Stop The Chop! Save the RMA.
At midday last Thursday, after three-and-a-half days high in the arms of an old Kauri tree, Forest & Bird member Michael Tavares descended to cheers and applause from the crowd.
Michael’s feat beyond doubt raised the media profile and contributed to a successful outcome, after a two-year battle through the formal process to save the Titirangi tree culminated in this last ditch effort by organisers and community at the site, on the day that the tree was to be felled.
The kauri was certainly pre-European, estimated between 200 and 500 years old. It was an echo of the tree occupation protests that had been successful in saving ancient totara in the Pureora Forest in the 1970s.
This kauri was, thanks to Michael and fellow protest organisers, one tree lucky enough to hit the headlines and capture public and media imagination. But it was just one of many notable trees, some of which would have been formerly protected by general rules in their local district plans, now at risk of a chainsaw massacre.
Their fate now hangs on recent Resource Management Act (RMA) changes already made in 2009 and 2013, and further proposed changes foreshadowed in 2015. National’s government is taking an axe to the Act, in the name of development-friendly progress. Until the changes are stopped and reversed, trees such as these are part of the price.
It was great to see Conservation Minister Maggie Barry stepping up, in the face of the groundswell of support and vocal opposition: it took a day and a half, but the Minister did the right thing and asked DOC to find out what could be done to save the tree.
In the aftermath, Auckland Council and government are blaming one another for mistakes made on both sides. But with the real-life consequences of bad law-making now in the public spotlight, a new Environment Minister, and RMA reforms on their way – this is the time for Ministers to review what went wrong, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
We hope Maggie Barry is asking her colleague Nick Smith to revisit RMA rules relating to public notification and tree protection, and make sure that they are adequate.
After a first failed legislative attempt in 2009, a 2013 RMA amendment rewrote – on behalf of all councils – tree protection rules in district plans. Rules that had given local trees some general types of protection (eg, by district, tree species, height or girth) were no longer allowed.
It was the government, overriding communities’ rights to decide for themselves which trees should be protected, and how. Trees would in future need to be individually (in most cases) listed in a schedule to the district plan.
(4A) A rule may prohibit or restrict the felling, trimming, damaging, or removal of a tree or trees on a single urban environment allotment only if, in a schedule to the plan,—
(a) the tree or trees are described; and
(b) the allotment is specifically identified by street address or legal description of the land, or both..
(4D) To avoid doubt, subsections (4A) and (4B) apply—
(a) regardless of whether the tree, trees, or group of trees is, or the allotment or allotments are, also identified on a map in the plan; and
(b) regardless of whether the allotment or allotments are also clad with bush or other vegetation.
This put the onus on landowners and councils to individually protect trees – or at most by an “adjacent cluster, line or grove” – but certainly not overall green belts and zones (with significant other biodiversity). And inevitably, the result is that fewer trees will be protected.
Here’s another example by way of anecdote, that surfaced on social media during the week. In Kapiti, a kauri of very significant age and size was not protected by district rules; its neighbouring smaller two rimu however were, because they were locally native.
It’s this kind of anomaly which, of course, is now corrected post-2013 – by removing protection from the rimu! Could the commenter have had his kauri listed as a notable tree? They simply hadn’t considered it.
And for those other than landowners trying to protect notable local trees – it’s a complex and occasional process, in which a request or submission as part of the district plan review would be heard by RMA commissioners, weighted in favour of the landowner, and usually, rejected.
“This week, we saw a community claiming back its power, after legislation and council process had locked them out of a crucial decision. We saw the power of people coming together and standing for something important.”
Community protest leader and organiser Renee Annan, in an email to kauri supporters
We expect to see the situation with the kauri playing out a lot more often, with communities fighting, case by case, over notable trees.
If that’s not the situation we want (and I’m pretty sure it’s not the situation the government wants), it’s about the balance struck in the RMA and district planning and consenting processes, between private rights, the public interest, and community involvement.
Efforts to lock communities out simply do not work. But while we wait for Nick Smith to reveal his likely very comprehensive suite of further RMA reforms later in the year, it’s worth reflecting on the developers’ open letter, offering the kauri a reprieve.
The letter’s complaints, general tone, and glancing comments on local planning, processes and the RMA seem to say: this is a backtrack, but not a back down.
What you can do:
We’ve been campaigning to #SaveTheRMA for a while now, but we need your help to let the current government know that you want to see the RMA protected so native trees can also be protected for future generations.
Take action: send an email to Nick Smith and his colleagues. Any further change to the balance between private property, and other rights and interests – as has been signalled – needs to be staunchly opposed.
Ask them to “Stop The Chop” by: reversing the 2013 tree protection changes (which were a mistake); reviewing rules around public notification; and strengthening rather than weakening local and public involvement, and biodiversity and tree protection.