environment

Increasing anger over Waitakere track closures

Waitakere Ranges residents say banning people from walking tracks to stop the spread of kauri dieback is back-firing. They say absence of human footprints has led to a resurgence in wild pig numbers – which are more likely to spread the disease than boot-washing trampers.

There is anecdotal evidence from locals that pig numbers are increasing. Photographic evidence has been obtained of rutting under kauri roots. The odd person who has been into closed tracks say they’ve seen wild pigs in the open – and their dogs have noticed evidence they’re there in numbers. No one will admit publicly to have broken the rāhui on going into closed tracks, as the issue is so divisive they are afraid of repercussions.

Waiatarua resident Ross Jackson says now that the bush is empty of people, the pigs feel safer roaming in wider areas. “People have even seen them on West Coast Road, as recently as last week,” he says. “I know about mass activity on Centennial (track), Home, Piha Valley Track. Other people have mentioned Pararaha campground being trashed. Also Comans and Ahu Ahu … the list goes on.” Another resident told Newsroom of a pig being seen in the open on White Track – a Piha track that is well down the Auckland Council’s work programme for reopening.

Pig ruttings on Centennial Track. Photo: supplied

The council agrees pigs are a problem. But Environment Committee chair Penny Hulse says that’s why they’ve given shooting contracts – as they’ve always done – to professionals who are making sure they are not spreading kauri dieback.

“Pigs do range far and wide,” says Hulse. “But I’m not sure they are necessarily disturbed by people walking the tracks."

The council’s own staff, in a 2017 report on dieback, said feral pig activity is a high risk vector of Phytophtora, the soil and water borne pathogen killing the kauri. But there’s not enough data to draw any firm conclusions.

“At a number of locations, field observations were recorded that may provide important evidence that feral pig activity is the most likely factor to have introduced disease to the area. However, the haphazard nature of these observations, along with overall data deficiency, meant we could not correlate prevalence of feral pig activity with kauri dieback distribution,” the report says. 

It also says kauri dieback disease has probably been in the soils of the Waitakere Ranges for at least 15 years. “Mapping and surveillance has established that there are 344 distinct areas of kauri ecosystem within the ranges, of which a third now have dieback or possible dieback symptoms.  Within groupings of trees that rises to just under 60 percent.  Of the 172 visitor tracks in the park, 108 have kauri in them. Of those, just over half intersect with a dieback zone and another 13 intersect with a possible site. Tracks, baitlines and waterways are the three potential pathways along which it spreads,” it says.

The feral pig claims are part of an increasing level of frustration for bush walkers, who say consultation on which tracks will be reopened is a farce. They have been presented with a pre-determined list of tracks and have been asked what order they should be worked on. Of the 112 trails closed last May, seven will be permanently closed – another 72 are designated not a priority for reopening and likely to remain closed. [You can see the track plan map here.] One track that reopened on Boxing Day last year – the Kitekite Falls track – is now a tourist highway that has been sanitised with boardwalks at a cost of $330,000. 

Boardwalks above kauri roots on the newly upgraded and opened Kitekite Falls track at Piha. Photo; Alexia Russell

You don’t live on Auckland’s west coast for the easy commute. Most residents of relatively isolated communities such as Piha, Huia, Anawhata, Whatipu, Karekare and Bethells Beach are there for the wild beaches, the birds and the bush. When a concerted effort to fight kauri dieback meant closing their precious tracks for a year, they accepted it was necessary for the health of the forest. But after a summer of being barred from their back yard recreation, and no end in sight, many are getting fed up – and are questioning the science behind the closures.

Ross Jackson has spent hundreds of hours volunteering on track redevelopment in the Waitakere Ranges, but is infuriated by the revelation that there is no intention of ever opening some tracks again. He doubts the science used to justify a total shutdown. And Jackson says there is just no acknowledgement that there are any other concerns in the ranges other than kauri dieback.

