Falling trees can kill. Even branches can. Most people would stay well away from a site where trees are being cleared, but not veteran environmental activist, Steve Abel.
At a residential site on Canal Road, Avondale where protesters have been gathered for weeks in the hopes of saving dozens of mature native trees, Abel ran towards a tree being felled and scaled a neighbouring tree to protest. Having already been trespassed off the property, two police officers gave chase. Incredible video then shows the tree being felled, landing on the neighbouring tree which Abel was clinging to, while the police scrambled for their lives. A supporter screamed and sobbed as she watched branches cascading down past the protester. Fortunately, he was unharmed.
The following day while a WorkSafe investigator was on site in high winds, the felled tree pivoted spectacularly on the tree that it was hung up on and the head of it crashed into the ground while the trunk lifted up into the air.
A long-time environmental advocate and protestor, Abel - who is also a Green Party candidate - led a plucky band of tree advocates in a last-ditch attempt to preserve these very special native trees in Canal Rd, Avondale. The trees are on private property which has been for sale.
While many find the felling of such a significant cluster of indigenous trees to be repugnant, no one is arguing that the owners are not within their rights. The argument is that council should purchase the land as a small park in a rapidly growing area; in fact, there are Kainga Ora apartments being built on the opposite corner.
The Tree Council took the issue right to the top with Phil Goff at an Environment and Climate Change Committee meeting on July 21st – which ironically, was underway at the same time the tree felling drama was unfolding. At the meeting Phil Goff referred to the financial constraints that Auckland Council is under. “There are groups of trees all like this all over the city that we have no protection for,” he said, and noted that the real solution is for the government to reinstate tree protection. “I deplore the fact that these trees are coming down. They are beautiful trees. I love trees like that.”
Dr Mels Barton, advocating on behalf of the Tree Council responded, “Council has the opportunity to move in and do something on an individual site; you were offered that opportunity three years ago before this site came on the market and nothing was done. I think that speaks volumes in terms of your commitment to the Urban Ngahere Strategy … what is happening today at Canal Road is an extremely good example of where the rubber hits the road with your Urban Ngahere Strategy, with the general lack of tree protection.”
There was discussion in the committee about doing a land swap for an underutilised reserve space further down Canal Rd. Council staff gave a long explanation of how complex this process is, how difficult it would be and how long it could take. Basically all the reasons for doing nothing. There were no staff suggestions on what could be done. It played out like an episode of Yes, Minister.
Council was first asked to consider buying the land 23 years ago. From 1997, Gordon Burgess, the son of a previous owner, advocated strongly for council to purchase the land due to the trees’ significance. Burgess had been the Auckland Harbour Board’s first property manager, so he knew his stuff. He had also managed the NZ Cricket team on tour to India in 1969 and was awarded an OBE for services to cricket.
The Burgess family are well aware of how special these trees are. They were planted by ancestor Walter Burgess, who was born in 1886 and came out to New Zealand aged seven; by the age of twelve he was employed in cabinet making. Walter married Edith on 14 January 1914. He became a woodwork instructor at Avondale Manual Training School and they purchased a property nearby at what was then numbered 48 Canal Road. He taught until his retirement in 1953.
Nicknamed “Old Burgie”, wood and trees were Walter’s lifelong passion. He decided to plant his own arboretum on his half acre paradise, likely in the late 1920s to 30s. At a time when a lot of native forest was being clear felled across the country, Walter decided to plant indigenous trees. He carved the tree names in Latin and te reo Maori on wooden plaques and used his growing forest as an educational aid. Of the 46 trees that remained until recently, there were seventeen different species, including black maire, puriri, rimu, titoki, totara, whau and pohutukawa. A single pohutukawa is the only tree on the property that has protected status in Auckland Council’s schedule of notable trees.
Walters’s granddaughter, Angela Dell, says that she and all the family are really sad at the tree felling. Walter and Edith had five sons, all of whom had enjoyed growing up and playing in the trees. Four of them served in WWII, and returned safely. Angela is grateful that her father and grandfather are not alive to see the tree felling, as she describes it as being horrible to witness. “It’s absolutely gutting”, she says.
The land the trees are on was purchased by Mr Andrew Pearson in 1914. It was two lots combined - present day 54-56 Canal Rd. From 1915 Pearson’s neighbour was Mr Charles Alfred Schneider, who later changed his name to Charles Alfred Raymond. In 1918 Pearson sold to Mr John Hume, and in July 1926, the land was transferred to Mrs Edith Alice Burgess (it was a common thing in those days, to have land in the wife's name).
In 1961 the Burgess property was sold to Merv Raymond. He eventually owned all three properties on the corner of Canal Rd and Wairau Ave. Daughter-in-law Lesley Raymond said that one of the houses was rented out and another was used to store antiques. In the 1990s the former Burgess house burnt down, and at some point the second house also burnt down. Alhough some of the trees may have been damaged by the fires, the end result was the creation of a beautiful park-like open space with large trees gracing it; the downside was the Raymond family had the burden of paying the rates and maintaining the land, including dealing with people dumping rubbish. After Merv died the decision was made to sell the land.
The protesters believe that a condition of sale set by the buyer is that the trees have to be cleared before settlement, thus precipitating the protests.
This has been quite a polarising issue in the Avondale community. Some people point out that the owners are within their rights. The other view is that rare mature stands of native trees are an important asset in our intensifying urban neighbourhoods. Tall trees are especially important and are often the first to go.
The debate has flared up at the site, on social media and also at the July meeting of the Whau Local Board (WLB). In the public forum, six people addressed the board with their concerns. Sylvia Spieksma was disappointed by the lack of support from WLB members, even from the Greens. Allie said that people in the Whau Pacifica Group want the WLB to walk the talk with them and the trees should have been kept as a learning resource. Chair Kay Thomas responded that the WLB fully supports the protesters and wants the trees retained but cannot intervene. They did not want a visit to the site to be seen as opportunistic grandstanding when in truth the WLB is powerless to change the outcome.
It was fitting that the last challenge came from Steve Abel. Why had the WLB never applied for notable tree status for the cluster?
A society grows great when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
– Greek proverb