Climbing to the Top at Craigieburn

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Students and tutors from the Otago Polytechnic Arboriculture course spent three days at Craigieburn undertaking some essential work on the reserve’s trees. The students removed deadwood and damaged branches from the large macrocarpa shelter belt in the main paddock. The programme is the second year of three-year partnership between the Otago Polytechnic and the Craigieburn Committee where the site is used for training purposes. Craigieburn Project Manager Paul Pope asked the students to put their climbing skills to the test and inspect some of the rimu canopies while he bravely gave words of encouragement from the forest floor. The trees range in age with the oldest being around 550 years old and the students inspected the trees for wind damage, disease and rot. Around 16 of the 52 rimu were climbed and in general all were in good condition. So we may get at least another 300-350 years from these wonderful trees. Otago Polytechnic Arboriculture tutor Matt Miller said that getting the chance to climb such old native trees in an urban context was a rare and an important opportunity for the students to experience. It was a real pleasure to have the students utilise their skills at Craigieburn and we look forward to having them back next year. Click on the pictures below for viewer.

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St Clair Esplanade – When History Repeats

St Clair 1880'sThe recent damage of the sea wall at St Clair Esplanade is a pertinent reminder of the power and ferocity of the ocean and the continuation of an issue that has been prominent in Dunedin since the beginnings of colonial settlement. The extension of physical occupation of coastal areas by people and the development of infrastructure around that occupation has been fraught with problems. Worse still has been the undermining of the important protection afforded to the city by the St Clair and St Kilda beach areas.

The first sea wall built at St Clair was in the early 1870’s and appears to have been privately built, eventually being transferred to the ownership of the Caversham Borough Council. In 1885 the wall was badly damaged during a period of high seas and the Caversham Borough Council began rebuilding the wall in 1888. As with today there was considerable debate over the merits of the construction by amateur and professional engineers alike. So problematic was the rebuilding of the wall that the Minister of Public Works inspected the works himself. The Caversham Mayor Mr Bragg appears to have had a hand in the design and construction supervision himself which was described as “a sloping bank, terminating in a wall six feet wide at the base, which is sunk in the hard sand to the depth of five feet, being quite four feet lower than the foundation of the old wall. This wall has a facing of very large and weighty stones on both sides. The centre built up of smaller ones tightly wedged and closed in with rubble. At the foot of the embankment this solid wall is backed up with rotten reef, which gives the whole structure great solidity.”

However that solidity did not last and by 1890 it was reported that the 630 feet wall built for £800 ” has all but been demolished by the sea, with the exception of 80 feet at its west, and even this portion is considerably disturbed and undermined.”Several design flaws were reported by marine engineer CY O’Connor , notably that it had been placed too far out to sea and that its foundations were “too low.” Worse was to come, when in 1891 a significant storm did considerable damage to the whole Ocean Beach area. Further storms occurred in May 1898 when the dunes themselves were breached and there was 3 feet of water in Larkworthy Street. By May 11th 1898 much  of St Kilda between Ocean Beach and Cargill’s Road were inundated and houses could only be accessed by wading through water. In July 1898 the sea breached the dunes again and St Kilda was saturated with the Pacific Ocean.

Public acrimony and outrage was vitriolic and both the Otago Daily Times and Otago Witness were inundated with letters between 1890-1900 regarding the erosion and management of the Esplanade and Ocean Beach Domain. One of the central problems lay in determining the responsibility for management of the issues between the various local councils and central government. A deputation by Mayor and Councillors of Caversham Borough Council to the Minister of Public Works in 1890 requesting government assistance was made. Caversham was particularly concerned at the level of borrowing it had been forced to undertake in dealing with the Esplanade issues. In 1891 Richard Seddon also visited the area and if the Caversham Borough Councillors were hoping for government assistance they were to be sadly disappointed. Seddon told the deputation “If you think for a moment that this Government are going in for extravagant expenditure, all I can say is that you will be disappointed. We are going to govern this country on commercial lines, and be very careful of the people’s cash.”