“A decision has been made to close the Waitakere Ranges without consideration of one really important factor – and that is the impact on the wellbeing and lifestyle of the local communities. One of the main reasons people live there is because of the bush. For instance the people of Anawhata now literally have nowhere to walk apart from the gravel road that goes to Anawhata. Spragg Bush is now closed which is forcing people to walk on the very dangerous Scenic Drive,” he says.

“The only way of curing this problem is to get rid of every single microscopic spore of phytopthora, which is physically impossible to do. So they’ve taken protection to the limits of … okay, we keep people out. They’ve upgraded one track in six months – Kitekite Falls.” Jackson says it’s been done to such high specifications it’s now like a motorway, with hundreds of people using it.

“The specifications are so unbelievably high that many tracks won’t be able to be upgraded to the required degree. Long term the council will save money because they don’t have to upgrade the tracks.”

Jackson questions the claims that dieback will rid the country of kauri in 30 years if nothing is done, and the claims that secondary species will go with it.

“The science is unbelievably flawed,” he says.

“The council has done a fantastic job of marketing it (the closures) – it’s very easy for them to get a groundswell of agreement to close tracks from people who aren’t affected by it.”

Jackson says the local community backed the closures because they thought it would be short term and everything would soon be back to normal. Nearly a year down the track, that’s not the case.

 “When you live out west it gets into you. It gets into your spirit. Everything about it – it’s remote, it’s rugged. It’s the only place I can go to get any sort of peace,” he says. Jackson vowed to continue walking the tracks after his son Samuel died two years ago. He would take his high-dependency, special needs child through the ranges in a backpack, saying the bush and the beach were the only things that seemed to give him joy. The closures have put a halt to his grieving process.

“All I want to do is walk in the bush, but I could be fined $20,000 (by MPI) to do it,” he says.

“Dieback is transported by humans, pigs, birds, pests, worms … you can stop the humans going in but you can’t stop anything else. I have photos where pigs have completely uprooted under kauri trees, something I’ve not seen for 20 years.”

Dead kauri off the Kitekite Falls track in Piha. Photo: Alexia Russell

We are having our heart ripped out.

Piha resident James Dickinson has tramped every inch of the Waitakere Ranges. The former elite cyclist grew up with the bush, and after a battle with cancer it was where he learned to walk again, challenging himself to go further each day.

“I had 52 rounds of chemo, multiple major surgeries. The battle led to depression. I walked in the bush to get my strength up, measuring my progress in physical terms. It was a mental and physical journey.” The delay in getting tracks open, and the news that a long list of tracks are set to be closed forever, is a huge blow.  

Dickinson says people living in the bush are going out of their minds without access to it.

“There’s a lot of anger. A lot of people living in the bush are greenies who all respect the rāhui, who were fierce supporters of that … on the understanding there would be a plan and they would be allowed back in.

“Now they’ve been lied to and tricked and they are angry. Life-long greenies are going ‘screw you … we want the bush back’.”

Dickinson says there’s no doubt there’s a problem – “kauri dieback is a thing and it does kill kauri”.

“We are obviously concerned for the health of the kauri and the health of the forest. We were disappointed that tracks were closing with so little science and what science there was is so flawed you could drive a truck through it. But we thought it would only be a short time while they lined up all their ducks in a row, and then tracks would re-open once they got a plan. It’s quickly descended from that to ‘everything is getting closed forever, end of conversation’. The process of consultation is flawed … everything is, ‘we have made our decisions but we have to consult with you anyway’.

Access barred - off the Kitekite Falls track. Photo: Alexia Russell

Dickinson says there has been to date no statistically valid studies to put forward to assess of the scale of the problem. “Some people walked through a few tracks, saw a tree and said ‘oh yeah that’s sick’ … a few weeks later they saw more sick trees and extrapolated that to the rest of the forest, to say it’s going to die.

“Kauri dieback has been around forever – we are not going to lose all the kauri. In vast, vast areas of the forest kauri are thriving. I’ve asked for surveys and the methodology that shows square kilometre blocks sampled against control samples … not just ‘we walked along the track and the ones that looked sick we took a sample from’. There’s no accounting or rigour in this, it’s reactionary, not done from real science.” Dickinson has asked the council for the raw data, methodology and science behind the decision to close the tracks.

