Closing the Waitakere Ranges might be 'just not possible', but could it even work? video

Kauri dieback disease in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.
SIMON SMITH/STUFF

Kauri dieback disease in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.

The forest has been called the lungs of Auckland and a place of awe and majesty.

But should the city cut off the Waitakere Ranges's 256 kilometres of walking tracks in an attempt to save its kauri from extinction?

Maori have led a call to look at the drastic measure, and found support amongst environmental groups and scientists.

Te Kawerau a Maki leader Te Warena Taua has suggested a rahui on the regional park, saying the trees are the backbone of ...
MONICA TISCHLER/STUFF

Te Kawerau a Maki leader Te Warena Taua has suggested a rahui on the regional park, saying the trees are the backbone of the ecosystem and "a threat to the heart of this forest is devastating".

An online Neighbourly poll of 92 west Aucklanders suggests there was also strong support amongst the public, at 77 per cent.

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But stopping people from walking in the 16,000 hectare regional park would be logistically difficult, and would hurt businesses that relied on the tourist dollar.

The sun sets over the Waitakere ranges in Auckland's west as the last shards of light illuminate Eden Park.
PETER MEECHAM/STUFF

The sun sets over the Waitakere ranges in Auckland's west as the last shards of light illuminate Eden Park.

West Auckland councillor Penny Hulse said it was "just not possible" to close the forest, and the council's biosecurity team was not advising a rush to do so.

"It's not like closing a sports field. We can't simply close the gates and put up a sign."

Experience gained from a three-day closure in the Hunua Ranges for a poison drop last year showed how difficult it would be, Hulse said.

The Hillary race would likely be cancelled if the Waitakere Ranges were to be closed.
The Hilary Trail

The Hillary race would likely be cancelled if the Waitakere Ranges were to be closed.

"We had security guards, we had gates, we had boarded up tracks, we had trucks with lights – and there were still people wandering around the Hunuas."

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It might also not be necessary, The Hillary organiser Shaun Collins said.

The annual cross-country race, named after New Zealand's most famous mountaineer, wound for 80km through some of the ranges' most breathtaking scenery.

A map from the report showing infected kauri concentrated near Piha, black and red dots.
AUCKLAND COUNCIL/SUPPLIED

A map from the report showing infected kauri concentrated near Piha, black and red dots.

Collins said the race undertook strict measures to stop the disease and with 100 per cent compliance in cleaning off mud and using Sterigene, soil testing of athlete's footwear proved that the measures worked.

"If everybody used the foot washes, as the event has proven, then we wouldn't be spreading it."

This week the council's Kauri Dieback Report 2017 showed 58.3 per cent of the regional park's 91 largest kauri groves may have some infection, and – as the disease will spread to nearby trees – could therefore already be doomed to die.

Better cleaning stations, like this one are needed, experts say.
SIMON SMITH/STUFF

Better cleaning stations, like this one are needed, experts say.

Auckland Council's main strategy in halting the disease has been to increase public awareness and compliance in using footwear cleaning stations.

But the report showed that this has not worked. Part of the problem is that spray and brush stations have design flaws which mean they are not highly effective, being difficult to use and with cleaned off mud able to be stood on again.

Also people are only using them 56 per cent of the time on average.

The Waitakere Ranges contain much more than just kauri.
PETER MEECHAM/STUFF

The Waitakere Ranges contain much more than just kauri.

Just closing all the tracks might not be an answer either as a "high" number of people were still using the 27km that had already been closed. In these kauri protection zones the disease was spreading just as fast, and wild pigs were likely not helping.

Waitakere Ranges Protection Society president John Edgar said public education and awareness had failed, and the drastic measure of closing the park's tracks was necessary until they could be made safe for the trees.

The flouting of track closures showed that strict enforcement was needed, and infringers made an example of.

John Edgar, stone artist and president of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society.
SIMON SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

John Edgar, stone artist and president of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society.

"It's deadly serious now. It's shocking news. We've got to do something immediately," he said.

The society was not calling for road closures or for stopping predator control.

Edgar said the people of Auckland must look after the Waitakere Ranges as it was "the lungs of the city" and of great spiritual value.

JACKSON THOMAS/Stuff.co.nz

A bunch of keen runners head out every Thursday night for a run amongst the trees.

"They are a place of solace and they bring us back into nature; majesty and wonder and awe. That's why on a good day the car parks are full."

Brian Duffy was president of the Alpine Sports Club with about 350 members and owned a hut in the depths of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.

Its members were out in the park every week, and the cabin rented out, income which would be lost if the park closed.

High school students on a tramping expedition to Whatipu in the Waitakere Ranges.
SUPPLIED

High school students on a tramping expedition to Whatipu in the Waitakere Ranges.

"It's our backyard. It's the nearest decent tramping location close to Auckland," he said.

"I think we'd be pretty devastated, to put it simply."

Even so, Duffy said he appreciates the kauri dieback problem and would probably be supportive of a ban "if we could get some decent information".

