environment

Kauri still waiting for dieback plan

A pest management plan for kauri dieback is missing in action. Farah Hancock reports.

Thirty months after it was announced, there’s still no National Pest Management Plan for kauri dieback.

In 2017, the Government said it was moving immediately to strengthen efforts to protect kauri trees. One of those efforts was creating a National Pest Management Plan (NPMP).

“An NPMP shows how serious we are about protecting kauri. It is by far the strongest piece of regulation available and will ensure mandatory hygiene practices, consistent regulations that apply nationally, stronger governance and access to funding,” said Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor when he announced the plan in December 2017.

National Pest Management Plans are regulatory tools under the Biosecurity Act. Once in place, it would provide a national framework for tackling the disease, funding, and introduce rules.

They have been used to combat threats to the primary sector, including kiwifruit disease Psa, bovine tuberculosis and bee disease American foulbrood.

Forest & Bird’s Central North Island regional manager Rebecca Stirnemann said it wasn't acceptable there was still no word about when the plan would be in place.

When it was announced, there was a high level of public interest.

“There were a lot of consultations and a lot of people turned up to them.”

The three rounds of consultations spanned from June 2018 to March 2019. Stirnemann said since then “there’s been crickets”.

In absence of a national plan, treatment, surveillance and control of kauri dieback has been managed by local councils. The effects of Covid-19 mean one council is proposing to scale back its efforts due to a lack of money.

Newsroom asked O'Connor why there had been such a long delay in bringing the plan - referred to in 2017 as "the strongest piece of regulation available" - to life, and when the plan and its associated funding was likely to be announced. The question was not directly answered. Instead, a joint response was sent from O'Connor and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage saying a National Pest Management Plan was "just one tool in our biosecurity tool belt".

They said money was being committed to Biosecurity New Zealand and the Department of Conservation for a number of kauri dieback initiatives.

Biosecurity New Zealand is getting $3.1 million for an aerial survey, work with treaty partners, delivery of science projects and soil testing in Northland. 

Sage said the Department of Conservation had committed $5.4m "for operational activities including track construction and maintenance, pig control, track ambassadors and advocacy, and is open to receiving further bids through the Jobs for Nature programme to support the fight against kauri dieback”.

The Government had previously committed $13.45 million over four years to scientific research of the disease. This science-based funding does not include operational work to contain the infestation.

In comparison, the painted apple moth cost over $113m to eradicate and $40.2m was spent responding to the Psa bacterium affecting kiwifruit. Thirteen fruit flies cost almost $18m to eradicate, while a plan to get rid of the bovine disease Mycoplasma bovis is expected to cost $889m.

Local councils on the ground

The proposed pest management plan suggested implementation costs be funded by the Crown "with modest contributions from regional councils".

The lack of a plan has meant there's also been a lack of funds for implementation.

Last August, Auckland Council and Northland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regional councils penned a letter to O’Connor and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, upset at the lack of operational funding for dieback and urging them to reconsider their stance. They referred to a Waikato Regional Council report saying council effectiveness in managing kauri dieback would be severely impacted without central government support.

The report noted: "Community expectations for improved action were raised through three rounds of public consultation and statements made by Ministers of Biosecurity and Conservation that the government would ... "move immediately to strengthen efforts to protect kauri trees from dieback disease”.

With the impact of Covid-19 being felt on revenues, one council is looking for places where it can reduce spending. Auckland Council’s consultation document for an emergency budget suggests kauri dieback research is one area where savings may be made. 

In an answer published after a community webinar on the budget, more information was given:

“Under the proposed Auckland Council consultation budget, one fifth of the kauri dieback treatment and research budget would be deferred. At this time, the exact way in which this savings has been achieved is not yet confirmed. We may reduce the number of trees treated with phosphite in the trial under way in the Waitākere Ranges next year, but it is also possible that we will reduce our operational research budget instead. The Waitākere Ranges monitoring and surveillance survey will not be affected.”

A decision regarding options for the emergency budget will be made in July.

The other three councils aren't planning on budget cuts but would be happy to see the plan in place.

For Northland Regional Council, central government funding could have a double benefit of protecting kauri and providing employment. It said that with funds it could undertake fencing, pest control and soil sampling.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council said its annual budget of $30,000 a year for kauri dieback testing and surveillance hasn’t been impacted by Covid-19. Its work is reactive, though central government funds would help allow it to do more proactive sampling, said Biosecurity Leader Shane Grayling.

“Most importantly it will allow hapū, communities and the Department of Conservation to implement protection mechanisms that can protect kauri stands in our region.”

Waikato Regional Council's integrated catchment services manager Patrick Whaley said funding would make a "real difference".

"The council would welcome a National Pest Management Plan for kauri dieback and funding to support this. Central funding, leadership and legislation would provide the best means to protect kauri across kauri lands."

Its kauri dieback budget for the 2020/21 financial year is $224,000 and has not been affected by Covid-19. Whaley said the council had submitted shovel-ready project applications for kauri dieback which include phosphite treatments, surveillance and soil sampling, fencing and ambassador roles. These projects would also provide an employment boost for areas affected by the tourism downturn.

Sheets of bark slide off trees with kauri dieback. Photo: Farah Hancock

What a national plan would mean

The proposed plan has objectives including reducing the spread of kauri dieback, maintaining kauri dieback–free areas and treating infected trees.

The proposed rules include the obligation to report kauri dieback, the restriction of movement of plant or soil which might be infected, risk-management plans for kauri forests, the exclusion of farm stock from kauri forests, the prohibition of the release of animals in kauri forest areas, an obligation to clean items such as footwear or wheels, protection areas, and rules ensuring open tracks meet standards to reduce spread.

Forest & Bird’s Stirnemann wants the government to “get a wriggle on”.

Phosphite injections can be given to trees to slow the disease, but at present there’s no cure for dieback. Kauri are now listed as a threatened species. 

“What’s critical is stopping the disease getting into the last few areas where there is no disease.”

She points out while DoC might be putting funds towards kauri dieback, the issue is bigger given kauri also grow on private land.

"These might be the reservoirs which are disease-free, not the DoC land."

A national plan could provide extra protection for the trees. Stirnemann said she’d heard of one area in the Waikato where some kauri are being cleared. Despite the tree being listed as threatened, it's still legal to for landowners to remove 250 cubic metres' worth with a permit.

“Because we don’t have this plan there is less overarching protection than you would otherwise have … all of this should have come under the plan, but that hasn’t eventuated.”

Timeline

December 2017: Announcement of a National Pest Management Plan for kauri dieback.

June 2018 to March 2019:  Three rounds of public consultation.

April 2019: The NPMP and National Pest Management Agency proposals were delivered to the Minister of Biosecurity.

May 2019: The NPMP was approved, pending funding according to a Waikato Regional Council report. No funds were announced in Budget 2019.

August 2019: Four councils send a letter to O’Connor and Eugenie Sage critical of the lack of funding. 

September 2019: Original date in the project timeline to have a management agency implemented.

March 2020: O’Connor said the funding work is close to completion.

June 2020: No answer given by ministers to Newsroom regarding when funding will be announced

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