Eco-sanctuary could be huge tourist attraction

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 10:02 19/01/2014

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Scrubby? Landcare Research ecologist and Travis Wetland Trust president Colin Meurk is taken aback at this description of New Zealand's native trees.

All right, he agrees, this baby matai might look like an unruly pile of twigs right now, and those adolescent totara and kahikatea are only spiky bronze bushes or spindly starveling pines at the moment. But come back in 100 years.

Christchurch loves its transplanted Englishness - its oaks, willows, chestnuts and poplars. However those foreign trees have had a good century to mature, Meurk protests. And natives can have their majesty too.

"In his diaries, Captain Cook wrote about coming ashore to find spars for his ship and finding the kahikatea forests inspirational - great, dark cathedral-like groves."

So, urges Meurk, just imagine this corner of Christchurch - the 100 hectares of the Travis Wetlands plus another 50ha of Crown-owned residential red zone leading down to the Avon - as a fenced-off, predator-free, eco-sanctuary, filled with stands of 30m to 40m trees and populated by kiwi, kakapo, saddlebacks, tuatara, jewelled geckos and other talismanic New Zealand wildlife.

The saplings we are looking at are only 10 or 15 years old. Their heads are just starting to poke shyly above the surrounding cabbage trees and they don't produce much in berries or nectar yet.

"But a fully-grown podocarp, a 100-year-old tree, is like a massive larder for the birds of the bush. It produces a tremendous crop." Oaks, chestnuts and other exotics drop food too. "However it's mostly dry fruit - acorns and nuts - good for rodents like squirrels and rats," says Meurk.

Yes, post-earthquake Christchurch is giving people a chance to dream and the Travis eco-sanctuary project, along with the Dallington water sports lake and New Brighton revitalisation plan, is emerging as one of three anchor projects - three citizen-inspired anchor projects - around which East Christchurch might be rebuilt.

Out of respect for home-owners still camped in broken red-zoned homes, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) is refusing to discuss the fate of the earthquake damaged Avon River suburbs until June, its deadline for people to move on.

But after that, decisions could follow quickly and so community groups know they need to be ready with some well-formulated suggestions on what the Crown should do with the land it will own.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee is keen to manage expectations. The Government is expected to want to claw back some of its costs if parts of the red-zone land can indeed be remediated and on-sold to developers. Ngai Tahu's property arm would be one with first right of refusal.

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Yet it is also election year. Brownlee is under increasing attack for the command and control approach to the central city rebuild. The Avon River Park concept - a corridor of recreational facilities and biodiversity stretching from the city to sea - offers a perfect chance to come at the recovery from the community up.

So a group of organisations, including Meurk's Travis Wetland Trust, the Avon Otakaro Network (AvON) and Ngai Tahu, along with representatives from Cera, Christchurch City Council (CCC), Environment Canterbury (ECan) and the Department of Conservation (DOC), have formed a working party to develop a feasibility study for a possible $6m eco-sanctuary. Meurk is understandably enthusiastic. He says Christchurch is the only big city without such a sanctuary - discounting tiny 7ha Riccarton Bush.

It would be a huge visitor attraction for East Christchurch, so economically valuable. It could be important to Christchurch's sense of identity, too, so socially valuable.

Meurk talks of the "extinction of experience", the lack of connection to an authentic New Zealand-ness, that comes from not living alongside our own indigenous wildlife. As a green nation and a bicultural nation, being able to see native forest and hear native birds inside the city would give Christchurch a new image in the eyes of the world.

And then in the really grand view, Meurk sees the eco-sanctuary as a stepping stone to the late Sir Paul Callaghan's vision of a predator-free New Zealand.

Meurk says as people discover the worth in conservation on their doorstep, the momentum could grow for a concerted eradication of rats and weasels, possums and feral cats.

"There is an economic argument that rather than spending millions of dollars every year forever to protect our endangered native species, we should just have a $1 billion effort to go predator free and solve the problem once and for all."

But hold up. It all sounds a nice thought, but what are the practicalities and what are the options? There are those who argue that fenced sanctuaries are in fact a big waste of money. And Travis Wetland is now even more of a wetland - exposed to the new flood threat because the land around the Avon has sunk.

So is there a danger here of sentiment ruling, the same rushing into a bright idea that appears to be bedevilling the central city and its Government blueprint-dictated anchor projects?

Meurk and ECan's representative on the joint working party, former Burwood-Pegasus councillor Chrissie Williams, are peering through the hatch in the bird watching shelter. Both have brought their long lenses.

What a crowd of paradise ducks on the lake, remarks Meurk. Many more than usual. Wonder why that is? And right by our heads a swallow lands to inspect us inquisitively before flitting back to its mud nest in the shelter's rafters.

Ducks and swallows. Familiar enough. But Meurk and Williams start to talk about what excites the wetland regulars. Meurk says early on - when Travis Wetland was first made a reserve in a trade-off to settle a consent battle with a developer - sighting a bell bird was a big deal. Today you come across them constantly.

