As of Friday 4th of September, due to government amendments to the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) passed in 2013, the general tree protection rules which are the only legal protection for the vast majority of trees on private ‘urban’ properties will be repealed.
General protection rules allowed Councils to nominate whole areas as protected but Penny Pirrit, Auckland Council’s General Manager of Plans & Places, says the changes to the RMA do not allow the council to re-introduce general tree protection rules:
“Through changes to the RMA over the last few years, we are unable to include any general tree protection rules on most ‘urban’ sites. Exceptions to this include notable or ‘scheduled’ trees (which are listed in the district plans), trees within reserves, any area subject to a conservation management plan or conservation management strategy, and trees within a Significant Ecological Area (SEA). These trees will continue to be protected under the Unitary Plan.”
Trees in the Hauraki Gulf Islands, streets and parks will remain protected under the RMA after 4 September because they don’t meet the Act’s definition of ‘urban environment’.
It is important to note that general protections and even scheduling are not absolute prohibitions. They simply require that a resource consent be obtained for trimming or removing protected trees. Unfortunately, the nature of the resource consent process is such that there were many cases of people having to pay significant amounts of money to have work done on trees on their property but the answer to that is to streamline processes and assess costs, not to remove protections altogether.
The last five years have seen a progressive weakening of protections for trees and particularly our native species. Until a RMA amendment in 2009, any native tree over a certain size was considered to be protected and required a resource consent to be significantly trimmed or cut down.
This latest law change is a disaster for tree protection in Auckland and throughout urban New Zealand.
A study from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland found that the Auckland isthmus has just six percent of its original urban forest left. Of that, 63 percent are on private land where just 15 percent of trees are protected through Auckland Council’s Schedule of Notable Trees.
Sadly, human destruction of forests appears to be an inexorable process with a very long history. A recently released study published in Nature states that we have lost 46% of global tree coverage since the advent of human civilisation.
We have to make dramatic changes in our treatment of non-human nature. Trees produce the very oxygen we breathe, provide homes to innumerable biota, are our greatest land-based carbon sinks, and provide visual amenity that defies quantification. New Zealanders identify strongly with many of our better-known native plant species, think of the Pōhutukawa as the icon of a (northern) kiwi summer, our reverence for a mighty Totara, the widespread public support for schemes (and actions) to protect threatened Kauri. The silver fern is no less than our national symbol. Yet, tree protection has never been weaker.
This gradual erosion of our tree protection rules is moving in precisely the wrong direction. We are now seeing notices such as the one below informing property owners that they are free to cut down their trees. Sure enough, within days arborists were inundated with jobs to cut down trees and many of them feel conflicted about it.