Islands in the storm

Last updated 12:05 24/11/2012

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There's not much left of native habitat in Waikato. Aaron Leaman looks at a scheme to preserve the fragments left. 

To Derek March's eyes, the ghosts of the Hauraki Plains are beautiful.

Standing tall, their irregular forms contradict the uniform, grid-like farmland that surrounds them.

The lucky ones find solace together, their vast outlines merging and embracing each other.

The unlucky ones stand alone, exposed to the rain and the wind that blows across the plains.

It was about five years ago when March, a West Auckland-based artist, first noticed the Hauraki Plain's century-old kahikatea, his aesthetically attuned eye attracted to their "feral" shapes.

During the next three years, March returned to study and photograph the trees.

"When I'm travelling, I always look for signs of the past," says March.

"These trees would have been seedlings when kahikatea were cleared from the plains about 100 years ago. Thanks to some sort of miracle, these little pockets have been left behind."

Many travellers through the plains would be oblivious to the trees and their fight for survival, he says.

To him, their existence is a source of inspiration and sadness.

"They're a link to a past that's almost been lost, a ghostly apparition of what was. Because they're so isolated, they can't support permanent bird or insect populations, so they represent a sad story. Kahikatea can live for hundreds of years, but many in the plains are very exposed to the elements. If nothing happens, they are going to disappear, so they might as well be ghosts now."

The tragic loss and erosion of indigenous fauna and flora is a tale repeated across New Zealand.

Today, more than 3800 terrestrial, freshwater and marine species are listed as threatened.

In Waikato, 30 per cent of the region's native habitat remains, while 223 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.

The region's native vegetation is fragmented into thousands of patches, the majority smaller than 25 hectares.

Waikato Regional Council natural heritage programme manager Kevin Collins talks about tipping points.

The rate of species loss intensifies once an ecosystem is reduced to less than 20 per cent of its natural extent.

"As the amount of habitat decreases, the species that can survive start to decline as well," says Collins.

In Waikato, 66 per cent of the area has less than 30 per cent of its indigenous habitat remaining and is "over the cliff".

"About 30 per cent is the critical average for many plant and animal species in New Zealand. After that, they start to slide over the cliff and it very hard for them to survive."

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A key threat to biodiversity is "habitation isolation", which is bad news for a region whose native vegetation is fragmented.

The solution, ecologists argue, is to develop links or connections between habitats, helping species to survive and move, and ecosystems to connect.

Confronted with this picture, the regional council has embarked on the Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) project.

Started five years ago, the project aims to identify, protect and connect the region's scattered native habitat on public and private land. The regional council has set a 10-year goal of having voluntary restoration plans in place with landowners at 100 sites across the region.

But while some argue that the project is about safeguarding Waikato's indigenous habitats, others say the SNA process is the beginnings of a modern-day land grab.

As part of the project, the regional council has passed on data to district councils highlighting possible SNAs.

In response, some councils have hired ecologists to "ground truth" the sites to see whether they meet SNA criteria.

Collins says a lot of people want our national habitat protected and the first step is to identify the places where native ecosystems exist.

He says the SNA process helps councils know what vegetation and habitat remain.

"As with most things and resources, if you don't know what condition they're in and where they are, it's hard to make any meaningful decisions about them.

"[There is] no way we can meet Resource Management Act requirements or community expectations without first knowing what is left and where those places are."

But for those who see the benefits of mapping the region's native habitats, there are those who stand vehemently opposed, fearful of what it could mean to have an SNA identified on their properties.

These landowners see council interest in SNAs as an invasion of their land and privacy.

Nowhere is opposition to the SNAs project more acute than on the Coromandel Peninsula, where aggrieved landowners have banded together to form Coromandel Land Owners United, or Clout.

In November last year, the Thames Coromandel District Council mailed letters to 3600 landowners saying they had SNAs on their properties.

The council later opted not to include the maps in its draft district plan but, by then, nerves were frayed.

Clout adviser and former National MP and Coromandel resident Sandra Goudie says the group has a growing membership of more than 300 landowners.

At the heart of the SNA project is an aim to preserve biodiversity, but Goudie is scathing of suggestions it is in decline.

"I'd say it's an unmitigated load of bollocks. Since 1991, when the Resource Management Act was implemented, there has been a significant drop in the loss of biodiversity.

"Landcare Research shows that between 1996 and 2002 there has been very little loss of biodiversity. What no-one has done is analyse biodiversity gain. You quickly get to the point where you have to ask yourself what the regional council's justification is for taking the position it is taking."

Goudie says most rural landowners have an affinity with nature and work hard to protect the natural features on their land.

She describes the SNA project as an unwanted and intolerable attack on the rights of private landowners.

Her advice to people who have an SNA identified on their property is to "drop the fence and let the stock in".

"I tell people to lock the gate and don't let anybody in. I call it the rural lockdown.

"To have council bureaucrats come in and slap rules on your property is a total invasion of the sanctity of property rights people hold so dear.