The passing of the Ocean Beach Public Domain Act in 1892 provided for the protection and conservation of the area known as the “sand hills”. However, this was a period of deep public acrimony and recrimination and coupled with a lack of funding was largely ineffectual. In 1894 the Board were allowed to raise funding through levying rates of a halfpenny in the pound for rateable properties in all of the city’s boroughs. However, there was catch, and the rates could only be levied by a public referendum. The Ocean Beach Domain Board largely took extensive steps to re-vegetate the sand dunes and construct sand trap fences to repair the dune barrier and protect the city. However, the problematic issue of the St Kilda Esplanade remained.

By 1910-1911 both the Domain Board and the City Council had received advice on options for the reconstruction of the esplanade. The Domain Board had not been able to reconstruct the esplanade because of a shortage of funds and had been too afraid to levy higher rates on ratepayers in fear of the reception they would have received, However, the Dunedin city Council received £1000 from the government to proceed with reconstruction and utilised a further £1000 from the Tramways Department and £1000 from the municipal account. The rebuilt esplanade was officially opened in 1913 and the construction was described as having “333 reinforced’ concrete piles 2ft wide, 44 piles 1 ft wide, and 36 anchor piles—a total of 413 piles, and if these were placed end to end they would stretch one mile and a-half. After being sunk and. driven into the solid they were driven further by an electric pile-driver. The length of the piles was from 18ft to 24ft, and they were driven to a depth of from 9ft to 19ft. The wall was anchored every 10ft with 1 inch rods 35ft long, cased in mortar to prevent rusting. Safety was assured first by the position of the work being beyond mean high-water mark, and any waves that reached it would be broken and rendered harmless by means of an apron of loose rock, more of which had yet to be placed in position. The length of the esplanade was 10 chains (200 metres) and its width  50ft, with footpaths on the land and sea sides.”

In 1914 almost all of the sand immediately in front of the wall at St Clair beach disappeared and this was repeated to a greater extent in 1919, 1935, 1939 into the high erosional period of the 1990’s. Erosion of the beach and the dunes has become a regular historical and present day feature of both the beach and dunes immediately east of the wall. This has largely been due to the “end wall effects” where once waves reach the wall it “bounces” off them with more energy than a wave washing back off a normal sand beach.  More sand is carried off shore, promoting beach loss. Seawalls, harden the coast and reduce its  ability to adjust naturally exacerbating erosional problems by reflecting and concentrating wave  energy and erosion.

Dunedin’s various local authorities have struggled for the last 140 years to manage the coastal issues at St Clair and St Kilda. Sadly, it is a historical record of failure to understand the natural processes of the dune and coastal environment that affects the coastline that we perilously live beside. Perhaps this latest failure is an opportunity to rectify that understanding and restore the coastal environment to ensure its long term functionality as an ecological asset that provides both protection and pleasure for our city. The problems with the wall and the wider erosion issues of Ocean Beach Domain cannot be dealt with in isolation, but must be integrated into a programme that deals with the coastal environment as a living entity rather than as an engineered solution. That may also mean making changes to our thinking and use of this area in the long term. History has shown our failures let’s hope that we don’t continue that trend.

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Ross Creek Clearance Update

Members of the Dunedin Amenities Society met with Council staff and its engineering consultants this morning to review the recent bush clearance below the dam face. The clearance of any native bush area is always something that should be mourned, but the nature of the dam and its purpose has meant that it is unavoidable. Today’s inspection showed that the City Council have reduced the bush clearance from the original 5000 square metres by nearly a half and that is a very satisfactory outcome. The plan now is for the City Council to survey the site and complete their design plans for the dam strengthening so that work can begin in October. The Society raised a number of issues regarding the habitat and recreational restoration once the work was completed. Particular concerns are the opening up of the existing canopy and effects on the remaining bush edges from increased light levels now that clearance is completed. This has relevance in regards to the invasion of the area by undesirable weed species. Other issues that will come out of the next design phase will be the repositioning of the former recreational tracks. While the City Council has much to do in planning the restoration of the site, the Society can at least see a clear coherent process at work, and that provides some reassurance. Click on the photograph’s to view gallery.

