To the island: A burning love

DRASTIC ACTION: Will Scarlett says he burnt down a lodge on Motu Kaikoura to further his goal of seeing the island become a haven for native flora and fauna.
DRASTIC ACTION: Will Scarlett says he burnt down a lodge on Motu Kaikoura to further his goal of seeing the island become a haven for native flora and fauna.

I didn't  tell anyone," says John "Will" Scarlett, carefully recounting his actions on October 7, 2013. "I didn't even tell my family. I discussed it with no-one."

He sailed the short distance from his home at Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier Island to the island reserve of Motu Kaikoura, where for seven years he had been the caretaker.

He took photographs of the island's main lodge. He stayed the night, to ensure the island was deserted. At 4am he rose, moved the equipment clear of the lodge and damped the ground around.

He had chosen a time in early spring where it would still be cold and the dew heavy. Then, using a five-litre can of diesel he had brought with him, he set a fire, and watched the lodge burn down.

At 7am, he sailed back home, phoned the police and rural fire brigade, and waited patiently for seven hours for his arrest.

Facing up to 14 years imprisonment for arson, he offered an immediate guilty plea. He plans to accept, without appeal, whatever sentence he receives.

Will Scarlett had served on his community board, chaired the local branch of Forest and Bird, led marine conservation groups and a rural fire crew, worked for the New Zealand Forest Service and been the chief Department of Conservation ranger on Little Barrier Island.

So what drove such a prominent community leader to commit such an uncharacteristic crime?

Motu Kaikoura, the seventh largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, was owned by Americans until it was bought in 2005 with $10.7 million raised from local councils, the Crown and the ASB Community Trust, designated a scenic reserve, and placed in the control of a trust.

Trustee and Unitec ecology lecturer Mel Galbraith once described the island as one where feral deer and rats had left a near-ruined ecosystem; Scarlett said it was "pretty trashed".

Having seen a previous purchase attempt falter, Scarlett was elated by the sale and immediately accepted the offer of a job as caretaker - even though, he says, they couldn't afford to pay him for the first seven months, when he squatted on the island and lived off rice, mussels and fish.

But he was frustrated that his enthusiastic plans for volunteer plantings, installing penguin boxes and introducing kiwi were rebuffed.

He calls the trust's strategy "do nothing". Trust chair Harry Doig said they decided not to run the sort of programmes seen on other regenerating islands, like Tiritiri Matangi, near Auckland. Instead, it saw Motu Kaikoura having a "point of difference [which was] to regenerate naturally without intervention".

The approach seems almost like a science experiment. Galbraith once told Radio New Zealand: "If we remove the constraints, like the mammal predators, what will happen if it is just left? It's quite an interesting wait and see."

To Scarlett, the volunteer trust board were simply ignoring the local community, to which he feels well connected. Doig admits there have been no locals on the board since the death in 2011 of Tony Bouzaid and, since meetings are held in Auckland, it would be hard for any to join.

It was the first of a long list of clashes between the trust and its only employee. Scarlett said it felt like "seven years of repeating myself".

They disagreed on rat eradication tactics (rats reinvaded two years ago), the health and safety plan (Scarlett claims there was none), and sharing the management plan with the community.

Doig says: "There was a tendency for Will to forget he was a contractor to the trust rather than a trustee, or even manager of the island . . . he has some strong views and he thinks his views are more important than anyone else's".

Yes, says Scarlett, "I must admit I was poking them with a big stick . . . I was getting a bit short with them [by the end], I said ‘Harry, it's not about you and your community, it is about our community out here'."

Despite all this, Doig says Scarlett was a good worker right until he was made redundant, partly for financial reasons, in 2012.

"We understand someone who lives alone is likely to be, let's say, a strong character, so the trust took the good with the bad and for the vast majority of the time, the relationship was pretty good." Scarlett says by the time his contract ended he was ready to retire - he was not simply an embittered former employee.

A year passed.

But Scarlett's deep frustrations - which actually date back to the early 1990s, when plans for a Great Barrier marine reserve faltered for a second time and began his enmity for DOC - finally reached tipping point over fishing.

One well-connected Barrier local says Scarlett had a deep dislike of fishing and would act as a self-appointed policeman of local fishing.

"Whenever it was discussed, I said to the chairman, ‘my community is not going to sit around and see this become a fishing lodge,' " Scarlett says. " ‘You must write a policy to say that fishing is not the main reason for people staying in this lodge'. They must have got sick of me saying it. I didn't want to see one of our ecosystems taxed to pay for another. But this was typical of them: they didn't listen."

He was in Australia when he heard a fishing competition had been held at the island. He says he received first-hand reports of rubbish left on the foreshore and fish dumped off the wharf. His complaints, he says, went unheeded.

Doig, carefully, says no, they didn't actually run a fishing competition; they merely allowed competitors in one to use the jetty and a few to stay over at the lodge.

Simultaneously, a Massey PhD student who regularly stayed at the island doing dolphin research wasn't allowed to stay at the lodge on one trip because of issues over security.

This angered Scarlett, although the student, Sarah Dwyer, says Scarlett didn't get the full story and she has no quibbles. But to Scarlett, turning Dwyer away and letting fishermen in, "reeked of greed". So when he got wind of a second fishing contest, he felt he had to "make a statement".

"I hold these people responsible, every bloody one of them. I had no other choice . . . [but] I am satisfied there will be no more fishing competitions there."

Scarlett felt he had plenty of support on Great Barrier Island. But by setting fire to the lodge, he may have lost most of it.

"I sympathise with the cause. I can understand it [being against fishing]," says the chair of the local community board, Izzy Fordham.

"But I cannot understand the actions. He lost us with the arson. It's a pretty heavy duty thing to do, you know? I agree with his thinking and logics and principles but it's a pretty heavy thing to do."

Another Barrier local says some are now worried about copycat episodes if Scarlett's actions are glorified, and agrees while he had support, most think his actions were "irresponsible and potentially harmful to the Barrier as a whole".

Many feel sorry that Scarlett's record in conservation issues is now tainted. Auckland councillor Mike Lee, who fought several conservation battles alongside him, says: "We all have strong feelings about things, but if we all reacted this way most of Auckland would be burned down now. It just seems a very disproportionate action.

:I'm very, very disappointed what has happened. Will is a person of very strong views but he does have integrity and what I think is he's let himself down more than anyone else really. He seems to have become embittered, which is a sad thing to happen because he has so much to offer. I don't think he realises the gravity of what he's done."

Doig, meanwhile, says he is absolutely exasperated. "The anguish and extra work he has put us to is extremely annoying."

The island's initial funding was running out anyway, and they need $100,000 a year to run it. Actually, he says, if any benefactors reading this story feel moved to help out, he'd be delighted to hear from them.

Insurance money will mostly, but not entirely, pay for a new lodge (Scarlett contests that it was an over-insured "dump" - mouldy, damp, leaking and poorly-wired. This is why he took photos). It's unlikely they will see any money from Scarlett: while he's been told to pay reparations of $286,000, he's on a pension and owns nothing.

That doesn't amuse Doig. "He must have something to contribute?" he asks.

S CARLETT WAS in Auckland last week for a six-monthly checkup on his heart (he had a stroke last year). His next trip to the mainland will be on February 17 when, at 2.30pm, he will reappear in the district court for sentencing.

Through choice, he has no lawyer. He has a statement ready to read, although he knows the judge doesn't have to hear him. "When I decided to do it, I thought ‘take your punishment like a man'," he says stoutly.

"As I told my kids afterwards, I am prepared to go to jail for this. I hope I don't, but I am."

Sunday Star Times