SNAs: Rewilding Wellington’s Parks in the Name of ‘Biodiversity’

The ostensible purpose of the ‘Significant Natural Areas’ being established throughout New Zealand is to protect indigenous biodiversity of national importance on public and private land.  However the policies being implemented go far beyond the requirements of the cited legislation, the Resource Management Act.

The controversy over Significant Natural Areas has largely focused on private property rights.  However, following a public meeting held in Khandallah, Wellington, I was contacted by Peter Steel of the Thorndon Residents Association (TRA), who offered a new perspective – public parks. 

The TRA Committee has been working to oppose an SNA designation on Queens Park, a space of lawns, exotic trees and native bush above the old suburb of Thorndon.

‘This area is part of the Town Belt and has been a colonial deciduous/exotic park for over 130 years. The Council currently proposed to include Queens Park with most of Te Ahumairangi Hill as an SNA which will require native vegetation in place of the existing planting.’ (Peter Green)

The Council appears to see no value in the special characteristics of the park as it is, a place of lawns, deciduous trees and flowering shrubs.  While a lawn area has been excluded, the SNA takes in the bulk of exotic plantings.  

 ‘[In July of this year] following the TRA approaching the Council to oppose the proposed SNA listing for Queens Park, a Council group accompanied by three of our Friends of Queens Park group did a walk-through assessment of Queens Park, to allow the Council team to decide whether to retain or drop Queens Park as an SNA.  As I understand it, this walk through simply assessed whether the vegetation in the area was more or less than 50% native – the Council attendees said that if they assess the native vegetation as more than 50%, they intend that the SNA proposal should remain and be included in the draft District Plan.  We haven’t yet heard the outcome of this.’

This suggests that any park that retains a certain percentage of native bush can be earmarked for rewilding of the whole, regardless of its original purpose.  Overall biodiversity will be reduced.

A workshop on the future of Queens Park involving local residents produced the following priorities:

  • More open space and feel,
  • Contrast with the rest of Ahumairangi Hill,
  • More colour and seasonal change, while
  • Keeping some wilderness areas for children.

A park for people in other words.

The Council commissioned from Boffa Miskell Wellington City: Landscape Evaluation, which assessed landscape attributes ‘that make them valued in terms of the RPS and Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA)’.  Wellington’s SNAs appear, however, to be based solely on a report entitled ‘Audit of potentially Significant Natural Areas for Wellington City’ prepared by a consultant called Wildlands: 

‘ As far as I can see, none of the checks and follow up work that Wildlands recommended before determining SNA areas appears to have been done.   It appears that the Council have simply taken all of the SNA proposals directly from these reports and included them in the Spatial Plan.’  (Peter Steel)

It is notable that while Boffa Miskell have assessed Te Ahumairangi Hill as a ‘special amenity landscape’, this does not include any of Queens Park (the two smaller areas to the east, separated from Te Ahumairangi Hill by Wadestown Road).

Other parks that combine open space with native bush are also affected: some examples are most of the Botanical Gardens, including the bush surrounding the very popular Dell, and the bush edging of Appelton Park. 

Also designated as SNA is the whole of the reserve on Mount Kaukau, including the large bare area around the top.  Down in the bush there is a sizeable clearing with a table and benches, and a separate seat towards the other end, with wonderful views over Wellington suburbs to the harbour.  The clearing is popular but could do with more seating, as it is an obvious place for groups of walkers to have a rest stop.  

However rather than improving seating, or eliminating the gorse and broom, the Council has already started to plant more natives of common species around the edges, presumably with a view to rewilding the whole area.    

The lawn area is very obvious in aerial photographs, but this did not deter the Council.

Wellingtonians on the whole enjoy the different experience that walking through native bush gives.  But when did we decide that lawns and specimen trees had to give way to ‘indigenous biodiversity’, even when this consists of fast-growing natives, which in the wrong place are normally considered weeds?  Who decided that New Zealanders did not ever want parks with deciduous trees and flowering shrubs, or rather, that the needs of human beings had no value ? 

There are major issues about overlaying the management of bush reserves, parks with open space, and private property, with a ‘one-size fits all’ designation under the RMA.  

  • Councils or local bodies will have no control over decisions on the parks, any maintenance work will require higher level approvals and any changes will need to go through a comprehensive RMA planning process.  The same will apply to volunteer community groups, who will be heavily constrained.
  • While existing paths through the bush can be maintained, no new paths can be created, except via a resource consent under the RMA.   Likewise any enhancements such as benches or noticeboards along the paths will be problematic.
  • There are of course serious concerns about the implications for private property rights where relevant, but there is also the question of who is responsible for care or enhancement.
  • The totality of areas like Kaukau have been zoned for rewilding with no respect for present usage.
  • Expansion of popular parks or edging them with colourful shrubs will be virtually impossible.

Note: Applications for resource consent under the RMA are notoriously expensive (sometimes prohibitively so), time-consuming and frustrating

There has been no call for the native plants edging spaces like the Dell or Appleton Park to be replaced by exotic shrubs.  However if Wellington City Council achieves its vision of replacing our suburban gardens with high-rise apartments against a backdrop of monochrome green, with maybe the odd bed of native grasses, many will be desperate for the sight of some daffodils, a camellia or a flowering cherry.




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