase in scale.

 - Stuff

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