The developer of a luxury golf course north of Auckland is harming the rare bird on its logo, conservationists claim. David Williams reports.

It’s one of the world’s best golf courses named after one of the world’s rarest birds.

But there’s a suggestion that Tara Iti Golf Club’s namesake, the fairy tern, could be severely affected by decisions made by the course’s developer, Te Arai North Ltd – which is also behind an adjacent housing development. The company’s investors include the club’s American billionaire owner, Ric Kayne, high-profile property developer John Darby, of Queenstown, and hapu Te Uri o Hau.

At the centre of the years-long row is what the developers call a “ford” over Te Ārai Stream, near Mangawhai, north of Auckland. It’s public land that is destined to become a regional park. Opponents, who maintain the structure in the stream is illegal, call it a “weir” or “dam”, and argue it’s disrupting the life cycle of fish. Those fish are crucial to the survival of the fairy tern, which are known to feed and flock at the Te Ārai Stream mouth.

Despite grave fears held by fairy tern advocates, Eugenie Sage – the Conservation and Land Information Minister – refuses to step in. This comes as the species, with only about 40 birds left, has had one of its worst breeding seasons. Only two chicks have fledged.

Melanie Scott is a member of the group Save Te Arai who voluntarily monitors the fairy tern. She says: “It seems to me utterly extraordinary that for the first time we have a Minister of Conservation who is a member of the Green Party who seems unperturbed by the fact that she may well preside over the extinction of this bird.”

Reserve’s ecological heart

Concerned about public access to the beach and the plight of the fairy tern, two tiny community groups formed part of the opposition to an initial proposal for up to 2000 homes in the old Mangawhai Forest. The Te Arai Beach Preservation Society, Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, and others, eventually agreed to a deal that would allow 46 homes to be built at Te Arai north, in exchange for a 196-hectare public park. The 2014 deal was hailed by the Rodney Times newspaper with the headline “Hapu’s gift saves Te Arai coast”.

Land for the park was vested in Auckland Council in December 2015. Fairy Tern Charitable Trust convenor Heather Rogan says: “We saw the stream as the ecological heart of this reserve, because it’s got a bit of a wetland downstream, there were bitterns, and for us the fish that the fairy tern feed on was important.”

But even now, more than three years later, the council hasn’t produced a management plan.

Save Te Arai’s Scott says: “We all know why. It’s because they don’t want to address the issues of the dam and the stream. They want to put that to bed first.”

Lawyer turned Mangawhai avocado farmer Ewan Price, who has written to Sage about the dam, reckons the ford wasn’t legally built in the first place.

When the forest was Government-owned, the ford was historically used to get heavy forestry machinery across the stream. Hapu Te Uri o Hau bought the northern forest as part of its Treaty settlement and signed a co-governance agreement with developer Te Arai North.

In late 2014, the council issued Te Arai North with a water consent, allowing it to take 980 cubic metres a day from the stream, to be pumped to its reservoir for use at Tara Iti. Golf courses need fresh water, so it’s been suggested the ford was raised to keep salt water away.

Much has been made of Tara Iti. Designed by the renowned American course architect Tom Doak, the club opened in 2015. It immediately debuted on Golf Digest’s World 100 at number six.

Invite-only membership, which costs six figures, is reportedly restricted to about 250. Before gaining entry, according to the NZ Herald, members go through a kind-of personality test, with background checks and interviews. Non-members need a letter of introduction from their club to play and they’re expected to stay in member’s cottages during their once-in-a-lifetime visit.

How the ford looked in 2014. Photo: Sioux Ploughman

Over several years – starting in early 2014 – Te Ārai Stream’s ford was modified. Eventually, it was built up, illegally, increasing its height and damming the water.

The biggest change happened after spring storms in 2016. On one day, 90mm of rain fell in four hours, eroding the stream banks. Huge rocks were installed along the bank using a digger. Afterwards, the weir was rebuilt to an illegal height, according to council documents.

Approval for the work was not sought from Land Information New Zealand, which administers stream beds.

In March 2017, Auckland Council ordered the “unauthorised works” removed. Two abatement notices were issued. But after months of negotiations the council’s stance softened. In December of that year, the council issued a certificate of compliance stating the dam was a permitted activity. The weir would be removed to a permitted level and fish passage improved.

Fairy Tern Trust’s Rogan says her group has been raising issues about the dam with the council and developer for some time, including at a community liaison group established to solve issues such as this. “These guys have been allowed to get away with just putting a dam in on public land, in the middle of a reserve. And they’ve just got away with it; it’s just appalling.”

For DOC and council officials to endorse the weir height is “quite ridiculous”, Save Te Arai’s Scott says.

Frustrated by changes

During the fairy tern nesting season, Reg Whale, a Te Ārai sheep and beef farmer, checks 115 traps for “hedgehogs, ferrets, weasels, stoats, cats, the odd pig”. He’s proud that for the last six years, his trapping has helped to ensure no fairy terns have been killed by predators.

But Whale, an early member of the Te Arai Beach Preservation Society, is frustrated by the changes to the stream. “We know what’s wrong, the council knows what’s wrong, the developers know they’ve done the wrong thing but no one will do anything about it.”