"So many people are serious about the environment, but they don't want to be coerced about how they should manage it.

"Urban dwellers would never put up with this invasion of their private property rights.

"Basically, any patch of bush can be classified as an SNA on the basis of maintaining a corridor. I call SNA the greatest state takeover of rural private property the country has ever seen."

With the prospect of restrictions being imposed on rural landowners, discontent has filtered through to Federated Farmers, which is urging councils to take a sensible, pragmatic approach to identifying SNAs.

Federated Farmers Waikato provincial president James Houghton says the key to the SNA project's success rests with how councils engage with landowners.

"Councils are trying to get landowners to protect pieces of land for the good of everyone.

"We've got a beautiful country and there are some very outstanding areas we need to look after, but suddenly we might have all these rules and regulations which could erode private property rights."

He cautions district councils against rubber-stamping potential SNAs identified by the regional council.

"Some district councils are working very well and are actually getting ecologists to come in and ground-proof these sites to see whether they are important natural areas.

"What councils shouldn't be doing is taking a heavy-handed approach and blanketing these potential sites as SNAs."

Collins says there is the prospect for rules to flow from the SNAs project as district plans come into force, but emphasises the benefits of having an SNA identified.

Once an SNA has been confirmed, sites are rated against each other and assistance can be given to landowners to help preserve and enhance their SNAs.

Ratepayers will be able to claim a rates rebate where an SNA has been identified on their land and if it is being managed in some way, such as with pest control or fencing.

"The rebate is meant to recognise the efforts that many people already make to protect these places and to encourage others to do so," Collins says.

Assisting landowners is very important, because "if the project doesn't result in changes on the ground, then this exercise wouldn't have been very useful".

SNAs also provide "eco system services".

"Wetlands, forests, rivers, harbours - they all provide services that make human life and our economy possible. Looking after them is looking after our future."

Collins is philosophical about opposition to SNAs, but says most people end up regarding an SNA on their property as a positive.

"Some people have received a letter referring to possible SNAs on their property and this is a new thing.

"Their immediate reaction might be to wonder how this could affect them in terms of restraints. Other people will get a pleasant surprise. They might find out, for example, that a stand of kauri on their property is unique in this part of the world.

"It takes people time to work through these reactions. Most people come away not too worried about the whole project."

Through his work photographing and researching the Hauraki Plains' remnant kahikatea, March has developed an affinity with the area. He is adamant more needs to be done to protect the majestic trees.

"They are probably invisible to a lot of people, but to me they're beautiful. A lot of farmers are quite positive about the kahikatea on their farms and if they could assess support from the regional council to protect them, then that's a great thing.

"My dream is that the kahikatea and the farms could exist in harmony.

"If you have biodiversity next to a farm, then the farm actually benefits more than if it were a monocultural grass thing with fences everywhere."

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANT NATURAL AREAS PROJECT?

The Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) project is an information-collecting project to determine the stock of indigenous biodiversity in the Waikato.

SNAs refer to areas of significant indigenous biodiversity and are made up of mostly indigenous vegetation.

The Waikato Regional Council is working with city and district councils to quantify significant indigenous vegetation and habitats.

The regional council can direct how territorial authorities (city and district councils) manage indigenous biodiversity.

The regional council's proposed regional policy statement contains criteria for determining the significance of indigenous biodiversity.

The Resource Management Act requires regional and district councils to safeguard significant indigenous vegetation and habitats of significant indigenous fauna. Source: Waikato Regional Council.

WAIKATO BY THE NUMBERS: 

John Gallagher knows a thing or two about fencing.

His family name is synonymous with electric fencing, but the Waikato businessman is an identity in his own right, having served as Hamilton's deputy mayor as well as fulfilling the offices of pro-chancellor and chancellor at Waikato University.

About 10 years ago, the Gallagher family bought a 1600-hectare cattle and sheep farm south of Kawhia.

During the past decade, Gallagher has helped restore the farm's natural features, fencing off springs and streams and parts of the coastline with "good electric fencing", he says, and replanting other areas.

The farm also borders Lake Harihari, a freshwater dune lake and a recognised SNA.

In a 50-year agreement with the Waikato Regional Council, Gallagher fenced off the lake fronting the property. In return, the council replanted the area and agreed to help fund the fence's maintenance costs.

The agreement stipulates that if the fence isn't maintained, the council can come in and upgrade it, partly at Gallagher's expense. Likewise, if the council does not meet its cost obligations, the agreement lapses.

With pest species, such as goats and pigs, fenced off, native plant life has flourished next to the lake.

Gallagher says he can understand some landowners' apprehensions over the SNA project, but believes a balance can be struck between conservation and economics.

"Naturally, landowners prefer to do these things freely, rather than be compelled to do it, because that's when people get a bit antsy.

"But I take the view that we are custodians of the land and we should leave it in a better condition than how we found it.

"As long as we keep in mind the economics of farming, I think it's important that we preserve nature and leave things in a better condition for future generations."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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