Dr Nick Waipara, an author of Kauri Dieback Report 2017, says the public has to be better at using the spray-stations.
SIMON SMITH/STUFF

Dr Nick Waipara, an author of Kauri Dieback Report 2017, says the public has to be better at using the spray-stations.

"You get a bit cynical at times, you don't know whether they are closing tracks because they don't want to maintain them because there's a cost."

West Auckland Tramping Club president Peter Tuohi said 60 per cent of his clubs tramps were in the ranges and closing them would be a shame, although might be necessary.

It might make things worse though as once tracks were closed spray bottles would likely not be topped up or would be taken away.

The Waitakere Ranges tower over the west of Auckland.
SIMON SMITH/STUFF

The Waitakere Ranges tower over the west of Auckland.

Businesses which fed on the tourism to the area would also be affected.

Vanny Teo owned Elevation Brasserie at the start of the Piha Rd and said track closures would have a "really big impact" on her business.

"The majority of our clients come from bush walking, or go afterwards. We get groups of 10 or 20 people coming in at a time."   

SIMON SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Dr Ian Horner says the use of phosphite in kauri is promising, but not a cure.

Teo said it would likely not be able to keep its 10 staff on-board until such time as the forest was to reopen.

Is Auckland Council doing enough to protect its regional park?

Waitakere Ranges Local Board member Sandra Coney said the council and former regional council had not taken kauri dieback seriously, "and have been quite half-hearted".

Waitakere Ranges Local Board member Sandra Coney says the council has not taken kauri dieback seriously enough.
SUPPLIED

Waitakere Ranges Local Board member Sandra Coney says the council has not taken kauri dieback seriously enough.

"The Trigene stations were very people unfriendly . . . so of course people walked around them or found no Trigene in them," she said.

"I think there are a whole lot of things that the council could have done that it hasn't done."

After the report on the diseases progression through the Waitakere Ranges was released on August 9, The Tree Council's Dr Mels Barton accused the council of cutting its budget for fighting kauri dieback and for losing important staff members.

Kauri dieback disease on the Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitakere Ranges above Piha.
SIMON SMITH/STUFF

Kauri dieback disease on the Maungaroa Ridge Track in the Waitakere Ranges above Piha.

Auckland Council manager of biosecurity Rachel Kelleher defended its record, and said the biosecurity budget for fighting the disease this year was $591,000 – more than double that of previous financial years.

It was difficult to say what was spent on fighting the disease as it was spread across different programmes and activities.

"There have been changes in the staff working within the programme over time, which is not unusual, but where positions have been vacated they have been filled by equally experienced people."

Paula Bennett would like to see the Waitakere Ranges made into a national park.
AMY BAKER/STUFF

Paula Bennett would like to see the Waitakere Ranges made into a national park.

The Waitakere Ranges Local Board has also funded a community co-ordinator to raise awareness, compliance and to help mediate discussion on whether the park should be closed.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett lived in the foothills of the ranges and said she has been advocating for it to be made a national park.

This would allow more resources to be made available, she said.

"It frames us – I always think the Waitakeres are the framing of our city. If they end up shutting it down then I'll just support it any way I can."

What do the experts say?

The Science Media Centre has sent out a media release with scientists's comments on the situation.

Plant ecologist Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng from the University of Auckland said closing the forest might be needed if cleaning stations were not quickly updated and compliance increased.

Keeping people out could buy time, but would be challenging to enforce.

It had been done elsewhere in the world where areas were of cultural significance, though often in remote areas.

"We need more money for fundamental research and to find treatments. Until that happens people need to clean, clean, clean and stick to the tracks."

Dr Nick Waipara, an author of the report, said most of the disease spread was from non-compliance. People were entering restricted areas and going off track. Eighty per cent of people in some places were not using sprays.

"We've got a big job to get compliance up."

Dr Monica Gerth from the University of Otago said the disease spores can lay dormant in soil for years waiting to be picked up by a shoe and spread to a new host.

The zoospores of the disease could swim through wet soil at up to half a metre per hour.

"The suggestion to close the Waitakere Ranges makes sense given the current data, and the lack of a 'cure' for infected trees."

There also needed to be more research, but funding was sparse, she said.

"There are lots of good ideas out there - but we need more resources."

Ministry for Primary Industries conservation advisor Erik Van Eyndhoven said people are the biggest cause of the disease spreading and "only a pinhead of soil" was enough to spread the disease. 

"If the Auckland Council, in consultation with tangata whenua decided to close the Waitakere Ranges to the public, MPI would support this approach."

Where to next?

Although it was not looking to close the forest, the council was taking action, councillor Penny Hulse said.

More tracks would be closed immediately – the most muddy and the most vulnerable ones.

Some of them would reopen when they dry out for summer, and opening some tracks that had been closed would be looked at.

The main message for the public though, Hulse said, was that bypassing cleaning stations  was "totally unacceptable".

 - Stuff

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