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Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain

By Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson
April 25, 2013

The Department of Conservation is attempting to break the back of New Zealand’s anti-1080 movement once and for all -- right here in the Waikato on the flanks of iconic Moehau mountain at the northern tip of the Coromandel Peninsula.

The catalyst is an extraordinary DOC decision to undertake precedent-setting aerial 1080 operations over 4,500 sloping hectares bordering settlements at Sandy Bay and Port Charles, residences and farms along the coastal Port Jackson Road, popular campgrounds at Stony Bay and Fantail Bay, and the Coromandel Coastal Walkway. Drops are planned for May to June.

Aerial 1080 has never been used on this sweeping landscape.

Te Moehau is no ordinary mountain. Moehau is the final resting place of Arawa chief Tamatekapua and is held sacred by both iwi and the wider Coromandel community. Although DOC manages conservation estate on the mountain, tangata whenua and neighbouring residents take their roles as kaitiaki and guardians just as seriously.

For many years, successful predator control on Moehau has been managed by trapping and ground baiting, thanks to an extensive network of established tracks and some hard yakker. DOC now says aerial 1080 is a more efficient way to meet its goals. But the plan happens to mean toxin pellets in the drinking water of neighbouring farmers, threats to rare native frogs and endangered birds, risks to stock, economic losses for the local honey industry, and severe affront to spiritual and cultural values.

DOC’s Hauraki office has been holding low-key meetings with individual residents and chosen iwi members to meet minimum “consultation” requirements. It is also spending thousands of dollars on helicopter overflight rides for “guests” in an attempt win support for its operational policy shift.

Opposition, meanwhile, is fierce and confrontation looms. More than 70 immediate abutters and local residents have petitioned DOC to abandon its plan. The Coromandel-Colville Community Board has registered its opposition, seeking an urgent meeting with DOC management. Now strong iwi opposition to aerial 1080 on Moehau has emerged, as the situation moves past “simmer”.

In an April 2 letter to Conservation Minister Nick Smith (released to the Robinsons), the Te Arawa Lakes Trust stated it “will take offense to any violation of Te Arawa’s wahi tapu” without its permission. The Trust explicitly “urge the Crown to cancel its upcoming 1080 poison drop on the forest of Te Moehua o Tamatekapua”.

A spokesman for Ngati Tamatera, Kennedy Bay and Kuaoutunu, confirmed his iwi’s position – “No 1080 in our Rohe”.

Representatives of Ngati Hei and Ngati Huarere and Te Uringahu o Ngati Maru have also confirmed to the Robinsons their respective iwi opposition to aerial 1080 on Moehau. Iwi support hunting, trapping and cyanide, widely considered the most humane toxin.

Why such a confrontation on the Coromandel now? Back in May 2007, shortly after the controversial ERMA 1080 reassessment, Coromandel residents marched hundreds strong in the streets and petitioned DOC against planned 1080 drops on the upper peninsula. DOC management listened, the operations were cancelled, and the backdown served as inspiration to 1080 opponents around New Zealand.

The next month, consultant Wren Green addressed the Forest & Bird AGM on the problem of public “concerns about 1080”. Noting recent events, Green’s advice to 1080 backers was simple -- “initiatives need to be created – starting in Coromandel”. The unspoken grudge match between DOC and its pesky opponents on the peninsula was underway.

After a controversial Coromandel regional councillor known for vocal advocacy of 1080 was voted out that October, he was handed the Waikato Conservation Board chairman job (which he holds today).

Then DOC’s Hauraki area manager in Thames was replaced by a Hamilton based administrator. It seems the former had made the fatal mistake of listening to the community and respecting its wishes. In contrast, his replacement has kept a low profile and avoided community engagement, even as controversy smolders.

Responding to Coromandel community concerns from his perch in Hamilton recently, Waikato Conservator Greg Martin insisted the Moehau 1080 operation “will not be cancelled”. DOC's top man, Al Morrison, last week refused a meeting in Wellington to discuss the drop with a Moehau community representative. Hauraki area DOC staff indicate the decision to press on with the Moehau drop is, in fact, coming from Hamilton and Wellington.

In the face of growing opposition, DOC management could still stop the drop and instead work with iwi and neighbours on a mountain pest strategy acceptable to all.

If the operation goes ahead, potential harm to the department itself could be far-reaching and costly, for many years to come.

*************

Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues.

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