Trying to save the tree roots
This empathy did not, however, protect the magnificent kauri forests from the wave of destruction driven by Auckland’s need for building timber and the lucrative export trade to Australia and North America. But, by the 1920s, Aucklanders recognised the intrinsic value of having such a large wilderness area close to the rapidly growing city, and planned to protect a substantial area. The initial plans included the lower Waitakere River wetland, a significant bird habitat, but this was unfortunately left out of Centennial Memorial Park. Although the dam in the headwaters diverts most of its water to Auckland, it is the largest intact freshwater wetland in the Auckland region
When the news broke in the summer of 1973, it spread like wildfire through the local community. Waitemata County Council planned to construct a major ‘sanitary landfill’ to last 30 years in a side branch of the Waitakere River valley near the Bethells/Te Henga Road junction. This small catchment with native bush and waterfalls drains via the wetland to the coastal lagoon at Te Henga where children swim safely in summer. But the council engineers were driven by the looming rubbish crisis created by the imminent closure of the existing dump at a mangrove estuary in Te Atatu, which left only the Whitford landfill site available for Auckland’s waste. They were attracted by the remoteness of the area, the easy access to on-site fill from Duck’s Quarry, and the proximity of the railway line at Waitakere township. To justify the proposed site, they argued it was not in the Waitakeres, and perhaps to keep the locals happy, football fields would be created after the tip closed.
'The Scenic Drive' publicity near the site of the proposed tip in the Waitakere valley, 1973.
It is useful to view the proposal in the context of contemporary Auckland governance. Waitemata County, which was one of more than 20 territorial local authorities in Auckland, spread from Titirangi to the North Shore, but was administered from Greys Avenue in central Auckland. In the 1970s councils (reflecting their origins as local Road Boards) were often managed by engineers with limited experience of the Town and Country Planning Act (1956), and the Water and Soil Conservation Act (1967). Although these Acts did not require environmental impact assessments, the discharge of toxic waste from the proposed tip did require the approval of the Auckland Regional Water Board. The Water Board and Catchment Authority’s powers were vested in the Auckland Regional Authority (now Auckland Regional Council), and the board was augmented by other members, in particular the District Commissioner of Works and the local Commissioner of Crown Lands. Thus, while the Waitemata County controlled the planning process, it did not control the water right process; nor did it have representation on the water board.
The tug-o-war with the bulldozer. In this event, staged with television coverage in mind, the bulldozer symbolised the Waitemata County Council; those on the rope syombolised the citizens opposed to the dump. Needless to say, for the benefit of television, the citizens won the mock contest!
The 1960s and early 1970s saw a marked rise in the numbers of young New Zealanders travelling overseas, particularly to London and North America. Most were educated and held a strong desire to return to New Zealand, often motivated by their first-hand experience of some of the less attractive aspects of life in large, densely populated cities, particularly the impacts of urban waste and pollution which were all too obvious to small town New Zealanders.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, ten-acre block subdivisions spread into the Waitakeres. Farming had always been marginal on the impoverished western soils and was giving way to lifestyle blocks. Although the change in land use created some problems, it had the fortuitous effect of introducing a completely new set of residents having a range of professional and artistic talents. This extended and built upon the skills of the existing residents and was supplemented by the professional contacts of the many sympathisers from the city.
Beach theatre to gain supporters and publicity against the proposed tip 1973.
The initial meeting at the Waitakere Primary School in the summer of 1973 drew farmers, longtime residents, newcomers and bach owners. They were united in a sense of outrage at the proposal and a desire to preserve the area. To add insult to injury, the council’s public notice was in the Auckland Star, a paper which was not delivered locally, and the area had no rubbish collection. More meetings followed at the Waitakere Hall which brought people from further afield.
