Sunday, January 15, 2006

Flora to the Fore

The indigenous vs. exotic vegetation debate issue refuses to die. In Auckland, there's been a major outcry over the city council's plans to replace 20 exotic trees with indigenous ones as part of the redevelopment of Queen St. Russell Brown covers it pretty well in three separate posts (he also links to my previous post on Rosemary McLeod's "eco-fascist" column).

Clearly, the issue seems to provoke a reaction out of all proportion to the trees themselves. Latest to pick up the torch is Dominion Post columnist Karl du Fresne in a piece titled "Eco-Nazis face a backlash" Du Fresne claims there's a conspiracy to eliminate exotic vegetation and replace it with natives, based on what he calls "an ideological fixation" that exotic plants don't belong.

Apparently, the protests in Auckland consistute "the stirrings of a backlash against the eco-Nazis", while in Wellington "there is mounting resistance to the eradication of Monterey pines on the Tinakorki Hills" (though it may be suggested that such "resistance" is a little tardy, given that the planned clearance of storm-damaged pines was completed by last June).

Du Fresne is convinced there are underhand agendas at work:

"I suspect the safety argument is a smokescreen. Concealed behind it is an ideological fixation that exotic trees don't belong in New Zealand and should be eliminated"

Well, if there were an evil cabal bent on wiping out introduced flora, perhaps as a prelude to invading Poland, you would expect to find some evidence of it in Wellington City Council's Town Belt vegetation management plan (for non-Wellingtonians, the Town Belt comprises all the wooded and green areas in the hills surrounding the city).

Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the vision presented by this document is boringly balanced and inclusive:

"The variety of vegetation types on the Town Belt offers a range of recreational and visual experiences which is valued by the people of Wellington. There are those who will argue for the creation of pure native forest cover, and those who prefer the open understorey of the coniferous forest. There is scope to accommodate a range of preferences. The landscape and microclimates are varied enough to carry variety in the vegetation cover and, as this is a public reserve, the desires of as many of the community as practicable should be accommodated."

Admittedly, this is still consistent with the existence of eco-fascists who think all exotic trees should be eradicated. But they perhaps seem a little less scary once you realise they're not actually in charge -- or if they are, they have heroically subjected their views to the constraints of democracy. At the risk of sounding politically correct, any such exotic tree-haters are entitled to their views. Just as Rosemary McLeod is entitled to broadcast her breezily ignorant dislike of "sludgy-green" native vegetation.

The plan does propose that "native vegetation [be] established on a much greater proportion of the Town Belt than at the present time", moving from 20 percent at present to eventually 60 percent. This will involve some development of existing native regeneration, replacement of most grass and scrub, and, yes, some replacement of exotic conifers, "notably on Tinakori Hill".

Does this mean Council stormtroopers will be dispatched to uproot innocent Monterey pines under the cover of night? Not exactly. This shift in proportions is considered "a realistic approach within the timeframe of this plan" -- 50-100 years.

Both McLeod and du Fresne mention Mt Victoria, an iconic area of mixed conifer and eucalyptus, and a setting for some of Lord of the Rings. McLeod is agitated about its future:

Something like [Tinakori Hill] will happen on Mount Victoria, too, before long. The giant eucalypts must already offend the taste fascists, and the very hills here have to be political"

In fact, the plan states that "the largest area to be retained in conifers and mixed conifer/eucalypt forest is on Mt Victoria". It further points out that the conifers "are unlikely to regenerate on their own. Where continued exotic forest is desired, replanting will be necessary". In other words, the exotic trees will not just be left alone; they will be actively maintained.

Those who like colour will also be pleased to note that the Council plans to mow some of the grassland areas less frequently, allowing for seasonal (and principally exotic) flower displays.

It's always possible that the City Council plan is all a lie, and is just providing cover for the eco-fascists. But in the absence of any evidence to support this it's probably prudent to take the document at face value.