Ross Creek Dam Update

Copy of bushThe Dunedin City Council will be clearing approximately 5000 square metres of native bush on the eastern and western portions of the current earth dam. The Society have raised a number of concerns over this project in relation to the environmental and recreational compensation that Council should provide in lieu of the clearance work. It’s clear that the City Council have an infrastructural need to upgrade the dam for safety and to bring the Ross Creek site up to standard for future water production. There is however a need to ensure that the area is respected as part of Dunedin’s premier recreational and conservation network and that the public see a high degree of diligence, planning and environmental sensitivity fitting to an area of such importance. The Society have specifically raised issues around;

  • The protection and retention of the bush areas around the western ridge of the dam.
  • The positioning of the proposed haul road to deliver earth fill for the proposed strengthening.
  • The transplantation of plant material for restoration in other suitable areas.
  • The re-use of fallen log and litter material for restoration and the creation of invertebrate habitat sites within the region.
  • A trade-off arrangement for restoration planting in areas of Ross creek to compensate the community and biodiversity for the loss of the native bush.
  • The site should be photographed and recorded before, during and after the operation so that structural and vegetation change in the Ross Creek area is recorded for the historical record.
  • The removal of the significant wilding pines from the eastern side of the reservoir.
  • The reinstatement of all recreational tracks to continue traditional access.
  • Replanting of the dam face in shallow rooted species that are appropriate in the wider conservation and landscape context to create biological and landscape connectivity.

The Society have been in communication with staff of the Dunedin City Council and will continue to do so as this project is progressed. A further meeting will be held this week as an opportunity to push the Society’s concerns and thoughts to promote the best environmental and recreational outcome for the community.

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Follow the Yellow Brick Road

One of the most famous lines from “The Wizard of Oz” is when Dorothy says to her little dog “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” That particular line has become a cultural metaphor used when we visit places or see things  that are not familiar to us and we relate them back to our own personal vision of the world. That same cultural metaphor may well apply to the proposals being put together by the Dunedin City Council for the Otago Peninsula.

The Dunedin City Council road widening programme will include reclaiming 5-8 metres of the Otago Harbour shoreline along a 13 kilometre stretch from Burns Point (near Vauxhall) to the entrance point of Taiaroa Head. It will cost the City Council nearly $28 million over 9 years, with a further 66% of the construction subsidised by the New Zealand Transport Agency. That’s a total project fund of $84 million. The driving force behind this development has been the Council’s desire to create better cycling and pedestrian access to and around the Peninsula from Portobello and Harrington Point Roads. Traffic safety has also been mooted as the justification for the project and on the face of it that sounds reasonable. However, like all things the devil is always in the detail, and this project requires deeper financial, landscape and ecological scrutiny.

In a 2011 Council report the Otago Peninsula route did not even rank within the top ten in terms of safety, accident history, population, topography and demand. However, the same report recommends that the Peninsula be given priority since the 2011 Annual Plan because the City Council had already undertaken work at Vauxhall and Macandrew Bay. Which raises the question, what is the real reason for this project?  Looking through the City Council’s Cycling Strategy there is some description of the benefits to tourism, but the strategy has no data and only a recommendation that further research is required to understand this dimension of cycling use. So despite not ranking as a priority in the City Council’s own assessment, the Council decided that because work had already been undertaken it should continue. Yet the Council seems confused as to why it undertook that work in the first place and how it came to that decision. That’s misguided and muddled thinking.