The Waitakere Ranges Protection Society was under way with Jeff Scholes (potter and musician) as president, and was formally incorporated in July 1973. Waitemata County was completely unprepared for the pace of a political campaign waged by a group of youthful activists from this rural backwater. A form of public relations guerrilla warfare ensued in which the society effectively used contacts assiduously cultivated with the print media, radio and television. Media coverage was almost invariably sympathetic. Special media events, like the symbolic tug-o-war with the bulldozer, were tailor made for television. The ‘Scenic Rubbish Drive’, street theatre events and Te Henga Arts Festival helped to highlight the inappropriateness of the Waitakeres as a location for a dump. The committee was determined not to take a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ approach, and wanted to prevent Auckland from being locked into long-term ‘dump and forget’ attitudes and obsolete technology. This meant a commitment to research on urban landfill management and problems, waste reduction, and/or innovative alternative methods.
The society worked on several approaches — first a petition of 700 signatures which was presented to Parliament by WRPS secretary Juliet Batten (artist and English scholar), who was by then an expert on rubbish disposal.
Second, a Private Members Bill was prepared, which was doomed immediately because it lacked the support of the local council.
Finally, after a year of late night meetings and weekends of door-knocking, signature collecting, fundraising and research, the society and other objectors presented their submissions at the council hearing. Not surprisingly, this round was lost because the council in effect sat in judgement on themselves. The outcome was appealed by the society to the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board (now the Environment Court), but in the meantime the water right hearing was scheduled. WRPS intensified their research and again prepared submissions. The council’s application was declined by the water board, who accepted the society’s technical evidence which showed the leachate discharged by the tip could not be contained or treated adequately to remove the nutrients, heavy metals and other components. The unstable geology and the heavy rainfall also compounded the situation, virtually guaranteeing the vulnerable wetland would be polluted. To the surprise of the society, the council did not appeal this decision. The battle was won and the council scheme collapsed. Internal sources in the ARA suggested the input of the District Commissioner of Works, Mr Aitken, a member of the tribunal established to hear the application, was pivotal in the tribunal’s decision to reject the application. Overall, it was a stunning victory for the society and the case attracted much favourable media attention.
Carrying the conservation banner forward As the society’s name implies, it was the preservation of the whole of the Ranges, not just the immediately threatened valley, which was important. Even before the rubbish tip issue was resolved the committee was working on other issues, so the decision to continue the society was a forgone conclusion. The society repositioned itself in the wider role as an advocate for the preservation of the environmental and conservation values of the Waitakeres Ranges, and broadened its focus to include the eastern foothills which were coming under increasing pressures from subdivision and development.
Over the following 30 years, the society has had many successes and has won notable precedent-setting land use cases before the Environment Court. The society has also played a pivotal role in promoting the acquisition of land for public reserves — the first of these being Lake Wainamu. This was co-ordinated through the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, and was the first in New Zealand to involve contributions from central and local Government in partnership with a public organisation (WRPS).
The future impact the society was to make could not have been predicted by anyone at that first protest meeting. Thirty years on, it is interesting to reflect on the key actions and events that not only ensured success in the initial battle, but also enabled the continuing success of the society. A key element was the fortuitous timing of the initial battle and the availability of young, energetic and somewhat idealistic New Zealanders returning from overseas charged with environmental vision. For perhaps the first time since the battle for Manapouri, the media were effectively harnessed to a conservation issue impacting upon the local environment. There was the ready acceptance by Aucklanders that the Waitakeres were worth protecting and that some uses were inappropriate to their iconic status. Another factor was the wide membership and the strengths of the committee members, whose commitment and diverse expertise have given the society an effective and professional profile. Finally, the realisation that effort expended in fighting the initial battle would be dissipated if the society did not continue its existence.
Many issues remain unresolved, and other challenges face us in the future as Auckland’s population continues to grow and increase the pressure for development. The more the city expands, the more precious the quiet,unspoiled areas will become. Continued strong advocacy, innovative planning approaches, focus, consistency and sheer determination will be required to maintain the wilderness and all the environmental values of the Waitakere Ranges.
Steven King talking to WPRS