An exotic invader is daubing its dark-green paint brush across Central Otago’s golden hills and the rugged vistas that enchant visitors could soon be blotted out.

The artist whose work captures the beauty of this craggy vastness, Sir Grahame Sydney, says the spread of wilding pines in the district is “explosive”.

He is concerned that what makes Central so distinctive – sawtooth silhouettes of schist rock, tussock-clad open spaces – is fast disappearing.

“For the past 48 years of my career I’ve been aware I’ve been lucky to find my place, the place I belong. I’ve learned down the decades all across New Zealand people have a particular affection for the landscapes of Central Otago.”

Sydney says a standard image comes to mind when the place is mentioned.

“It’s the basis of Central Otago’s tourist economy to a large degree. We are one of New Zealand’s many distinctive regions but people visit because we are different – we are particularly distinctive, we are unlike anywhere else.”

Marketed by the local visitors’ centre as “A World of Difference”, Central will soon become a “plantation world” with no point of difference from plantations anywhere in the world if wilding pines spread unchecked.

At his home at Cambrians near St Bathans, Sydney looks over what he calls a “cancerous green blanket” on the land.

Within 15 years, the hillside across from his and wife Fiona’s home has gone from tussock with a lone pine to dense forest. On a hilly ridge to the right, he points out parent trees surrounded by a scattering of seedlings.

The trees produce cones when they reach six to eight years of age. Central’s scorching nor’wester, that blows through spring and summer, aids and abets the spread, carrying seeds far and wide. Up to 20km away, new daubs of dark green are being dotted every year.

“It is an explicit and explosive pattern but most people don’t see the urgency. In the first place they hardly see the trees, but anywhere you see just one, think two decades and you’ve got a dense, impenetrable forest. Everything native is gone and so has Central Otago’s character.”

Sydney says he has nothing against exotic species, their autumn colours helping show off the region’s seasonal extremes. But the right tree needs to be in the right place, and be managed.

Can’t see the trees for the forest

In the 1980s there was a government push for investment forestry, but no one foresaw the consequences.

“Trees were introduced for fast growth and quick money. There was no talk about the detrimental effects. It was all about the money and lots of councils planted forestry. You can’t criticise them – everyone was doing the same at the time.”

As if nature wasn’t efficient enough, stories are told of people heating pine cones in ovens to accelerate seed release, then dropping them from aircraft in an effort to cover the hills with trees.

Wilding pines jostle with rocky outcrops near Ōmakau. Photo: Jill Herron

Sydney says it’s now well known that pines obliterate native species from the grasses upward.

“Damage to the soil is permanent and they suck up massive amounts of ground water.”

The Central Otago District Council needs to act before it’s too late, he says.

“What I want is the council to face up to its responsibilities.”

In late June, prompted and part-funded by the Central Otago Wilding Conifer Control Group (COWCCG), of which Sydney is an executive member, the council cleared wilding pines from reserve land near Cromwell.

Some locals were upset at the loss of a landmark shelter belt that marched down the ridge beside Lowburn Inlet, criticising the clearance on social media as “vandalism”.

In Alexandra, however, a stand of planted and self-seeded pines got a last-minute reprieve after residents who had been enjoying it as a park for decades objected.

The council had given no warning of its intentions apart from issuing a press release to local media 10 days before heavy machinery was due to roll in.

Ken Churchill, left, and Chris Winter dislike wilding pines but reckon trees in their neighbourhood park in Alexandra are being unfairly targeted and undervalued. Photo: Jill Herron

Thirty-five residents supported a 10-page report being presented to council detailing the history, amenity value of large trees close to town and the habitat the Half-Mile trees provided. Public consultation was called for by the Vincent community board and a hasty landscaping proposal commissioned by council for what could be done with the cleared site.

The residents say they dislike wilding pines and understand their threat. But the stand in the council’s sights provides shelter, a safe place for kids’ to bike, quiet walkways and a buffer from the highway, and is not solely responsible for local spread, they say.

Consultation has ended and the community board will soon have to make a call on how to proceed.

Sydney says the council could have better handled the situation and he hopes it has learned from it. But he has little sympathy for those defending the trees, believing the surrounding landscape is paying too high a price for them.

He’s pleased most Central Otago farmers, who have to pay just 20 percent of removal costs, are working to eradicate pines. A handful are hesitant because they don’t see the problem, are shy of spending on it or resent being asked to act.

The key to winning the battle for Central Otago, he thinks, is getting people to understand. This would then push councils and central government agencies such as Land Information New Zealand to step up.