Personally, though I am not a fascist, eco- or otherwise, I welcome the planned move to 60 percent native vegetation. Like others, I'm fond of Mt Victoria's current exotic cover (which also produces charming bush fires whenever Wellington goes two weeks without rain in summer) but overall find the pine-dominated hills around much of the city rather monotonous. And as I pointed out in my previous post, there are large areas of nothing but grass and scrub which could be hugely improved by regenerating some of the original vegetation.

Others, of course, will disagree, and some will want to retain every last iconic bush of gorse and broom against intruders such as flowering southern rata. Given the necessarily drawn out processes involved in vegetation management, they will have every opportunity to make their views known. Sadly, though, they will required to argue rationally, on a case-by-case basis. Which is a whole lot less fun than getting worked up, shouting about nazis, and pretending you're a freedom fighter.

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Susan said...

Yes, but have you seen the following story about the "banning" of some exotic plants that people all over NZ having been planting in their gardens for scores of years.,2106,3542128a6160,00.html My personal view is that this really is going too far decreeing what people can and can't plant in their own gardens. Agapanthus are one the prettiest parts of the summer and an ornament to many New Zealand gardens and city streets. I seem to remember that you Simon enjoyed them very much on the walkway up to your flat on Brooklyn Hill. Although I couldn't agree more that natives are practical, suited to the climate etc etc, and there is nothing more beautiful than a stand of native bush or a magnificent native tree like a kauri or totara, lets face it they are not "pretty" and we all like our gardens and city streets to have a bit of colour lift to the spirits. I can't help feeling that part of it is a mean spirited cost-cutting agenda on the part of councils too as native plants require less maintenance. There's room for both surely.

Anonymous said...

Fee Fi Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an (exotic) Englishman, expunge him north and south, he is no native of these fair isles!

A paid advertisement of your friendly indigenous species.

Maybe those palefaces can slip in under that 40% allowance; but once on that slippery slope, the uprooting may be inevitable. Sigh.

Tom said...

"this really is going too far decreeing what people can and can't plant in their own gardens" - but the trouble is, they don't stay in the gardens. The proposed ban on selling those species seems to be based upon fairly solid reasons (thanks to Russell Brown for the link) including the fact that Agapanthus seeds can blow over 17m, invade all sorts of habitats and exclude other species. And is Agapanthus really all that attractive anyway? It always looks mumsy and blowsy to me: the Coro St of plants.

Surely one of the reasons for having plants in and around the city is not just to look pretty for us humans, but to provide a complete living ecosystem? And nothing supports native birds better than native trees.

Simon Bidwell said...

Yes, had spotted this, though not in time to mention it in this last post. I notice that "PC eradictor" Wayne Mapp has, god preserve us, decided to jump in on this issue too.

As usual, it's worth looking past NZ Stuff to get to the actual facts.
Here's the
research on which this recommendation was made (oops, see that Tom has linked to it already on this post. Anyway, as Russell Brown says, it's only a proposal at this stage; full consultation is still to occur.

Prettiness: yes, fair point. Should be recognised that native trees such as pohutukawa, rata and kowhai all produce colourful flowers. But ChCh is transformed by its cherry blossom; Wellington by the riot of exotic wildflowers which tumble out of steep front gardens and down hillsides in spring and early summer. Very few would disagree that there's "room for both", which is what the Wellington plan is in fact proposing.

I think part of the problem is that the botanist types who drive these processes don't necessarily "get" ordinary people's concerns. They see complex ecosystems and biological diversity where other people see presence or absence of pretty colours. Seen their way, *of course* everything should be native. It's rather like engineering types not seeing a problem with endless streets of identical houses made from colorsteel and faux brick.

I reckon this well-meaning but blinkered boffin factor is far more the issue than some rampant, anti-exotic political correctness.

But, as Russell Brown also points out, councils probably need to be a bit less naiive about how these things are decided and communicated.