“All they can give me is a graph that measures high recreational use against low recreational use, and high risk vs low risk.  

“Everywhere you try to get tangible facts it’s just a gaping hole. There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of rhetoric. A lot of ‘if you want the tracks open you must hate the kauri and want them all to die’, but precious little in the way of dealing openly about the process.”

Dickinson says if you cost out the upgrade of the Kitekite Falls track at $330,000 for 3.7km, there is enough money with the council’s environment targeted rate - $110 million of which is being put into the kauri dieback problem – to upgrade every single track in the ranges to approved safety levels. “There’s enough for 611km of track - or the distance between Auckland and Wellington. There isn’t 600 km worth of affected tracks in Auckland. The Waitakeres’ full length is 270km and even users accept every track should not be upgraded. We wouldn’t push back against that at all.”

[Not all the $110m is for track upgrades - the council's capital expenditure budget for that over the next 10 years is $38.6m.] 

Dickinson asks if the council was concerned about mental health and wellbeing of the community it serves … "why is it not just getting on with upgrading tracks? Why are we having discussions about permanent closures?”

“The council is very good at raking money into a pile and setting fire to it – but you cannot tell me you can’t deliver an outcome for $90,000 a kilometre. If they are being disingenuous with us from the outset then we have a problem.”

Council meetings over the closures have not been reassuring.

“You should have heard the outpouring of grief when they were having the consultation. People were in tears as they spoke about how much it is impacting them. It’s like having your heart ripped out.”

The forest won't collapse

Ken Turner was elected to the Waitakere Ranges Local Board in May last year after a by-election. He’d been trying for a seat since 2013 – and believes a change in attitude over track closures is what finally won him the job. The Little Huia resident and farmer does not believe the kauri dieback issue is as black as it’s being painted, and wants people to be allowed back into their park.

His family donated 25 acres of riparian land near Whatipu to the regional park, 32 years ago.

“I would never have placed that land into council ownership if I thought it was going to be closed away from the public,” he says.

From his spot within the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Park, he can see “hundreds and hundreds of healthy kauri. Sure some are dead, and some have ill-thrift, but they don’t all have kauri dieback. I don’t believe this is the end of the kauri and I don’t believe they will be dead in my lifetime.

“They talk about a total forest collapse. Well that was when we chopped down every kauri we could … and flushed them out of the bush into the ocean. Nature fights back. I’m sick and tired of a bunch of newbies in our community – usually from other parts of the world let alone from other parts of Auckland – standing on stage and preaching to us that the ranges’ beauty has been because of the rules of a few, not the love of the many.”

Turner points out that the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act (2008), that looks to protect the area, lists among its objectives recognition “that people live and work in the area …. and to enable those people to provide for the social, economic, environmental and cultural well being”; and also to protect the park .. “for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the people and communities of the Auckland region and New Zealand”.

Petitioning the council 

Like most Waitakere Ranges residents, Tom Austen supported moves to try and control kauri dieback disease. But then he found his local walk, Spragg Bush, was on the list of tracks likely to remain closed – permanently.

He presented a petition signed by 90 percent of the residents living near the bush, asking for the upgrade and re-opening of the track as soon as possible. He says the council is intent on closing as many tracks as possible, even if there are no significant kauri, and reopening the remainder as slowly as possible. "It should not take five years to re-open the few they are planning to upgrade.”

Hulse says the council is listening to locals like Austen and that’s why there have been community meetings and communication back and forth. She says another example of this is the somewhat isolated Anawhata community which has had its access to Piha through the bush cut off, and the local ranger is working to find a solution there.

But Austen says the council has neglected tracks in the Waitakeres for more than 30 years, which has not only discouraged public use but made sure there’s plenty of mud – which is how the disease is spread. 

He says the council’s current work programme, where a couple of popular tracks will be upgraded and opened this year, will produce “a Tongariro Crossing scenario … where you are just following the person in front.” The council’s consultation document lists just eight tracks currently closed to be included in the 2019 work programme.

