New Zealand is turning green and tourists won't like it, artist warns

Artist Grahame Sydney at his Central Otago studio.
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Artist Grahame Sydney at his Central Otago studio.

New Zealand is turning a dangerous shade of green, artist Grahame Sydney says.

The man who has painted the arid landscapes of Central Otago into international fame is appalled at the increasing presence of large-scale irrigation plants and noxious wilding pines in some of the country's best loved environments.

"New Zealand is becoming the same colour from top to bottom and that colour is green.

"Over 100 years ago we had areas like the Mackenzie Basin, like Central Otago, like the Central Plateau, which were naturally semi-arid and brown, and different.

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Timeless Land, a Central Otago landscape free of wilding pines, painted by Grahame Sydney in 1992.
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Timeless Land, a Central Otago landscape free of wilding pines, painted by Grahame Sydney in 1992.

"But we are turning those places into the same green as elsewhere."

He believes tourists will no longer want to visit New Zealand once its aesthetics are ruined.

"In our very small country we have a continent's variety of landscapes ... but forests look the same everywhere."

The view from artist Grahame Sydney's Central Otago home has changed from featuring no trees in 2000 (left) to being covered in a forest of wilding pines in 2019 (right).
Grahame Sydney
The view from artist Grahame Sydney's Central Otago home has changed from featuring no trees in 2000 (left) to being covered in a forest of wilding pines in 2019 (right).

Looking out from his Central Otago home across the Cambrian Valley, he has observed the exponential growth of wilding pines since 2000, from no trees to a runaway forest.

"That's happened in the space of 15 years. That's one of the reasons why I became so vehement about it," he said.

Sydney is an executive on the Central Otago Wilding Conifer Control Group and will be the guest speaker at a dinner celebrating 10 years of the Queenstown-based Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group, on Saturday. 

Sir Eion Edgar and wife Jan, Lady Edgar, are patrons of the trust and are sponsoring the dinner.

Members of the Wakatipu Conifer Control Group executive and volunteers are celebrating 10 years of fighting wilding pines.
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Members of the Wakatipu Conifer Control Group executive and volunteers are celebrating 10 years of fighting wilding pines.

Edgar said he was very proud of what the group had achieved so far.

"My biggest concern is that unless we keep up and expand the control and get rid of the existing trees we will go backwards ... The job has only started and we require more support."

Sydney said he admired the work done in the Queenstown area, including efforts to control the spread of wilding pines on celebrated landscapes such as the face of the Remarkables mountain range, on Ben Lomond, the Crown Range and Walter and Cecil peaks.

However, even in those areas the job is so big that the focus is often on containment rather than eradication.

A Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group volunteer works to get rid of wilding pines on Queenstown Hill.
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A Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group volunteer works to get rid of wilding pines on Queenstown Hill.

The trees' "prolific" seeds could travel up to 40 kilometres to establish new trees.

"One tree, over 10 to 20 years, can become 1000 trees," he said.

"People need to make up their minds. What do they want the landscape to look like?

"Do they want it blanketed in an evergreen crop of trees, where once natives and native grasses and native life once existed? Because a wilding forest obliterates everything.

"Or do they want a green forest like the middle of the North Island?"

In 2016, the Government reported that wilding conifers covered more than 1.8 million hectares of land, and were spreading at an estimated rate of 5 per cent a year.

Artist Grahame Sydney filming in the "arid, golden" Central Otago landscape.
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Artist Grahame Sydney filming in the "arid, golden" Central Otago landscape.

Sydney is particularly concerned for Central Otago, where the hills are "rapidly becoming host to a very wide spread wilding population".

"If we can't get agreement to get to work there and haven't got the money to do it, that really schisty, quintessential, Central Otago landscape will be obliterated.

"So much of the economy of Central Otago depends on people believing they are coming to a place that looks different."

Alexandra is surrounded by golden, schist covered hills.
John Bisset/Stuff
Alexandra is surrounded by golden, schist covered hills.

The Central Otago group receives $20,000 per annum from the Central Otago District Council, a figure he believes should be more like $250,000.

It also receives a share of the Ministry for Primary Industries' $10 million annual fund and assistance from the Otago Regional Council,  some trusts and some businesses.

Awareness needed to be raised so ratepayers put pressure on the council and landowners gave the organisation permission to work on their property, Sydney said. 

"The council is seriously lagging behind in their support."

For Sydney, this is personal. He makes a living capturing the distinct and stunning landscapes of New Zealand.

What would he do if those landscapes included forests of exotic trees?

"It's simple. I wouldn't paint them because I hate the bloody things."

Stuff