The reclamation of Otago Harbour’s rocky shore and intertidal zone will have a significant effect on the ecosystem of the harbour and the associated food web of the Otago Peninsula. Current estimates of the total reclamation undertaken by the City Council will total 11 hectares, and that may actually exceed 14-16 hectares when looking at the proposed extent of the reclamation described in the proposal. Which is ironic given that the City Council’s Cycling Strategy suggests that “cycling improves the quality of our natural environment and minimises environmental impacts because bicycles are the most energy-efficient land transport vehicles.” Well that’s probably quite reasonable, providing you don’t destroy almost all of the intertidal shoreline habitat from Vauxhall to Taiaroa Head with reclamation and then cover it with an oil based asphalt pathway.

The environmental impacts of this project on the health and functionality of the harbour are immense. Reclamation will result in significant loss of rocky shore and intertidal sand flat habitat, damage and loss of traditional fish breeding sites, and changes in the tidal structure of the harbour that will deplete further intertidal areas. The destruction of the interrelated food and habitat web in the harbour could be catastrophic on many bird species such as shags, spoonbills, wading species, and marine birds that populate the harbour and its environs. Which is ironic given that most of the Peninsula tourism market is based on bird life, the Royal Albatross, Blue Penguin and the Yellow-eyed Penguin.

There are also significant implications for the landscape with the destruction of the harbour landscape features that have become part of the natural and modified character of the Otago Peninsula for over 150 years. Many older landforms that were once part of the original harbour and cliff edges for thousands of years are to be demolished to make way for the smooth. One area of particular concern to the Society will be the removal of all of the trees on the harbour’s edge from Burns Point to Glenfalloch.

Climate change and sea level rise considerations also need closer consideration with this proposal. The report “Climate Change – Impacts on Dunedin” by  Professor Fitzharris suggests that natural ecosystems will be particularly at risk from the sea level rise associated with anthropogenic climate change. Which raises further questions of the sustainability and wisdom of reclamation in the face of these predictions. Professor Fitzharris clearly demonstrates that the “harbour side shoreline, including the entrance to Otago Harbour” will be one of five specific hot spot areas vulnerable to climate change. He goes on to state that “rock protection walls around Otago Harbour will need to be continually strengthened and eventually raised.” The Fitzharris report clearly indicates that coastal communities like the Peninsula may experience severe risks of inundation by a 1-in-100 year storm surge which “will more than double after 2040” and this will lead to on-going coastal erosion. Where is the forward thinking in the face of mankind’s worst environmental disasters when the City Council is planning to reclaim the harbour and build new walls which may well not stand the long term impacts of sea level rise?

The really sad thing about this proposal though is that the citizens of Dunedin know virtually nothing about it. The level of public consultation undertaken by the City Council and the Otago Peninsula Community Board has been very quiet indeed. The City Council presented the proposal to the Community Board on May 24th, 2012 and little was reported at the time. Indeed the Community Board were asked to provide feedback to the City Council by the 29th June 2012, but have never reported what that feedback was to the community. It begs the question, if both political arms of the Council were making these plans 9 months ago why did the public only get the opportunity to comment on them in March 2013, and only for a trifling 4 weeks?

By no means does the Society not support the need for cycling and recreation, our organisation has supported public recreation for 125 years, but where is the sustainable rationale behind this scheme? If this proposal is allowed to come to fruition it will irrevocably damage the biodiversity, landscape and tourism brand that defines both our harbour and the Otago Peninsula. If that happens there will be many people in Dunedin saying “I’ve a feeling we’re not on the Peninsula anymore.”

