Kauri stand tall but for how long?

BEASTLY: The rubbish in Russell Forest detracts from its beauty.
BEASTLY: The rubbish in Russell Forest detracts from its beauty.

Maori and environmentalists fear Russell Forest in the Bay of Islands is under threat from pests and mining. Kim Knight investigates the fight to save one of the world's last kauri forests. 

In an unremarkable business centre near a Bunnings store and a drive-through coffee shop in suburban Perth, a mining company has its sights set on Northland.

Three mineral exploration permits - covering 145 square kilometres of land centred just south of Russell - are held by Subiaco-based De Grey Mining Ltd.

BEAUTY: The kauri in Russell Forest are impressive
BEAUTY: The kauri in Russell Forest are impressive

It's a company that, in its most recent half-yearly statement, announced accumulated losses of $44.3m, equity of just under $500,000 and withdrawal from Argentina where the bulk of its interests lie.

The light at the end of this belt-tightening tunnel? Northland. Where, according to that half-yearly report: "The company continues to explore means of advancing its interests."

There's gold - and maybe silver, copper, lead and zinc - in that there conservation land.

De Grey's Northland permits include a tract purchased in 2012 from another mining company, and two adjacent blocks granted late last year by Government. All three permits encroach on Department of Conservation-administered estate. One takes in the entirety of Russell Forest.

Never heard of it? Dean Baigent-Mercer, Forest & Bird's Far North branch chairperson, is not surprised.

"This is a forgotten forest. The Government has washed its hands of it totally. They're contemptuous of the forest. They're happy to sacrifice one of the last remaining kauri forests in the world for a mineral exploration permit."

Russell Forest was officially established in 1984. It's a conglomeration of properties mostly purchased (and sometimes taken in lieu of rates arrears) from local Maori, for "scenic preservation and kauri regeneration". In 2005, a DOC report defined it as a "large forest supporting a high diversity of biota" containing 26 threatened plant and animal species, including king fern and kiwi.

Two weeks ago, the Sunday Star-Times drove the gravel road from Russell that runs to the east of the forest. At midday, in full sun, it was horror-movie quiet. Something sleek and grey - a rat? A feral cat? - skittered into the bush. At one vantage point the stench from an illegal rubbish dump sent us back to the car.

We saw thick, round kauri trunks, fantail and kukupa, the Northland Maori name for the native wood pigeon. Between 1979-93, an 80 per cent decline in this bird, preyed on by poachers, rats and possums, was recorded in Russell Forest.

Tree trunks are stripped of bark and gouged asphalt-smooth by possum claws. Light-green blobs in the vista mark one-time forest giants that are now dead wood, their leaves eaten by pests and their branches reclaimed by lichen.

"It's nice having lichens. It looks lovely," says Baigent-Mercer. "But it's actually an indicator that the forest is really sick."

He says "the reason this forest is falling apart is people. Ingrained attitudes, stuff-ups . . . and a whole generation has come along, an online generation, and people have become more and more separated from nature and what it's like to have a relationship with a living forest and as the forest had died, it means people's relationship with it is even less. This used to be the supermarket, the pharmacy, for the local people."

Baigent-Mercer says Government agencies, hapu and private landowners need to come together to save the forest.

"There is only 1 per cent of [original] kauri forest left in the world, so every bit needs to be looked after. These areas are for protecting kauri forests, before, during and after our lifetimes, [but] have been undermined by Government mineral block offers. Who would have ever thought that DOC land, land that's protected for conservation, would be subject to that?"

This forest's future is being fought on multiple fronts.

There is concern about the lack of pest control. Fears any discovery of gold and silver could lead to toxic waste-producing mines in an area where waterways run to oyster beds and Bay of Islands beaches.

It is also subject to a Waitangi Tribunal claim. Te Kapotai hapu wants Russell Forest returned to Maori. Paragraph 419 of the hapu's claim reads: "We are seeking the return of this whenua and an apology for the prejudice we have suffered."

In Northland, we were told De Grey Mining could expect strong opposition. "The locking of gates, probably machinery being tampered with . . ."

How prepared for protest is this company? The phone number listed on De Grey's website rings and rings. A call centre eventually provides a mobile contact for executive chairman Peter Batten. He doesn't want to speak and emailed questions go unanswered.

In 2010, New Zealand took to the street to protest mining on conservation land after the Government re-opened debate about mineral exploration in national parks. The subsequent backdown was lauded as a victory: an assurance of zero mineral exploration on Schedule 4 conservation land.

Today, that means protection of national parks and World Heritage Areas. But it can't save Russell Forest - or the remaining two-thirds of Department of Conservation estate that does not have Schedule 4 status.

When did we start mining conservation land?

Sefton Darby, New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals national manager minerals, says that goes back more than a 100 years.

"There was gold mining on the West Coast, Otago and Hauraki regions in the 19th century . . . ‘conservation land' came into existence with the Conservation Act 1987."

Some 626 prospecting, exploration and mining permits now overlap conservation land.

"The vast majority are for very small operations, like alluvial gold and hobby/recreation permits. These typically involve no more than a few people."

Darby says only a small proportion of prospecting or exploration permits become active mining operations and the granting of permits does not guarantee land access.

"A permit holder needs a land access with the land holder - DOC, in the case of conservation land. The department could decline an arrangement or grant it with stringent conditions to minimise any environmental impacts."

So far, De Grey Mining has requested access to only one of its three Northland permit areas and there are no current "live" requests.