The twitchers are waiting for a first tui now. Meurk says a breeding population in the Hinewai Reserve in Banks

Peninsula is spreading and has become common in Governors Bay, so it is only a matter of time.

Attempts to introduce brown teal at Travis failed - it could have been local cats or harriers that defeated them. "But we've had reports of bats here - that would be a real coup."

Then there is the lone oddball glossy ibis, a now regular Australian winter visitor. Wildlife photographer Grahame Ball has joined us in the shelter, bumping into us on his daily wander, and says a few others have turned up in Blenheim too, but "our" ibis - expected back any day - is easy to recognise.

"He does this funny kicking thing with his right leg," says Ball demonstrating the idiosyncrasy.

Meurk says this is the thing about Christchurch. Because of its English gardens and English wildlife - all the blackbirds and hedgehogs - there is a perception that it is a lost cause. Nothing much else to look at or save.

In fact the city exists within a national hotspot of biodiversity. When it comes to counts of different birds or plants, the variety of plains and coastal habitats in Canterbury means that local observers regularly win competitions like the 24 hour Birdathon.

"There're a lot of different native species here - but also, most of them are only just hanging on by their toenails," says Meurk.

I ask Ball what is one of his most exciting finds at Travis. Helophilus cingulatus he quickly replies. A particularly strange-looking hoverfly with a fuzzy black body and box-shaped head which he spotted emerging from a pond where it had been living as a tube-breathing maggot.

The type was almost unheard of and the identification conversation went on quite a while after he posted its picture on NatureWatch NZ. "But there's heaps of interesting stuff here," Ball says.

It seems Travis Wetland is already a wildlife success inside the city's boundaries. Even the cows that used to mow the pasture have now been replaced by heritage wild Campbell Island sheep, a feral rare breed recovered from halfway to Antarctica. So does it really need a sturdy high wire mesh fence wrapped around it next?

Meurk describes what the project team have in mind. The idea is to build an 8km fence around Travis Wetland and a block of about 800 red-zoned Burwood homes reaching down to New Brighton Road where it borders the river.

Meurk says combining the two parcels of land would be ideal as the wetlands are prone to flooding and the Burwood subdivision is already on raised ground. If silt is being dug out further up the Avon at Dallington to make the artificial rowing lake, this could be dumped in the eco-sanctuary to make a number of more small mounds as a refuge for wildlife.

Travis would not work as an eco-sanctuary just by itself says Meurk.

But he confesses there is also a big snag in that the wetlands and the red-zone are separated by Travis Road - State Highway 74. That is not going to go away so the eco-sanctuary would have to have a landscaped wildlife bridge built over the highway to connect its two halves.

Not an elegant solution and an extra cost both in terms of the longer fencing runs and the structures needed. However Meurk says it can be done. They build these kind of animal bridges over European motorways all the time.

Tackling another thorny issue of whether the eco-sanctuary might have to be partly self-funded, access by membership or entry fee, Meurk says the project team is very conscious the wetlands are public space and that there would be great resistance to it as a commercial venture.

There could be a special section as a paid tourist attraction he says. "And we could have concessions inside for a cafe. I don't see a problem with that." But Meurk says the eco-sanctuary ought to be viewed and funded as a city recreational asset much like a swimming pool.

After all, Christchurch has an aging population and there is an economic argument in providing healthy activity in the form of parks and walks - the sanctuary would be genteel recreation for babyboomers who no longer have the legs to strap on their backpacks and head up Arthurs Pass anymore.

So Meurk says it is about making choices while the opportunity is there. And at a time when the Government is pushing anchor projects in the central city like the stadium and convention centre which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a few tens of million of dollars for the Avon River Park anchor projects should seem like quite a bargain.

Yet will the proposal stack up under closer scrutiny? Already within the conservation world there are vocal critics of fenced sanctuaries like Canterbury Museum natural history curator Paul Scofield.

For obvious reasons, agrees Scofield, New Zealand has a fairly unique need for predator-proof wildlife sanctuaries. It is the one place on Earth most over-run by introduced species like rats and stoats which are wiping out its native fauna. So New Zealand is having to do a lot of pioneering on conservation methods.

However Scofield says when he helped research the "bang for buck" of eco-sanctuaries, only the island ark projects - the pest control programmes on off-shore islands like those in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf - seemed money well spent.

Scofield says New Zealand now has a number of high-profile fenced sanctuaries that were launched on rosy projections but have since been dogged by problems.

Best known is Wellington's 225ha Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, rebranded as Zealandia when it was turned into a tourist attraction in a bid to pay for its upkeep, yet now dubbed a financial black hole because it is costing Wellington City Council $700,000 a year to keep it going.

"Christchurch City Council is going to take one look at Karori and run a mile," predicts Scofield.

