Last link to Hamilton's original habitat at risk

HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014
MIKE SCOTT/Fairfax NZ

Fears are high for Hamilton's Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park after the council failed to give a neighbouring piece of land reserve status and left the door open for development.

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What little connection Hamilton has left to its ecological heritage could be lost if a development next to a renowned restoration project goes ahead unchecked.

That is the warning from the University of Waikato's professor of restoration ecology, Bruce Clarkson, who has voiced concern after a surprise move by the Hamilton City Council last week to deny reserve status to a 5.1-hectare block bordering the southeastern side of Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park.

That decision revoked a council resolution made last September to include the land, which was originally earmarked for an eco-friendly subdivision, within the heritage park.

According to councillors who voted against the declaration, and who spoke to the Waikato Times, lingering city debt and a possible windfall from the sale of the land were identified as the key considerations.

But for critics of the declaration such as Prof Clarkson, the decision has the potential to derail a unique project that is integral to reconnecting Hamiltonians to their natural history.

"In many other parts of the world, or parts of the country, people have an existing resource that they can build on and add to.

"But in Hamilton City, because of the degree of removal of indigenous habitat, we've had to start entirely from scratch."

Surrounded by farmland and overlooked by a subdivision, Waiwhakareke is a reminder of how much of Hamilton's ecological heritage has been squeezed out by urban encroachment and intensive farming.

Estimates put the amount of remaining native vegetation in Hamilton at less than 2 per cent.

Waiwhakareke is the marquee restoration project in the district, and an attempt to turn back the clock on 150 years of development, when the land around Horseshoe Lake was deforested, drained and converted to agricultural use.

While the park has a way to go, visitors to the site can now experience some semblance of pre-human nature.

Kauri trees stand on the ridge overlooking the park and, as the hills flatten, there is rimu, tawa and kahikatea.

Around the lake shore, where the land is at its most even, flax bushes, carex grasses, giant cane rushes, and coprosma are slowly reclaiming ground from invasive willow.

Although the area was land-banked by the council in 1975, it was not until 2004, after receiving council approval, that restoration was started.

"The problem with a subdivision is that when it is put close to a project like this, the hard surface promotes enormous amounts of run-off from all sorts of surfaces which have pollutants in them.

"Without proper protective measures, that nutrient and pollutant [load] will end up in this lake."

In 2009, the council resolved to remove funding for the smart, eco-friendly subdivision, abandon the project and sell the land when the market improved.

The 60-hectare heritage park was to be left as-is, with the adjacent land at the mercy of the market.

According to east ward councillor Gary Mallett, that decision should be upheld.

The former ACT Party president has labelled Prof Clarkson a "greedy greeny" and said opponents to subdivision of the land had an extreme point of view.

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Mr Mallett wanted the land sold.

"It's houses for people and families. We're not here to represent the slugs and the bugs and the trees."

Including the piece of land in the park would come at a significant cost, Mr Mallett said, and if the land was sold, it would generate millions of dollars that could be used to reduce debt, or minimise rates.

Estimates provided to each councillor ahead of the vote put the costs of adding the land to the park at between $160,000 and $180,000 for planting.

Maintenance for the first year was estimated at $125,000 and would drop $25,000 a year until flat-lining, when the plants were established.

But the Waiwhakareke Advisory Group, of which Prof Clarkson is chairman, has estimated that the annual voluntary effort for the project could conservatively be valued at $209,000.

"It's not just a biodiversity project on its own, it's a potential place for fantastic recreation opportunities; it's a place where people have come together as a community to work on the project." harry.pearl@waikatotimes.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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