Te Arai North, through public relations practitioner David Lewis, says the “low flow monitoring weir” was essential to monitor flows for water-takes, and were a condition of consent. No consent was needed for its installation. The council consents team “confirmed that the emergency works [in 2016] complied with the rules of the unitary plan”, Lewis says.

(There’s a political aspect to this story. Last year, Lewis, Helen Clark’s former press secretary, was named by Richard Harmon’s Politik blog as a link between Te Arai North and the Government, in a story about a mooted-then-scrapped exemption from the overseas buyers’ ban to the luxury property development. Former PM Sir John Key also played there, while in office. In 2017, while in opposition, New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and Tracey Martin criticised the previous government’s handling of public access issues at Te Ārai.)

Auckland Council’s manager of resource consents north, Ian Dobson, says in a statement Te Arai’s plans were reviewed by its development engineer and ecologist. “Council was satisfied the proposed works met the permitted activity standards and a certificate of compliance was issued.” A site inspection last August confirmed the works were compliant, Dobson says.

“The council has seen no evidence to suggest the completed works interfere with the birds’ breeding grounds.”

However, the council’s certificate of compliance decision calls the ford extension “unlawful” and ordered that it be reinstated to its pre-2013 height. (Rogan says that’s yet to happen.) A council planner determined the ford extension was a discretionary activity, meaning a consent was needed, and “required significant upgrades for upstream and downstream fish passage”.

The decision added that one of the reasons for modifying the ford was for “better vehicle access”.

“Removal of the weir and rock rip rap is necessary, both to restore unimpeded fish passage up the stream and to repair inanga spawning habitat.” – Tim Lovegrove

The situation seems sensitive for the council. On January 14, Newsroom asked the council to provide a timeline of complaints and decisions, but none has been forthcoming. It is also yet to explain why it has taken so long to produce a management plan for the new park.

A bizarre twist is that the council seems to have ignored its own scientific advice.

Ecologists Matt Bloxham and Tim Lovegrove wrote memos in early 2017 recommending the weir and rock “rip-rap” be removed. Bloxham said the weir could prevent fish passage and spawning while Lovegrove said reduced fish passage, including to the Slipper and Spectacle lakes could have knock-on effects on two highly-threatened bird species, the fairy tern and Australasian bittern.

Lovegrove concludes: “As recommended by Matt Bloxham, removal of the weir and rock rip rap is necessary, both to restore unimpeded fish passage up the stream and to repair inanga spawning habitat.”

Council consents boss Dobson says the memo reflected work carried out before an abatement notice was issued, “not the works that followed”, and the processing planner and team leader who eventually worked on the case never received the memo.

Lewis is adamant Te Arai North (TANL) has done the right thing. “At every stage, TANL has relied on extensive ecological advice from highly qualified experts. That expert advice, which has been supplied to Auckland Council, has consistently found that TANL’s work had no adverse effects on the stream’s ecology.”

Unnatural modification

Nevertheless, a leading ecologist is surprised by the council’s U-turn. Auckland’s Shona Myers spoke to Newsroom from Dubai, before she reached Geneva for a meeting of the International Association for Ecology, which she used to head.

Myers was contracted by the Fairy Tern Trust to look at the effects of damming the stream. She says she visited the site in the middle of last year.

The stream’s natural flow and ecological qualities had been degraded by the “dam”, she says, which was “definitely restricting passage of fish” – restricting the already restricted food sources for the fairy tern. “For something that’s so critically endangered it’s a worry.”

Myers also expressed surprise the weir was allowed to remain, when that seemed expressly against the advice of council ecologists Bloxham and Lovegrove.

It’s certainly open to the council to act, Myers says. Auckland’s unitary plan has provisions about protecting significant biodiversity, as does section six of the Resource Management Act. “They should be addressing the biodiversity values of that stream system, and they’re clearly not.”

Conservation Minister Sage told Newsroom in December that responsibility for decisions about the ford/weir rests with Auckland Council. She says her department is committed to improving the threatened status of the fairy tern.

“To achieve this, the department is in the process of setting up a New Zealand fairy tern/tara iti recovery group that would develop a strategic approach to improve the threat status of this species.” DOC has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust, Boffa Miskell, and Te Uri o Hau Settlement Trust for research and to develop an adaptive management programme.

Bridge over troubled waters

Sage has so far resisted calls from fairy tern advocates to step in and order that the ford be reduced to its pre-2013 height. DOC staff have visited the site and, according to the Minister, they have no concerns about fish passage.

Despite these assurances, Sage has written to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, asking him to ensure the ecology of the stream isn’t being compromised.

Goff’s intervention might not be needed.

PR man Lewis confirms Te Arai North has offered to remove the ford – after it builds a bridge over the stream. (This suggests that vehicle crossing is, now at least, its primary purpose.) Auckland Council has already granted consent for the bridge.

However, Rogan questions the need for one. “If that’s a proper reserve and the ecological values of the reserve are protected, there’s no need for a bridge or a ford. It’s like setting up a problem and then creating something else to solve it – something that isn’t quite as bad.”

The bigger question might be what damage has already been done to New Zealand’s rarest native bird? Historically, the Te Ārai Stream mouth has been a nesting site for the fairy tern, including the 2012-13 and 2015-16 seasons. It’s also an important post-breeding flocking site. Part of the reason for that is the previously reliable source of food.

It would be an awful shame if the only fairy terns near Tara Iti were the ones on the golf club’s logo.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment