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Wilding warriors

They're known as the Palmy Pine Pullers for a reason. photo: Anthony Behrens
A green tsunami is consuming the land, but trampers and climbers are standing up to threats posed by wilding pines

HE FIRST noticed the problem in the Mackenzie Basin while walking northbound or ‘NOBO’ on the Te Araroa Trail. Anthony Behrens thought it appalling. A few weeks later, he and his partner Fiona Burleigh got to the rich mineral belt of the Richmond Ranges in Nelson and noticed it again. An army of wild pine marching its way across the landscape. This time they thought it more than appalling. “Scary s***,” in fact. By the time the couple got back to their home turf – Ruahine Forest Park, where they do whio protection work – their eyes were trained and the Palmy Pine Pulling Posse was born.

Trees are widely understood to be A Good Thing. They add to amenity values by greening the landscape. They give us oxygen. They have ecological value and forestry value, both important to our economy. But wilding conifers – not just pine – are a pest. Back in the day, Forest Service workers were encouraged to pull them out in their spare time. Some used .303 ammunition to destroy the unwanted trees – gonzo style. These days, trampers spot them on a trip and go back another time to chop them down, or use a hut axe or saw to get rid of them. Some people whip young plants out on horseback. But despite best intentions, wilding conifers are spreading across our landscape at a rate of about five per cent or 90,000ha a year. They now inhabit more than two million hectares, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), threatening our beloved, yet questionable, ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ landscape.

The New Zealand Wilding Conifer Management Strategy, which sets a vision for the trees’ management to 2030, says wilding conifers destroy native ecosystems,  cause species extinctions, negatively impact tourism by modifying natural landscapes, reduce water yields by drawing on large quantities of groundwater, increase the risk of wildfires and limit land uses such as pasture for stock. MPI, which led the strategy’s development, says it will guide how the wide range of parties involved in wilding conifer management will work together to tackle the issue.

Behrens, who does freelance marketing and graphic design and is on the executive of the Federated Mountain Clubs, is not the only grassroots conservationist trying to foster enthusiasm for the invasive trees’ control. The issue is a focus of the Department of Conservation’s ‘war on weeds’, aimed at a merry band of pest plants labelled the ‘dirty dozen’. According to DOC, the dirty dozen (actually 13 pest plants) could invade more than half a million hectares of protected land within 15 years, posing a threat to a third of our country’s threatened plant species.

“It’s weirdly satisfying because the impact of what we’re doing is instant,” Behrens says. 

“We look behind us as we walk across the land and see the progress.”

The Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group in Central Otago has launched its own ‘war on wildings’, and in Nelson, volunteers have been tackling what the operations manager of a major restoration effort in Abel Tasman National Park has described as “a tidal wave” of pines smothering the park’s natives. “I think we’re realising in New Zealand, especially in parts of the South Island, we’ve got this big, green tidal wave of pine trees coming our way,” Andrew Macalister, of Project Janszoon, told Newshub. Pulling pines could be hot, thankless work, he said. But if the problem was left another 20 years, “it would not be twice the budget… it would be 10 times the budget”. MPI senior communications advisor Mark Smith says removing young seedlings before they start producing seeds costs less than $10 per hectare, but letting them mature can cost as much as $15,000 per hectare.

The national management strategy champions a future where Kiwis can all enjoy “the right tree in the right place”. The specific aim is to prevent the spread of wilding conifers and contain or eradicate established areas by 2030. Richard Reeve, a lawyer who has been involved with voluntary wilding conifer control in the Otago area for more than a decade, says it’s a great dream and a worthy ambition. “But it’s also unrealistic.”

Anthony Behrens of the Palmy Pine Pulling Posse is determined to do his bit to remove the invasive trees from the backcountry. Photo: Anthony Behrens

Anthony Behrens of the Palmy Pine Pulling Posse is determined to do his bit to remove the invasive trees from the backcountry. Photo: Anthony Behrens

The strategy is non-binding and there is “radical underinvestment” in wilding pine control, Reeve says. Volunteers are playing “too big a role”. They should complement – not prop up – the official response. “Public awareness is growing, but the truth is that [the spread of wilding conifers] is apocalyptic. The problem requires a systemic response. I think the Government basically needs to put a price on the trees … a bit like rabbiting in the 1930s.”

Smith says community volunteers and community trusts have been hugely important in the management of wilding conifers to date – and they will continue to be into the future. “There are numerous examples of long-term wilding conifer control programmes undertaken by committed volunteer groups,” he says. “The work of the national strategy and national control programme aims to complement and support the fantastic work done by volunteers.”

Smith says prevention is the best form of management, but unfortunately New Zealanders are often used to seeing planted conifers in the landscape and frequently do not realise they have an emerging wilding conifer issue until it is well advanced. A national wilding conifer control programme will get underway this summer, he says, with “phase one” involving control in the highest priority areas.

It is now illegal to plant lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta, a native conifer of North America) in New Zealand, but local and central government planted some 250ha of the species in the Mid Dome area in northern Southland between the 1950s and 1980s to mitigate erosion. The Mid Dome Wilding Trees Charitable Trust is leading an ongoing effort to control the trees’ spread across some of the country’s most valuable high country grasslands, but strong westerly winds make the elevated landmass a perfect takeoff point for the millions of seeds the trees produce every year. Photographs of a sunny face in the Tomogalak catchment from 1998, 2004 and 2015, provide a scary illustration of how quickly wilding trees can spread and consolidate. “The seeds have wings on them,” says Sir Alan Mark, an Emeritus Professor with Otago University’s Department of Botany.

Sir Alan, in his 80s, is one of New Zealand’s best-known conservationists and has spent a lifetime researching the high country. He has been involved with the Mid Dome Trust since it formed seven years ago and says he has been trying to promote concerns about wilding trees more generally since the mid-1990s. “I think it’s fair to say it is [now] accepted that there is a national problem and control is a matter of urgency,” he says.

Sir Alan’s research showed upland snow tussocks, like those found in the Mid Dome high country, are extremely important in water production and “we know that a cover of conifers seriously reduced water yield”.

Reeve compares exotic forestry to the habitat destruction of the 19th century, when settlers cleared swathes of native bush through burning and logging. “It’s a classic example of recklessness or negligence by the New Zealand people. It’s not just wilding trees. It’s New Zealand’s entire approach to exotic forestry.”

Palmy Pine Pullers, from left: Fiona Burleigh, Ian Rasmussen, Ben Douglas, Anthony Behrens. Photo: Anthony Behrens

Palmy Pine Pullers, from left: Fiona Burleigh, Ian Rasmussen, Ben Douglas, Anthony Behrens. Photo: Anthony Behrens

He believes forestry companies, private landowners and the Government are often not “cleaning up after themselves”.

Last year, the Government committed $16 million over four years for wilding conifer control nationally. Sir Alan says a nationwide blitz is the answer, but $16m over four years for the whole country is way short of addressing the seriousness and the urgency of the problem. To put it in perspective, the Mid Dome trust has spent about $8m to date and “we’re doing little more than holding our own”, he says. “The situation is explosive. The cost of procrastination is enormous. I would think $30 million annually would be more relevant … and it’s the sort of money that the Government is currently allocating to individual cycleways.” MPI says the new Crown funding – the $16m – builds on an already existing estimated spend of over $11 million each year on wilding conifer control and “will be supported by significant co-investment from land owners/occupiers and central and local government”.

The Mid Dome Wilding Trees Charitable Trust employs two commercial forestry companies and a helicopter operator about five months of the year, while volunteers still help pull out younger plants. “The plants are very obvious. You can’t really mistake them,” Sir Alan says. “Conifers stand out like the proverbial in the tussock grasslands.”

Without rapid action, 20 per cent of New Zealand will be invaded by wilding conifer forests within 20 years.

DOC says wilding conifers are unwanted because their timber has no value or is outweighed by extraction costs. But the co-founders of Queenstown business Wilding & Co, Michael Sly and Mathurin Molgat, have managed to find value in the trees’ destruction. Wilding & Co extracts high-quality oil from wilding conifer needles and sells it in bulk to the United States. In 2015, it signed a multimillion-dollar distribution deal with American corporation doTERRA – the largest reseller of essential oils in the world. Sly told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan the company would love to be able to “consume tens of millions of trees” and “work at a scale that matches the size of the problem”. For now, it’s taking out Douglas fir wildings at Beaumont, near Lawrence, and exploring commercial angles relating to other species, such as larch, spruce, radiata and a few more. Bringing a new oil to the market requires intensive testing and validation, Molgat says. But Kiwis will soon be able to buy retail products from Wilding & Co, such as hand and body wash and pure essential oils, and know they’re doing something to help. “The bigger we get, the better we are environmentally.”