“At the moment there isn’t the ratepayer concern. There’s no anxiety among people. They don’t care because they don’t see it and that’s understandable.”

Susceptible Central

Phil Murray, COWCCG’s project manager, says about half of Central Otago land is class VII or VIII, which tags it as vulnerable to wilding-pine invasion because of very low levels of grazing.

“We are particularly susceptible because our indigenous vegetation, which most of us would prefer to see recovering, is generally of a lower stature and can be outcompeted for light and moisture. Exotic conifers, if left uncontrolled, tend to dominate as a monoculture.”

Murray says conifers were introduced by early European settlers as shelter for homes and stock and later as commercial plantings, such as Naseby Forest.

As more trees get established in the district, the spread accelerates. Shelter is created, other plant species are blocked out and germination rates improve from increased mycorrhizae in the soil, related to the particular conifer species.

Eradication is possible, but like Sydney, Murray says it will only happen through greater awareness of the problem. The difficulty is raising awareness before the trees’ spread gets out of hand, at which point “recovering the situation is very expensive”.

Neither of the pair is comfortable with the idea of commercial pine forestry in Central Otago.

Although wilding pines do sequester carbon, Murray says the environmental costs outweigh the  benefits.

“We can sequester carbon in a much better way than simply letting wildings invade our landscapes. A careful debate is needed about reducing atmospheric carbon, not a knee-jerk response.

“We need to ask ourselves what we want from our landscapes. Do we simply open them up for individuals to make as much money as possible or are there other important collective objectives?”

Landowners need to have a good look in their “own backyards” and act if they had wildings. Walkers, bikers and everyone else could help too.

“Join a group, carry a silkie saw in your backpack when you go walking in the hills or mountain biking, think about it and share your thoughts with your mates.”

Not cheap to chop

COWCCG at present gets most of its funding from the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), on top of $120,000 a year from Otago Regional and Central Otago District councils.

Nationwide government funding of $100 million over four years has two years to run, Murray says.

“We have spent just over $3 million in our seven years so far and have controlled trees over about 400,000ha of Central Otago. We have contained the trees from spreading further on the large extensive landscapes but now need to deal with seed sources.”

The group pays 80 percent of the cost of individual control projects with landowners paying the rest.

Nationally, the government estimates up to 7.5 million hectares will be lost to wilding-pine invasion if nothing is done to reverse the spread.

A wilding pine clearance operation. Photo: Garett McKnight

Aside from tourism losses, the economic cost to primary production, biodiversity, hydroelectric power generation and irrigation could amount to $4.6 billion, MPI says. And within three decades, more than a quarter of the country could be covered by wilding pines if their spread is left unchecked.

Every year we wait, says MPI, the cost of removing wilding pines rises by nearly a third. In Central Otago, according to Murray, the landscape could change irrevocably within a short time.

“It would not take long for more than half of Central Otago to be dominated by wilding conifers. If it wasn’t for the $3 million of work we’ve done since 2015, people looking out their car windows would notice that the mountains are changing colour and texture.

“They would feel the loss of something they deeply value, that gives them identity and a feeling of place, and for some, belonging. By then it would be too late to recover the situation.”

Murray favours regulation as well as awareness-raising.

“Unless councils are prepared to levy a rate for controlling wildings into the future, the money will run out. Awareness of the threat of spread needs to be embedded in society so people plant conifers only in appropriate places and control them.

“However, this will need the support of regulation to prevent the planting of commercial forests in vulnerable landscapes and to require property owners to control wildings on their land.”

Sir Grahame Sydney says we can choose to preserve Central Otago’s distinctiveness or let it end up looking like “plantation world”. Photo: Jill Herron

Dylan Rushbrook, the general manager of Central Otago District Council’s tourism arm, says the council is well aware the district’s landscape is a key visitor drawcard.

A soon-to-be-released Central Otago destination management plan identifies one of 10 new strategies for the district as “inspiring environmental stewardship”.

The idea is visitors would willingly contribute to reducing their impact and protecting Central Otago’s environment, including flora and fauna, Rushbrook says.

Whether tourists would be keen to pack a pruning saw in their panniers is yet to be seen but if combined efforts can stop the spread, Sydney’s paintings will remain a celebration of what the region has, rather than what it had.

“It’s a simple choice,” Sydney says. “Do we want Central Otago to look like an evergreen forest where once there was a golden tussock land? I don’t want it to look like the Rockies. I want it to look like us.”

* Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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