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The District Plan Review

A Conservation Conundrum

The Dunedin City Council is presently undertaking a review of the District Plan  and that review will mean that the Dunedin Amenities Society will also be looking at the implications of those changes. The review includes looking at creating a new open space, reserves and recreation zone which would “reflect the different types of open space and recreation areas.” The current District Plan does not recognise reserve, conservation or recreation areas as distinct entities, but rather classifies them within the zone of the surrounding land. The problem with that approach is that the activities and land use that is associated with reserve, conservation or recreation sites is often quite distinct to the surrounding land use zones. Reserve sites such as the Town Belt are often over-arched with a wider zone classification such as the “Urban Landscape Conservation Area.” Thus the rules of the District Plan override the legal protection status of the reserve under the Reserves Act 1977 without fully understanding the nature of the reserve or its values. This creates inherent problems for reserves like the  Town Belt when dealing with very real conservation management issues.

In one example the current District Plan actually hampers the ability of the Council to manage areas of high conservation significance. The rules (13.8.2) associated with the management of bush within Urban Landscape Conservation Areas have inadvertently protected the highly invasive Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). Vegetation removal in these zones is a discretionary activity, which is infinitely sensible as it protects flora and fauna on private land. However, under the District Plan the rule “does not apply where the plants to be removed are listed in any Regional Pest Plant Management Strategy applying to the district of Dunedin City.” Here lies the conservation conundrum because sycamore is not included in the Otago Regional Council’s Pest Plant Management Strategy (that’s a whole other post at a later time). Which means that under the current Urban Landscape Conservation Area rules sycamore becomes classified as “bush” and the removal of individual mature seed bearing sycamore cannot be undertaken without resource consent.

The Bureaucratic Paradox

For urban reserve sites like the Town Belt sycamore has serious ecological implications for the long-term health of the reserve. The most recent ecological assessment undertaken for the Town Belt stated that sycamore was a “most widespread and serious weed” that is able to “almost completely exclude other plants from the canopy, understory, and ground layer vegetation.”  The Dunedin Town Belt Management Plan is approved by the Minister of Conservation and is a publicly consulted document of management intent which includes weed control and particularly the removal of Sycamore from the reserve. It categorically states “weed control is the management issue of prime importance if the ecological values of the Town Belt are to be sustained. Regeneration of locally native canopy tree species is being inhibited across wide areas of the Town Belt. Without effective weed control, the medium to long-term outcome will be collapse of the native forest canopy. By undertaking a public management plan process under the Reserves Act 1977 the City Council has with the approval of the Minister of Conservation (granted in 2007) indicated rightly its intention to remove sycamore from the Town Belt. There is no rational or legal argument to impose restrictions on its removal from the reserve under the provisions of the District Plan through its own muddled rules.

It is quite clear to the Society in reading the current District Plan rules for Urban Landscape Conservation Areas that planners have not looked at the adverse effects of the rules in relation to the ecology of the Town Belt or other city reserves. In fact the rules actually create adverse ecological effects in relation to the removal of sycamore from reserves that fall within the Urban Landscape Conservation Areas . This is contrary to section 76(3) of the Resource Management Act 1991 which states “in making a rule, the territorial authority shall have regard to the actual or potential effect on the environment of activities including, in particular, any adverse effect.” What is also concerning is the lack of regard for the legal status of the Reserves Act 1977  and the Dunedin Town Belt Management Plan. Indeed the provisions of the Reserves Act 1977 is never mentioned in the current District Plan. Which shows that the current district Plan does not “have regard to any— management plans and strategies prepared under other Acts”  as it should under 74(b) of the Resource Management Act 1991. The question that the Society asks in this example is where was the synchronised and collegiate thinking in relation to the Town Belt and other reserves during their constant ecological struggles for survival from advancing invasion of pest plants like sycamore? Another thing to consider is how do these rules effect private landowners seeking to improve biodiversity on private property?

Heritage Lost?

Dunedin’s Town Belt is one of New Zealand’s oldest reserve sites that forms part of the historical and landscape fabric of the city since its first survey in 1848. The importance of the reserve in that historical landscape context makes it not only a pivotal conservation and recreation reserve but a heritage site of regional and national significance. However, the undue pressure being placed upon its fragile ecology by rules that do not complement its management are likely to seriously impede its long-term health and values. The Society can only hope that this new District Plan review will undertake to give life and regard to the legal mechanisms that are already in place for the betterment and protection of Dunedin’s reserve riches. Let’s hope that bureaucracy does not get in the way of real ecological management.

