Angry residents have taken chainsaws to native mangroves inside Whangamata Harbour, saying they are not deterred by the threat of prosecution.
The unauthorised cutting by more than 30 residents is the latest twist in an increasingly heated tug-of-war over mangrove removal.
In the past two weeks, residents have cleared mangroves from an area the size of two tennis courts inside Moanuanuanu Estuary.
The cut mangroves lie in three large piles; their severed trunks poke out from the exposed mud.
A strong smell of decay hangs in the air. Whangamata resident and Thames Coromandel District councillor Jack Wells would "neither confirm nor deny" whether he was involved in the clearance.
He said he fully supported it. Mr Wells said the regional council had failed to control the spread of the mangroves, which now choked large parts of the harbour and had driven away birds and shellfish. About 20 per cent of the 500-hectare harbour was covered in the plants.
"What's happened isn't civil disobedience, it is community action. The people who cut down these mangroves aren't law breakers, they're people who are trying to restore the health of the harbour."
The residents' group was not fazed by the threat of prosecution and would continue clearing mangroves, Mr Wells said. "That's the least of our problems. People couldn't care less about what the regional council might do. They would have to take us to court and show that we've somehow diminished the environment; they wouldn't have a s...show."
The Environment Court has given the regional council permission to clear 22.9ha of mangroves at Whangamata, including tidying up 4.2ha of mangroves removed during unauthorised clearances and 1.72ha for drainage work.
The clearance work is expected to begin in March. Council's Whangamata project manager Emily O'Donnell said the council was keen to start removing mangroves under the terms of its consent and urged people be patient.
"We understand that many people at Whangamata just want us to get on with extensive mangrove removal but, as the consent hearings and Environment Court processes show, we have had to take into account a wide range of views on the best way forward."
The removal work could cost ratepayers $1.1 million over the longer-term life of the removal consent. Ms O'Donnell said mangroves were a recognised issue, but the plants also provided shelter for some birds and marine life and helped prevent erosion.
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