Opinion: Every year, volunteers put in the hard yards to make Tāmaki Makaurau better. For example, more than 11,000 volunteers completed more than 113,000 hours in the first two years of Auckland Council’s Community Coordination and Facilitation Grant. That’s equivalent to 2825 40-hour work weeks, or more than 50 years of working full-time.

Working for Forest & Bird, I have the privilege of seeing this mahi up close – for example, the hundreds of people who brave the elements to care for more than 2500 hectares of council whenua in both the Waitākere Ranges at Ark in the Park and on the Hibiscus Coast.

This means I also know that this tremendous work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires support from Auckland Council to pay for project coordinators and provide materials and gear.

But proposed Auckland Council budget cuts mean all this fantastic work is now at risk. Community groups planting trees, trapping pests, and controlling weeds will be left high and dry.

This week, Auckland’s councillors will talk through the annual budget, in the shadow of this year’s severe storms. All Aucklanders felt the impact of these storms in some way – from disruption and damaged properties to the tragic loss of lives.

So, it’s concerning that despite our shared experience of a climate-fuelled disaster, the council appears ready to guillotine many initiatives that can prepare us for the next big storm. Supporting grassroots volunteers to implement nature-based solutions – like urban forests and restored wetlands – can make our communities more resilient to future floods, which will only get more frequent and severe as the climate heats up.

On Forest & Bird’s behalf, I asked Auckland Council under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act what the impact of the proposed cuts would be on the region’s environment and climate change efforts. I was astonished to learn that no one had asked this question and the council didn’t have the answers.

Those proposing the budget appeared to have little understanding of our vulnerability to climate change, the role nature plays in protecting our homes and our communities, and the depleted and vulnerable state of our natural habitats in Auckland. This is coupled with a lack of awareness of the thousands of volunteer hours that go in to combatting these crises in our region.

To its credit, there are signs the council is waking up to the twin climate and biodiversity crises – and the solutions. It recently announced a $1.4 billion proposal to better protect Aucklanders from storms in the future via nature-based solutions like urban forests, rain gardens, daylighting streams, restoring wetland and managed retreat. These provide a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits – while helping to build community resilience.

This is progress. Working with nature instead of against it is smart and cost-effective thinking because the alternative – hard infrastructure – has proven repeatedly to fail us.

However, cost effective is not the same as free and the council will need to raise funds through maintaining targeted rates to future-proof our city. I remain concerned that proposed cuts to climate action, water quality and natural environment targeted rates could stymie the council’s own goals. Meanwhile, additional cuts to local board funding and contestable grants could stop the vital community-led conservation work that is occurring across the city.

Working together, Auckland Council and the city’s huge environmental volunteer workforce can make a difference to emissions reduction. For example, volunteer work such as tree planting and pest plant maintenance complements the council’s efforts improving public transport. These actions both absorb and cut emissions. Our combined efforts protect and restore nature, so that nature can protect us.

We should be ramping up investment in climate and biodiversity. The cuts currently on the table might look okay on paper, but when the weeds start taking over and the council fails to meet its own emissions targets, we’ll be left with an even bigger – and costlier – mess to clean up.

Following this week’s council meeting, councillors will vote on the budget on June 8. Like many Aucklanders, I’ll have all my fingers and toes crossed, hoping that they have taken on board the lessons from this year’s catastrophic storms and flooding, that they follow through on their promise for nature-based climate solutions to protect us from extreme weather, and that they invest in all our futures – for nature’s sake and our own.

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