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Auckland central tree loss ‘horrific’

A new report detailing the loss of tree canopy in Auckland's inner city suburbs over the last 10 years is being described as "horrific" by urban ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley. 

The University of Auckland expert was staggered at the numbers that emerged from the publication done by Auckland Council's research and evaluation unit. At least 12,879 trees - the report says the real number is likely to be far greater - were chopped in the Waitematā board area in the decade to February 2016. The area of tree canopy lost has been 61.23 hectares. Stanley pinpoints as the villain the 2009 change in the Resource Management Act that stripped trees of bulk protection. It kicked in from 2012.

The report says more than 75 percent of all cleared trees had no statutory protection and unprotected trees experienced higher rates of tree canopy clearance; about 60 percent higher than what would be expected on a proportional basis.

More than half the trees came down for "no obvious reason" - no development sprung up in their place. 

"Those are enormous numbers," Stanley says. "That's far greater than we expected. We all knew this was going on but the scale is quite horrific. And that's just the Waitematā board, it might be worse in other local boards.

"It's just frustrating. I really do think it's people not getting the message about the benefits of trees." 

The study used digital photography to map the canopy, which looked at trees over three metres high. A more accurate and up-to-date picture will be presented when figures are available from radar mapping, hopefully this year. Ecologists such as Stanley have been waiting for the figures to prove anecdotal evidence of what they call "the great chainsaw massacre" prompted by the RMA law changes. 

Stanley says the usual reasons for tree loss are people wanting a view, or they think a tree is shading their house, or leaves are blocking the gutter. But part of it is also because they're time-poor now. "You only have to look at the latest The Block NZ to see it - artificial turf going in for simple low maintenance. They're not looking at the cost benefits - and the benefits definitely outweigh the costs." Those include flood protection; soaking up air pollution; supporting biodiversity - bringing the birds to your back yard; reducing depression and stress; lowering blood pressure and improving mental health. 

"We also know property values are high in some of the leafier suburbs," she says. "But it's become like the herd mentality from vaccination ... a 'my land, my trees' mentality. There are plenty of trees in the community and this is only one tree in my backyard.... " But as the report says, it's 'death by a thousand cuts', and those cuts now cover the area of 61 rugby fields. 

The suburbs worst hit by de-forestation were Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Westmere, which the report says isn't too surprising given that those suburbs are largely in the hands of private landowners, where most trees have been cut down. Herne Bay had the lowest level of loss, but the report's authors are at a loss to explain why. 

"One possibility is differences in relative section size and sub-division potential of Herne Bay compared to other locations. This warrants further investigation; if there is a reason why private landowners are not felling trees in Herne Bay then lessons from this could be applied to tree canopy protection across the Auckland metro area," the report says. 

Auckland Council is itself to blame for large amounts of tree loss, much of it for infrastructure projects. A huge slice - 1.67 ha -went from Newmarket Park as part of remedial works to halt and stabilise subsidence, and remove contaminated landfill material. About 400 trees went. Replanting has taken place and more trees are going in than came out. 

The report also says Auckland Zoo has seen significant clearances associated with its ongoing redevelopment, both in the zoo itself and on adjoining land. However that is disputed by the zoo which is proud of its extensive planting programme over the past 30 years. In 2009 it felled 30 large pines on next door council land with permission, as they were hazardous and some had already fallen across the zoo’s boundary.

Victoria Park has also experienced a significant amount of tree loss associated with the construction of the Victoria Park tunnel. New trees have been planted but it's likely to be several decades before they reach a size where they're providing the environmental and health benefits of the large trees they replaced.

Tree Council secretary Dr Mels Barton also uses the word "horrifying" to describe the numbers - and the clearance of canopy for no obvious reason.

The report says the motivations for these types of clearance were unclear, but probably included the usual range of reasons given for tree clearance; such as improving light and removing shading, improving views, reducing nuisance litter fall, or to alleviate health and safety concerns with respect to falling trees and branches.

Barton hears these excuses at hearings all the time - "everything from 'it's making me sick I'm so worried about it falling on the house' to 'it produces leaves that fall in my gutter and I have to clean them'." 

The report statement that there's no evidence for an increased rate of canopy loss across the 10-year time period covered doesn't wash with her. She says the study is already more than two years out of date, and she believes the rate of removal is accelerating. 

"We need to sort this out. Auckland needs trees. Every other city in the world is more aware of that and recognises the benefits." As for the council saying replanting has been done, the benefits of that will be 30 years away. Barton says the report is a good indication of what's happening, but in some other wards things will be worse. "In some suburbs 40 percent of trees have been lost. That's really horrifying. That's why it's important for the Government to put the brakes on now, before it's too late.

Changes to the Resource Management Act are coming - "it's a matter of when, not it", but not fast enough for Barton. She says Environment Minster David Parker doesn't think it's urgent, but with reports like this coming out, "I don't think we can afford to wait any longer". 

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