“Originally some lesser used tracks were closed temporarily…. next thing we know the temporarily closed tracks are permanently closed and the whole park is closed temporarily while tracks are upgraded. The latest plan is to upgrade very few and close all the rest.”

Hulse says the “Tongariro Crossing” comparison is an extremely valid concern. “That’s why we want to get the Hillary Trail open, the tracks where there are no kauri, and some good long tracks re-routed around kauri. No one wants to be shuffling along, looking at the person’s pack in front of you. But there are choices, and this sounds tough, but how about finding some alternatives?”

Austin says however the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park was established “to provide recreational opportunities for Aucklanders".

“We are forever complaining that our children and grandchildren get too little exercise and are becoming obese. What an irony.

“This is not some remote coastal track, but one in the heart of our community. It is as essential to us as a footpath is to more urban communities.”

The 'army of the self-entitled'

If one name is constantly mentioned as being the tree-hugging enemy of the people, it’s Dr Mels Barton, the secretary of the Tree Council, who works with the Waitākere Rāhui team.

She says this is not a popularity contest … it’s about whether the tracks are safe to be reopened.

“They need to be upgraded to ‘dry in all conditions’ – that’s the requirement notice issued by MPI it doesn’t matter a damn what people want. The tracks will stay closed until they are upgraded. This is about protecting the forest – it’s not a recreational issue, actually. This organism is killing it and it’s being spread around by people. Recreation is second to that.

"This is a bio-security crisis.

“We’ve created this problem by not putting any infrastructure for, I don’t know, decades.” 

Barton says some tracks might not reopen for 10 years; some will never be opened.  “We have more than $100 million to sort it out and it’s not going to be enough,” she says.  

While she acknowledges pigs are a method of transportation for the disease, she says it’s very clear that the number one reason is people, with 70 percent of the virus appearing along the track network.  “It’s our behaviour that’s caused this.”

Barton says that’s evident with where dieback has been found - all around the Hillary Trail and other popular tracks. “People are the number one vector moving this organism. If we carry on like that we will lose all the kauri in the forest within 30 years.” She says the disease will also take tanekaha, rewarewa and other species with it.

 “The days of sloshing around in mud to the ankles are over, and people are just going to have to get over it. The locals are just going to have to get into their cars and go somewhere else like the rest of Auckland does. It won’t kill them. Yes, there is a plan, but it will take time. this is not about spoiling people’s fun, that doesn’t come into it. It’s about saving the forest”

Describing locals as “the army of the self-entitled”, Barton says no tracks will be opened because people are jumping up and down demanding it.

“People’s recreation can just wait. There are 27 regional parks in Auckland – they can go and use some of the other ones.”

There is a plan

Penny Hulse says she gets tired of people saying ‘there’s no plan and you’re not listening’. “That’s why we go out to those communities. If a bush track can be reopened safely then that’s our preference.” Hulse says the feedback at meetings has been very mixed – “some people have been really concerned we are even thinking about opening tracks in the rāhui area.  Then there’s concern we are not opening tracks… our job is to take a long term approach to the health of the Waitakere Ranges and adopt a sensible track strategy.’ Hulse says there will be tracks that are not opened again.

She suggests another council agency that has a role to play here.

“I know Spragg Bush really really well and the roads in that area, around Mountain Rd, are really, really dangerous. Auckland Transport is looking at speeds in some of these areas and that could help, but with more and more people living in these areas between urban and rural, AT will have to look very very closely at investing more money on safe walking spaces in that area.” Hulse says the former Waitakere City Council was working on plans for improving safety for pedestrians on the narrow winding roads, but they were lost in the amalgamation.

Hulse is not blind to the angst over track closures.

“It’s a hard one. We agonised about closing them. We were accused of being too slow to act by not closing the ranges …. now we have closed them and will reopen them in a planned and sensible way. It is challenging. In saying that, we do have the responsibility of the health of the Waitakere Ranges, and the challenge of dealing with kauri dieback … we are a regional council and also have bio-security and other responsibilities, other than just providing for tracks.

“And we do have responsibility for the health and wellbeing and recreational opportunities for people. “

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