DOC confirmed it allowed two to three personnel to enter Russell Forest on foot last March and May, and use only hand tools to carry out their work - taking 1kg to 2kg rock chip samples, sieving sand and silt from streams and photographing geological features.

That foray into land at the southern end of De Grey's permits, galvanised protest from local hapu Ngati Hau and the Puhipuhi Mining Action Group, which organised a two-hour blockade of State Highway One.

Darby: "Just because a permit holder is exploring for minerals does not necessarily mean a resource will be found or that it will be . . . viable to mine."

Northland was opened up for mining in a 2012 block offer, following an aerial magnetic survey funded by the then Ministry of Economic Development, Northland Regional Council and Far North District Council, on behalf of an organisation called Explore Northland Minerals, a subgroup of regional economic development body Northland Inc.

The latter says the region has a geological history spanning more than 250 million years "that has endowed it with a wide variety of mineral deposits".

"We don't want toxic mining here," says Baigent-Mercer. "To do the exploration, if they drill core samples, they'll be drilling through some of the largest mercury beds in the country. That's part of the relationship between gold and silver in Northland."

He describes the process: "To get the gold out of these ancient volcanoes, you have to excavate. You take out the rock, you crush it to a powder and you mix that with cyanide and water. It's a chemical reaction that brings out the gold and silver, but it also brings out all the other heavy metals - mercury, cadmium, arsenic, to name a few. Conservatively, for one gold ring, you end up with 18 tonnes of toxic waste."

But is it worth saving a forest so obviously already blighted by pests?

DOC knows this land is in trouble. Chris Jenkins, northern North Island director of conservation services says the department treats Russell and the adjoining Ngaiotonga Forest as one large native forest covering 8100 hectares.

"Rangers are doing ground hunting in Russell and Ngaitonga forests to eradicate sika deer that were released illegally in the forest. Sika deer strip leaves from native plants and trees, and we're very close to removing this destructive pest from the forest. We've also reduced goat numbers to the point where there are only a handful left."

Jenkins argues, "we're not seeing the level of damage by possums to the forest canopy in Russell and Ngaiotonga as we are seeing in some other native forest in New Zealand. We believe this is because these forests have a high percentage of trees that are not palatable to possums, such as kauri."

He references no specific possum control but says the department wants to work with iwi, other local land owners, the local community and Forest and Bird to "reduce the number of possums, rats and stoats".

Why not just let mining companies find the precious minerals in this forest and boost the economy of a region where unemployment is the highest and the average household income is the lowest in the country?

"I do wonder if that was the original intent of acquiring all that land," says Willow-Jean Prime, Te Kapotai treaty claims spokesperson and Waikare Marae trustees chair. "The Crown were aware of minerals being there from the early 1900s. They even issued early permits for exploration in the 1900s, for gold and other valuable minerals. We wonder whether that's what their intention was, and we raised that in [Treaty claim] evidence. Why were they so aggressively trying to acquire that land?"

This 31-year-old lawyer, who is also a Far North District councillor and Labour Party candidate for Northland says, simply: "The forest is dying."

Think kauri, think Tane Mahuta, the estimated 2000-year-old giant of Northland's Waipoua Forest. But Prime puts a case for the trees of Russell Forest. "What we do know from earlier studies is that we have the highest number of regenerating kauri trees in all of New Zealand, in that special place."

She refers to the loss this land - which also contains wahi tapu, or sites of sacred significance to Maori - as "takings" which began around 1913.

"They had quite an aggressive campaign to buy up all the land . . . share by share, piece by piece, from the hapu and individuals.

"We believe it should be kept as a reserve. We're happy for it to stay as a reserve but we believe it should be returned to hapu ownership and management.

"We have had a relationship with DOC in the past but it's not been an enduring one and funding has always been an issue for them."

Te Kapotai's Waikare Marae sits just outside the northern end of the De Greys permit area. The hapu's historical involvement with the Crown is brutal. In 1845, following Hone Heke's fourth attack on the Russell flagstaff, its pa was one of those marked for destruction.

"The Crown ordered the annihilation of Te Kapotai," recounts Prime. "They came up the Waikare Inlet and their orders were to kill all of the natives. So they attacked the pa and they destroyed everything . . . they burned the whare, they dug up all the food, they killed all of the stock and this was in May, heading into winter.

"After that, the people lived in fear. If you didn't obey what the Crown said, you risked them coming to kill you, to destroy and take everything you had. We were labelled rebels."

In that climate, says Prime, and with subsequent generations poor and desperate, it was easy for the Crown to take the land that became Russell Forest.

Surrounding land that has been retained in Maori ownership is protected through a voluntary Nga Whenua Rahui covenant. But Prime says her hapu also has a responsibility to the DOC-managed forest. "We've always lived there. But then we can't go in and actively manage it because it's somebody else's, we've got to get permission."

She's heading to Auckland for meetings and politicking and more meetings after this interview in Paihia where the sun is making the ocean sparkle and the Bay of Islands' reputation as a tourist mecca is easily justified.

What does Russell Forest mean to her?

"Well - it is me. And sometimes that's a hard thing for people to understand. I just happen to be alive in this generation and it's my responsibility to look after it, so it continues to provide for the current and future generations.

"What is so amazing and inspirational, when you read the evidence, is how hard those before me fought to protect what we had. It actually provides the sustenance for the people that are living there, they eat from it, they eat from the river, the inlet.

''It really is our food basket. But beyond that, it's our identity. It's where my ancestors' bones are buried, and it's all those stories and connections that we have to it."

She's speaking quite quietly. There's no sense of a grandstand or a script. She finishes. "Hmmm."

Sunday Star Times