Advocates cautiously celebrated a win when protections for urban trees were passed into law this month, but they aren’t popping the champagne just yet. 

The Natural and Built Environment Bill, a large chunk of the reformed Resource Management Act, passed its third reading with the addition of a clause allowing councils to write into their plans rules that stopped the free-for-all chopping of trees on private land.  

No prosecution for felling of dozens of native trees
Urban trees a matter of health

Tree Council secretary Mels Barton said it was a long time coming. 

“It’s not just about the greenies. This is about actually everybody recognising that trees are important for our cities. Every single tree that we chop down and we replace with concrete, we make the problem worse.”  

Barton’s referring to recent flooding in Auckland, which would have been significantly mitigated had there been more trees.  

“You can’t build pipes big enough to take off the extra water. A mature tree treats 16 cubic meters of water a year, intercepts up to 40 percent of a storm so that water never reaches the ground. These services are really, really important, and they do it for free.” 

The Tree Council and the New Zealand Arboricultural Association ran publicity campaigns during the select committee process calling for the public to make submissions asking that urban tree protection be restored.  

More than 3,300 individual submissions were made and the protections, which were missing from the first reading, were added in.

Blanket tree protections were removed in 2013, with councils left to identify individual trees for protection. 

Barton said during this time the removal of trees for no reason was prolific.  

“The Waitemata local board did a photographic study over a 10-year period of the changes that had happened in their local board area with tree cover, and what they found was that 60 percent of the removals on private land had not been replaced by anything.  

“There had been no building put there, there’d been no driveway put in, nothing – there was just a gap where the tree had been.” 

Barton said over the past decade Auckland’s overall tree cover had been drastically reduced.  

“The percentage of surface area covered with trees over 30 meters high is less than 1 percent, over 20 meters high is 5 percent and over 40 percent of the urban canopy is less than 10 metres high.” 

“Because you can’t grow another 100-year-old tree like that, just like that … so removing general tree protection created a lot of tree removals that didn’t need to happen.” 

Implementation of the protections come through the National Planning Framework, which then gives direction to councils. 

“And councils need to change through plan changes their unitary and district plan to put in rules to generally protect trees.  

“That would take probably a minimum of 18 months for all of that to happen. So no, there is no change immediately, unfortunately, and people are knee-jerk reacting to it.” 

She was also worried the timeframe would drag out even longer if National’s promise to repeal the Natural and Built Environment Bill and replace it with its own new Resource Management Act went ahead. 

She said nevertheless people were scrambling to remove trees knowing they might soon be protected.  

Only last week the Tree Council intervened when three mature pōhutukawa in central Auckland were due to be chopped down

Arborist and activist Zane Wedding agreed.

When Newsroom spoke to him he was in the midst of assessing an Auckland tree that the property owners had been told needed to be chopped down. 

“I was able to talk the owners into keeping this tree. We’ll take down some of the hazardous branches reducing some of the overhang from over top of their house, and over the next two or three years, we’ll be able to get this to a tree that can exist safely and they get all the things that they want, like birds in their tree and shade in the summertime.

“Most other people who have come here, they look into a backyard like this and say well, the easiest thing to do would be to cut these trees down, problem solved, and that’s just not arboriculture.”

Wedding said the arborist profession had been in a “downward spiral” ever since tree protections were removed.

“The way that it used to work, was in order to work on certain trees in Auckland you had to hold a level for advanced qualification or above and that doesn’t exist any more and because that doesn’t exist, there is no bar to entry, so now the word arborist doesn’t mean anything.

“Whenever you had to work on a tree, you had to get a council consent. Now that was free but one of the main clauses, clause number one, was that you must engage a qualified arborist and without that being there any more, anyone can just call themselves an arborist.”

He said not only did this mean a lack of understanding about how to manage trees rather than chopping them down, but there were dangerous practices happening as well.

“So not only do we have arborists that don’t have the same amount of reverence for trees that we used to have, we have a lot of arborists that are willing to cut corners in regards to safety, and understanding safety was a key component in order to gain your qualification.”

He said “cowboy” arborists had been undercutting the industry as well, making it difficult for qualified ones to charge a fair rate.

He said when the tree protection changes come in they must include specifics around engaging qualified arborists.

“It will be a policy without teeth if it doesn’t make a recommendation, or at least an assurance, that whoever is carrying out that work holds a qualification, the higher the level of qualification the better.

“And through that, it actually lifts up our industry and makes sure that every arborist that is operating holds a qualification that will keep them safe, keep trees safe, and then allows them to charge an amount that is worth a professional product.”

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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