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Auckland's trees 'decimated' since cost-saving 2012 RMA changes, arborist warns

An arborist with 20 years of experience says Auckland's mature urban trees have been "decimated" since cost-saving Resource Management Act changes came into effect in 2012.

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Zane Wedding says not only are people cutting down many mature trees needlessly, they’re also doing it dangerously. Source: Breakfast

The previous Government enacted changes to the RMA which remove blanket protections on urban trees, and the Ministry for the Environment says it was because the cost of getting resource consent to cut them down was too high.

"The intent was to reduce high transaction costs caused by the large number of resource consents required due to blanket tree protection rules in urban environments," the ministry's background document reads.

As a result, Auckland's Tree Council organisation warned in 2017 that up to a third of all of Auckland's trees had been cut down in the five years following the removal of the restrictions.

The issue has come to the fore again over the past week, with protestors fighting against the felling of several large native trees on a section in Avondale on Canal Road - with some even occupying the trees to prevent the chainsaws.

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Community groups are protesting the removal of several native trees on Canal Road by developers.

Speaking this morning to TVNZ1's Breakfast programme, arborist and Manukau Institute of Technology lecturer Zane Wedding said New Zealand urgently needs blanket tree protection restored.

Mr Wedding said it wasn't only about the trees being removed, but about the un-regulated "cowboy" arborists who had sprung up since the protection was removed.

"When the RMA was slashed, that protection was completely dissolved, and what that's led to is the decimation of Auckland's tree canopy and the degradation of my industry," Mr Wedding said.

"As a person who works on the coal face and has worked within Auckland for the last 20 years maintaining and looking after these trees, in the last 10 years it is undeniable how many mature trees are being removed and being removed for no reason."

Mr Wedding said developers who had protected trees on their sites had sprung at the chance to remove them as soon as the changes were made, because it was the "easiest and cheapest" option for them.

"They knew those trees were protected prior to the blanket tree protection being removed - and now that it's gone, so are the trees," he said.

"As an arborist, I see that every single day."

The Miinstry for the Environment's official explanation of why blanket tree protection rules were removed when the RMA changed in 2012. Source: Supplied

Mr Wedding said that the changes made to the RMA have also led to a lower quality of arborist popping up.

"The way it used to work, under the blanket tree protection, was that you had to apply for resource consent, and you also had to have a standard of qualified arborist that undertook that work. When it was deregulated, all of those things fell away," he said.

"It led to the rise of any person who had a chainsaw calling themselves an arborist."

Mr Wedding said he had inspected the site on Canal Road and found "so many approved code of practice violations".

"It really is dangerous - and it's undercutting the professional arborist who follow all those regulations.

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Steve Abel leapt into one of the trees on Canal Street, Avondale, as contractor felled a tree nearby, sending police scrambling. Source: Adam Yates

"I feel sorry for the trees, I really do, but I also feel sorry for the arborists who are trying to uphold best practice and they're being undercut by these people who have been allowed into the industry by deregulation - and it's a terrible thing out there.

"There needs to be some form of tree protection put back - not just in Auckland, but across New Zealand.

"There wouldn't be a viewer out there today who hasn't seen a mature tree come down in their neighbourhood lately and there's just nothing that we can do about it."

Mr Wedding said he understood that space needs to be made for housing, but said that "we can't let the housing crisis affect the current climate crisis that we've got".

"You can't actually plant a mature tree - an 80-year-old, 100-year-old tree. It speaks volumes about our society," he said.

"If we're the type of people who are going to invest in preserving and protecting our native taonga, that speaks volumes about where we are at as a country.

"The difference between New Zealand and New York is that when you look out your window you see native foliage - when you go to a place like that, you have to go to a park to see a tree.

"That's not the New Zealand that I know - and I don't ever want to know New Zealand to be that way."