Dunes in the Hourglass

The drawn out debate over the use of John Wilson Drive has been centred around people’s rights to access, or more accurately their right to use that access by vehicle. The political debate  disintegrated into a blatant popularity contest without any reasoned argument on what actually would provide the greatest benefit to the city. Councillors wanting the drive reopened to vehicles that spoke at the recent council meeting, only discussed their own embarrassment over the continuing issue. Not one councillor offered any clear vision for the reserve and this was the real reason that such a poor decision was made. It was never about making the right choice, it was always about councillors extricating themselves from their own lack of vision for the reserve. That speaks volumes for the people who are governing this city.

Ratepayers are now faced with a $160,000 speedway that is being masqueraded as a scenic drive. Yet with the failure of the Councillors to decide on the speed limit of John Wilson Drive means there is a likelihood that those costs may balloon out even further. Once again in Dunedin we see a fundamental  lack of political understanding for the need to create value from environmental and landscape spaces using appropriate capital investment. Instead we are presented with an ephemeral populist decision based on individual political need rather than the real needs of the community. The important questions that councillors should have been asking, but failed to ask were;

As a reserve John Wilson Drive has been set aside within the greater Ocean Beach Domain reserve for the purposes of Coastal Protection. That reserve status sets it aside with a weather eye on the protection of the city areas immediately behind the remaining dunes. In the last 20 years (and realistically for the last 120 years) Ocean Beach Domain has been under considerable environmental pressure along with the much maligned St Clair sea wall. During the last public consultation  on the reserve the physical and financial recommendations to keep the reserve in a holding pattern were $4-8 million over ten years and a possible $8-19 million for retreat and further wall construction. Those estimates only include the area from adjacent to Moana Rua Road to the St Clair sea wall, which means there has been little wider consideration given to the dunes eastwards to Lawyers Head. This raises the issue that the ratepayer will invest $160,000 to keep John Wilson Drive open, but has no certainty over its long-term stability. Worse, the road development continues to narrow the opportunity to repair and strengthen the dune environment for the very purpose that the reserve was created for in the first place. Given the instability and uncertainty of Ocean Beach Domain is this really the best option for the expenditure of $160,000?

John Wilson Drive is an anachronism to a time when men thought they could tame nature and make it submit to the collared will of an engineers ruler. Watching the Ocean Beach dunes washed into the Pacific Ocean is proof that nature has certainly slipped its collar and the waves are barking at our heels.

So what are the alternatives for John Wilson Drive? The Dunedin Amenities Society have consistently advocated that a change of use is required to ensure that the reserves dune environment can become sustainable for the future protection of our city. That change of use can provide more effective recreational, economic and environmental outcomes that will provide for the city and its community in the face of the many challenges to our city’s future. That requires innovative thinking and a deeper understanding of those future challenges, something that the Council in its “bite the bullet” mentality has failed to deliver in its recent decision.

The Dunedin Amenities Society believes that by reintegrating the road back into the natural  landscape with planned revegetation and removing the intrusiveness of vehicles the reserve could recover its natural form and function. By bringing people back into this area and using creative recreational and ecological restoration the city would create a coastal space that could provide a potentially lucrative alternative link with the coast, urban centre and the Otago Peninsula. It’s not just about  banning vehicles, but undertaking innovative change and development that creates opportunities for our community in a wide variety of ways. That means promoting and developing our biodiversity and landscape assets in a coherent way that adds value to the ratepayer’s investment. It also means understanding change, being brave and having a vision for the reserve that extends past the wish list for today and actually planning for tomorrow.

Read the Society’s Coastal Vision

Read John Wilson Drive – the Beaten Track

Read John Wilson Drive Revisited

Read Ocean Beach Domain Environmental History