The fate of Western Springs pine forest

Forward-thinking Aucklanders planted over 500 Monterey pines at Western Springs in 1923.

Picture-perfect vistas occur when the sun shines through the canopy. This special part of inner Auckland City is much loved by locals and walkers from further afield.

Sadly many of the original trees are gone. They reached maturity, senesced, died and fell. There are fewer than 200 left standing, and many of those are in imminent danger of falling over. At least 10 fell during the February storm this year.

It is pretty clear that past Auckland Councils have not kept abreast of general maintenance in this forest. As Wendy Gray, Tree Advocate, said in a submission to the Waitemata Local Board, there is a big difference between looking after a bush park, and looking after a mature forest. She believed council had never had the expertise needed to cope with the Western Springs forest.

The current council, through the good offices of the Waitemata Local Board, is now concerned about the risk to public safety, as the remaining trees age, die and fall. There is also a risk that trees may fall over the zoo fences and provide a significant security risk.

The board has produced a number of expert reports, outlining possible remediation methods. As result of this advice, the board has resolved to seek resource consent to fell all remaining Monterey pines, and plant natives in their place.

Their vision is “to return exotic pine forest to diverse indigenous mixed podocarp - broadleaf species (read native), to provide a habitat for indigenous fauna and to significantly enhance the ecological and amenity values for Western Springs Park and surrounding areas.”

One of the complaints of a group of local objectors is that the vision is pie-in-the-sky, and would take 50 or more years to achieve. They could well look at the Tiritiri Matangi Island experience where over 300,000 natives were planted, and have produced a thriving bush canopy for a variety of endangered bird species. I was on the Tiri Committee for a time, and involved in the very last of the planting, all done by volunteers. Now, those fortunate enough to spend a night on Tiri, can see and hear kiwi at night, and listen to a magnificent dawn chorus in the morning, often featuring my great love, the kokako.

Mainland sanctuaries are more difficult to establish - predators must be controlled or eradicated, but isn’t New Zealand committed to a predator-free Aotearoa by 2050? A tall order maybe, but worth pursuing.

Locals like Wendy Gray argue that the board has not consulted stakeholders on their plan. She highlights the capital value of the trees at somewhere over $2 million, and maintains that many trees have another 30 years life.

Gray and her group have called for consultation with residents, and argue that the resource consent hearing is not consultation. They say the proposed re-planting programme is flawed, the plants proposed, thousands of PB5s, are too small. Gray has clearly not studied the Tiri experience when she says, “the claim that the planting will provide us with a native podocarp forest is so wildly ambitious as to be nearly disingenuous.” The Tiri plantings also puts into question Gray’s DOC point that, “Nature puts plants in the right places.” Until two Auckland University scientists planned the Tiri project, only weeds were growing well, and natives that did exist struggled, often in the wrong places. Volunteer planting took care of that over a number of years.

At the Waitemata Board meeting, Shale Chambers, Deputy Chair of the Board, spoke to Wendy Gray’s submission.

Chambers pointed out that the resource consent would be publicly notified, and invited Gray and any other interested parties to make submissions. If the consent was granted, the plan of action would then be prepared with input from a wide range of experts. Chambers stressed that the future plan was not yet assessed, and that the neighbours input, plus expert advice, would help form the plan.

My amateur response is to favour removal of all pines, and I am excited about the possibilities of an urban native plant and bird sanctuary. It is actually surprising to many people how quickly some natives do grow. I would recommend planting some larger specimens - PB5s are less than one metre tall - and seeking volunteer planting and future maintenance assistance.

A lot of work is needed too, to determine the safety of exposed steep land, especially around West View Road, and I am not too happy to hear of an eight metre road access being built to haul out the pines. I understand lifting out by helicopter would be very expensive. I would also recommend removal of as much detritus from the fallen logs as possible. Rows of fallen logs, or piles of mulched chips would lessen the area available for native plantings.

Shale Chambers has acknowledged that there are many issues to work through, but is adamant that leaving dead and dying pines to fall over naturally or during the next storm would be irresponsible, and that it would be imprudent to close the walking tracks for 10 or 20 years until nature has done the job for us.

Done properly, Western Springs forest will one day provide a sanctuary for flora, fauna and humans to enjoy for ever.

Annette Isbey, who long campaigned for better tracks, will not live to see that day, and neither will I, but Annette’s children (one of whom I taught), and grandchildren, will be proud of the long-term vision displayed by the current council and board. (JOHN ELLIOTT)