The felling of a forest giant

The economic damage to the kiwifruit industry - readily measured in dollar terms - has been huge, as the Psa bacterial disease spread through Bay of Plenty orchards and into Waikato, Franklin District and Coromandel.

Huge damage similarly has been done to apiarists by the spread of the varroa mite into beehives throughout the North Island and as far south as Canterbury and the West Coast. Putting a price on dying kauri forests isn't so easy. The forests' symbolic value is enormous but defies translation into the language of accountants and economists. This makes it hard to persuade policy-makers to invest in stemming the spread of the dieback disease that afflicts thousands of kauri in Northland, the Waitakere Ranges and Great Barrier Island. This week signs of the disease were found in Coromandel.

Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, in a joint statement, said test results showed the presence of the disease in the Whangapoua Forest just north of Whitianga, a serious blow to efforts to conserve kauri, they said. The affected area was immediately closed to reduce the risk of further spread.

Dr Smith appropriately described kauri as an iconic species for New Zealand and one of the oldest and largest organisms on earth. These massive trees define their forest ecosystem, he explained. When they die, other species dependent on them are put at risk, and the disease kills trees of all ages, including 1000-year-old kauri that are irreplaceable.

The Waikato Regional Council said it would be working with other agencies to contain the disease, although this sounded ominously like King Canute declaring he would stop the incoming tide. The council noted it had already increased the amount of funding for the Kauri Dieback Programme in the 2014/15 Draft Annual Plan, from $25,000 to $72,000 a year. That's a trifling sum, in the context of its total spending, but the Key Government has spent just $5 million trying to deal with kauri dieback since it was formally discovered about four years ago. This compares with $85m spent saving pine trees from the painted apple moth and $50m spent on curbing Psa in the kiwifruit industry.

When it comes to hard dollars, sadly, iconic forest trees rate much lower in priorities than commercially cultivated trees or vines.

Waikato Times