In terms of wildlife - especially with the halo effect, the way tuis and kereru are spilling over Zealandia's boundary into neighbouring Wellington suburbs - the sanctuary is a success. But the rash building of a lavish visitor centre is what is sinking its finances.

Scofield says Waikato's massive 3400ha Maungatautari Ecological Island - 47km of predator fencing around wooded hilltops in the middle of farmland - is another one struggling.

Again, it is meant to function as a paid attraction - $15 entry a head. But Maungatautari is too far off the beaten track and not getting the numbers. A stoush has developed with the farmers whose land is involved.

Christchurch could become another example of heart ruling head, Scofield warns. The capital outlay may seem modest. Perhaps Meurk's $6m would do it if the Government indeed give over the red-zone land for free. But then there is the upkeep. The fences need to be maintained and patrolled.

Being within an urban area, Travis would be especially prone to "eco-terrorists" - the nutters who throw cats over the fences just because they have a beef about conservation.

Meurk admits the electric wires along the top of the fences at Riccarton Bush are there more to keep the teenagers out at night than the possums.

So the annual operating budget could be considerable says Scofield. And then there is the hidden cost of depreciation - often overlooked when such projects get discussed.

Scofield says people claim the fences will last 50 years when 25 is more realistic. So the expense of eventual replacement has to be included if the proposal is to be financially responsible. It is too easy to launch into a sanctuary knowing full-well that once it is established - like Karori - it will be hard for anyone later to close it down.

There is a still sharper criticism of the eco-sanctuary says Scofield. Simply put, why Travis Wetland? From a strict conservation point of view, it is a rather randomly chosen site. There just happens to be a reserve and some abandoned suburbs.

Scofield says the country's conservation budget is limited and if the money were being spent as a regional decision, it ought to go on something like the protection of a braided river ecosystem, the orange-fronted parakeets of Hawarden Gorge, or Lake Ellesmere.

An urban fenced reserve with kiwis and tuatara running about might be a wonderful thing to have - he would go - but it is not the same as saving a real endangered habitat.

"Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is an internationally significant wetland with badly degraded margins. It could be the conservation jewel in Canterbury's crown. So I would be sad if the eco-sanctuary got funded and Lake Ellesmere was left to rot."

However Scofield adds that while the conservation experts are going to take this hard-nosed view, there are of course the other considerations. In terms of an anchor project for a recovering East Christchurch - the recreation, tourism, and even the conservation education arguments - the community might well decide this is exactly what should happen.

"If we are judging these things like a Pioneer Pool or QEII - as a public facility - then it becomes a very different story," says Scofield.

The Travis eco-sanctuary is far from a done deal agrees Evan Smith of the Avon Otakaro Network, the community group acting as a clearing house for the various river park projects. But it certainly fits with the general vision that has developed.

Smith says the red-zone river corridor has become a jigsaw of proposals large and small. The plan is to firm them all up over the next few months and let them be judged on their respective merits.

The artificial rowing lake - a rectangular pit dug parallel to the Avon on the far side of Kerrs Reach - has become a choice between going for a full 2km Olympic scale course, which is likely to be too dominating for the area, or a half-course that would still be quite good enough for elite rowing training and international competitions for other codes like canoeists.

Smith says there is the suggestion the cash difference could be spent on a second small artificial white water course for rafting and kayaks, modelled on the $12m Olympic facility in Penrith, Sydney.

So some exciting possibilities are shaking down there he says. And Brownlee has already signalled his enthusiasm. The current problem is mostly the usual one of getting a collection of rival sports to agree a sound compromise.

Then, says Smith, the revitalisation of New Brighton is also forging ahead as a community-led anchor project. Smith says he has seen a culture change at Cera and CCC where officials have started working closely with locals on some adventurous ideas.

New Brighton of course is facing the long-term problem of climate change-created sea level rise. Why invest money in a suburb that may eventually be washed away?

But Smith says a group of young designers, like Jason Mill of Pivnice Architecture, are coming up with concept plans that would make New Brighton sustainable for at least the next 100 years.

"The kind of thing Jason is looking at is building two to three stories, but having that bottom story as sacrificial space - car parking or container stores that you can quickly pull out and take away if there's a storm surge coming."

Smith says a lot of energy has gone into rethinking New Brighton and it is now the best developed of the three big projects. But as he says, the river park is jigsaw of community ambitions.

There are the many smaller projects like a heritage orchard - the saving of the garden of an old homestead so in a few years it can become a river walk cafe - or Ngai Tahu's Mahinga Kai project in the Anzac Drive reserve, aimed at restoring a whitebait breeding ground.

And the eco-sanctuary is gearing for public feedback. It has a solid team behind it. DoC is promising money for a full feasibility study. People are doing their homework.

Smith says no doubt there will be arguments both ways on the sanctuary's merits. But the healthy thing is that the Avon River Park anchor projects will develop from open public debate, not from rushed closed door discussions as has been the case for much of the recovery so far. So a good news story with which to start 2014.

- The Press

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