Every day in our city, dozens of trees are cut down without ceremony. At dawn on Thursday, there will be a ceremonial farewell for the contested macrocarpa in Avondale being felled to make way for the Ockham-Marutūāhu housing development. Local tree defender Juressa Lee of Mana Rākau explains how ‘Big Mac’ starkly shows the need for a return to general tree protection.

Auckland Council has many fine words and declarations about trees and the climate but, if we were to judge them by their actions, they are anti-trees. Just before Christmas, Councillors voted against protecting hundreds of exceptional trees. Central Government, by their refusal to bring back general tree protection, is complicit in the daily destruction of the urban ngahere. Both levels of government wrongly think you can replace decades or centuries-old trees with seedlings. You can’t.

At the gateway to my home neighbourhood of Avondale is a mighty macrocarpa – exceeding 120 years old, standing nearly 30m tall. At its widest point, it is nearly 8m in circumference. This tree has sequestered 37 tonnes of carbon over its long life. It absorbs 17m square of water every year and filters 3kg of air. It is listed on an elite schedule of fewer than 3000 notable trees across the whole of Tāmaki. It is number 730 on that list. 

Late last year, word reached the community that the macrocarpa was to be cut down to make way for a housing development. The public would get no say. It was to be felled through a non-notified consent.

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Macrocarpa wrangle seeds call for more urban trees

In Avondale, we have repeatedly found ourselves on the wrong end of poor, democratic processes. We have a decrepit, empty lot in the middle of our main drag. The infamous 3 Guys site, left vacant for over 20 years, has been a contentious issue for many locals who have felt voiceless and disenfranchised. A Mobil station was permitted to be squeezed between a church, a cemetery and the war memorial park from which Avondale RSA members march each ANZAC Day. Our pleas for a community swimming pool have gone unanswered for decades. We’ve had to tolerate a leaky community centre for many years while decision-making for a replacement sat at the bottom of the priority list. 

We are also doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Auckland’s much-needed housing intensification with hundreds of new apartments being built, but this is steamrolling ahead with poor, if any, consultation with locals. And we’re fighting to save what’s left of our mature trees. As our population bulges, we are losing nature and green space – those things that help hugely to make any suburb and city liveable. 

The term ‘leafy suburbs’ describes wealthy parts of Tāmaki. One of the markers of less affluent suburbs is the absence of tree cover. While Mount Eden, Epsom and Remuera have 20-30 percent canopy cover; Avondale and Kelston have 10-15 percent; and Māngere, Ōtāhuhu and East Tāmaki have under 10 percent. And it shows. There is a narrative that trees are a luxury that poor people don’t need and can’t afford. Actually, trees – particularly large and mature trees – are proven to be beneficial for the mental health and wellbeing of communities. We all need houses and trees. We need nature in our daily lives.

It is in this context that Avondale is the birthplace of a renewed movement dedicated to protecting the rākau of our city and dedicated to reinstating general tree protection. Our movement is called Mana Rākau. 

Our only option was to make sure, if this tree was to die, that it would not die in silence or for nothing.

Mana Rākau began as the last line of defence for trees. People stepped in front of machinery literally as the chainsaws gunned on July 7, 2020 at an irreplaceable, 100-year-old native arboretum on private land in Canal Road. For over six months, and to this day, we have held the site, with a permanent tree occupation. Arborists and passionate locals and supporters from across Tāmaki have occupied trees to save them from destruction by developer Paul Macey of Made Homes. An Aukati – rāhui has been declared by mana whenua forbidding entry to those who wish harm to the trees. 

When we heard last November that the scheduled macrocarpa at the junction of Ash Street and Great North Road was to be cut down, Mana Rākau placed a banner around the mac’s vast girth. It said, “Save this tree”.

We made an appeal to the developer to meet with us to discuss options for altering their design to keep ‘Big Mac’ standing. To us, it seemed wrong that this notable tree was not being incorporated into their housing development. 

What became clear over ensuing weeks was that a design change was not a minor but a major prospect. Furthermore, over 78 of the 117 apartments were already sold and the main investor was a collective of iwi.

The only way to potentially save this tree was to stop the project in its tracks and find funds to take them and Council to court, thereby locking things up for a year or more to try and force Ockham-Marutūāhu back to the drawing board. That would cost all parties tens of thousands of dollars and hit the iwi investors hard. It would cost the 78 families and individuals who had already purchased an apartment in stress, uncertainty and money. It would absorb our movement’s resources in a pitched battle over a single, magnificent tree.

We decided we were not prepared to do that.

We are a group of everyday people, from all walks of life who have come together to defend trees. We have been put in the impossible situation of having to choose between this scheduled tree that is being removed through an undemocratic, unjust process, a much-needed housing development, and our broader work as a grassroots movement to save the native ngahere on Canal Road, and bring back general tree protection. 

We agreed to sit at the negotiating table with Ockham-Marutūāhu. What we found was common ground about the need for quality housing and even, believe it or not, agreement that we needed a return to general tree protection. 

We cannot fight the battle for tree protection one tree at a time. 

Our only option was to make sure, if this tree was to die, that it would not die in silence or for nothing. That it would become a symbol of a system that stands against trees. If it must fall, it will do so with our call, “Let this be the last!” 

Not the last tree to be cut, because there are times when it is appropriate to cut trees. But let it be the last time a scheduled tree is cut without public notification, without community inclusion, without due process and accountability. 

We agreed to sit at the negotiating table with Ockham-Marutūāhu. What we found was common ground about the need for quality housing and even, believe it or not, agreement that we needed a return to general tree protection. 

They agreed that if we were to remove our platform and ropes and custom-built kitchen bench, and the tree was to go, that they would work with us and Council to have at least 13 notable, local trees scheduled in the Whau. That they would make a tribute to the mac as part of their development; that there would be a ceremony on the day it will be cut to acknowledge the mana of this majestic tree and its service to our community and environment in all its years. A ceremony and an acknowledgement that thousands of trees in this city never get when they are sawn down. 

The urban ngahere is lost one tree at a time, but we can’t save it one tree at a time. One-third of Auckland’s canopy has been destroyed in under a decade since tree protection was revoked by John Key. Our movement is forced to fight on the front line because the Council and Government have failed to protect trees. The solution is certain. We need a return to general tree protection urgently.

As I contemplated the prospect of this mighty tree being cut it occurred to me that mana survives death. This macrocarpa will not be forgotten. It spent decades as a shelter belt for other trees and its mana will live well beyond death in the 13 more trees or stands of trees it will save with its life. The story of Big Mac amplifies the failure of repealed protection. It redoubles our commitment to give all trees their due: meaningful protection. When we succeed we will remember the part the Ash Street macrocarpa played.

Mana Rākau!

A public ceremony honouring the macrocarpa will be held at 5:45am on Thursday morning at the corner of Ash Street and Great North Road in Avondale. 

Over 7500 people have signed Mana Rākau’s petition calling on the Government to bring back general tree protection.

Juressa Lee is a member of tree protection group Mana Rākau.

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