DOC says 20 per cent of New Zealand will be invaded by wilding conifer forests within 20 years without rapid action. DOC is responsible for wilding tree infestations on public conservation land and the Ministry of Defence does control on its land. MPI, Land Information New Zealand, regional councils and territorial authorities are also all involved. Different regional councils have different approaches. For example, the regional councils in Southland and Canterbury are hands-on with control work, whereas the Otago Regional Council simply contributes some funding. Then there’s landowners and volunteers – like Anthony Behrens and the Palmy Pine Pulling Posse.

“One of the reasons we’re doing this is because we’re worried no one else will,” Behrens says. “There are more gardeners employed by the Palmerston North City Council than there are DOC rangers looking after the Ruahines [and] we’ve just been told that the Ongaonga base – the nearest base to our operation – is to be closed.”

It’s easy to see why some describe the wilding pine problem as a tidal wave in these two photos from Mid Dome taken in 1998 (left) and 2015

It’s easy to see why some describe the wilding pine problem as a tidal wave in these two photos from Mid Dome taken in 1998 (left) and 2015

It was frightening to see the trees’ spread in the South Island. “The pines haven’t taken over [in the Richmond Ranges] yet, but they are well on their way to becoming like the MacKenzie if nothing is done,” says Behrens. “The mineral belt is a unique geographical feature that is covered in vulnerable low-growing native scrub [and] small pine trees were dotted throughout. They hadn’t got to the seeding stage when we were there – but when that happens…  boom.”

The Palmy Pine Pulling Posse destroyed hundreds of seedlings during its first outing, liberating kowhai and cabbage trees up Kashmir Road. There’s a forestry block nearby, which Behrens says is likely to be the source of wind-blown radiata seeds. “We came down [from Longview Hut] and just started pulling. We were cripples after two hours, absolutely shattered. We reckon it’s about two to three hectares [and] these things are starting to dominate.” DOC found out about the group and has kitted it out with know-how and gear, such as loppers and poison. The posse has now pulled about 7000 trees.

“It’s weirdly satisfying [and] really different to protecting ducks because the impact of what we’re doing is instant,” Behrens says. “We look behind us as we walk across the land and see the progress, whereas whio protection is slow and gut-busting work with rewards measured in years not minutes. Having said that, a dead stoat is always a thrill.” Behrens is a member of the Palmerston North Tramping & Mountaineering Club, which ironically used to fundraise by planting pines in the Ruahines for erosion control.

Reeve is part of a small group of volunteers who head into the Otago hills with handsaws, loppers and poison in association with Forest and Bird, which has been doing wilding conifer control in the region since 1997. The spray they use smells like Dettol and can burn or de-fat skin if one is not careful, and doing a hash job with saws can make most conifers come back even worse. It’s a “semi-recreational activity”, Reeve says, clambering ridges and killing trees; a good mix of physical exercise and conservation. The group focuses on areas of rich biodiversity, mostly in the high country and often on private land.

Dunedin-based tramper and mountaineer Jaz Morris, who is doing a botany PhD, occasionally carries a folding saw on his travels. “Usually when I see [a wilding conifer] while tramping I will take it out,” he says. “If every tramper removed a few that would be great.” He and some mates noticed a patch of wilding trees near Cameron Hut in the Mt Arrowsmith region of Hakatere Conservation Park and dealt to it with a saw from the hut. “It seemed like the logical thing to do.” But in a lot of areas, the issue is much larger than that and removing a few trees is but a drop in the bucket.

Reeve says while the work he and other volunteers do across the country doesn’t resolve the fact that “there is a crisis happening”, their efforts are far from futile. It’s deeply satisfying to go into the hills with some mates, a pack and some lunch, spend a day wiping out an invasion of 700 or 800 trees, “and know that you will preserve that valley”, he says.

It’s solid work and highly rewarding. “The environments can be exceptionally beautiful.” And there’s another bonus to getting covered in pine sap. “You all come out smelling pretty good.”

The worst wilding pine offenders:
Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine)
Pinus nigra (Corsican pine)
Larix decidua (European larch)
Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir or Oregon)
Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine)

Source: Department of Conservation

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