Saturday, October 30, 2010

on the creation of wetlands...

The last two days have seen me escape the desk and file room and trot off into the wide world again. I spent Thursday checking out subdivisions in the coastal dune environments north of Wellington and then today on the majical Kapiti Island. They illustrated nicely the difference between purportedly creating nature and then just leaving it to do its thing for 112 years. The outcomes are somewhat disparate.

The coastal estates I went to were in large part, epic environmental failures. One was amazing and I hope the developer responsible gets an easy ride to heaven (ka pai my brother, ka pai). But the other three were dismal. All were retired pastoral estates that were to be fashioned into posh subdivisions with the standard suite of features being sea views or proximity at least, cheesily named Lanes and Dales (quite often named after the miscreant that the proposed the whole disaster I have noticed) and plastic infrastructure with an asset life about as long as the laptop I am writing this on.

Nevertheless, the purported saving grace of these little oases from the stress of everyday life was that they would create or recreate WETLANDS! The boggy, swampy, marshy geek kids of the ecosystem world. All the developments proposed to create wetland wonderlands where stormwater could go and settle out before entering the nearest waterway and wildlife could frolic metres from the future new residents in a perfect semblance of high class country estate and 'sustainability'.

And a wonderful concept it is...where it works it's great. The wetland areas absorb the stormwater from the development, performing a utility function, and extensive ecosourced revegetation calls all the usual suspects to bear...scaup, coots, mallards, pukeko (when it isnt appearing in Genesis ads) and if you're lucky, the tiny dabchick. I know it works because I have seen it...which makes it all the more frustrating when I must spend an afternoon plodding around what might be politely described as abject failures.

These created wetlands.....sigh. Steep sided ponds with no vegetation on the outside (oh no wait, some had weeds in abundance) give way to copper brown water and algal wonderlands. They drain out through choked channels with sludge layers thicker than my bootsole. The tributary they flow into carries a plume tens of metres down the line as a reminder of what happens when muppets get to play in the environment for their own fiscal gain.

And these wetlands (according to the application and the advertising that persists) that were to be created were intended to be centrepieces of the fine stately development itself. But instead they sit idle with perhaps one lone mallard trawling around in them forlornly. A spur-winged plover shrieks protectively from the grassless common area adjacent which has the odd miserable liquidamber shoved into the ground. In the worst case, thick mounds of litter are strewn around the shoreline where it's not too steep and theres no water motion to disperse it.

In 50 years I intend to hop into by then vintage Toyota Corolla hatchback, walking stick in tow. I will stalk the coastline of New Zealand to see what became of these coastal developments orchestrated by muppets. And I hope not to see sterile ponds void of life; but functioning, richly planted and well maintained wetland environments.

Because creating those were the trade-off for introducing the pressures of 80 more families less than 200 metres from the beach. they were the tradeoff for 29000 square metres of earthworks where the topsoil mysteriously disappeared. They were also the tradeoff for clearing whatever was left of natural vegetation and restricting a dune system with three foot high retaining walls (yeh, good luck with that). It was part of a deal and one side just keeps defaulting.

If they continue to be what they are today then the walking stick will become a weapon. But perhaps sea level rise will beat me to it. One can only hope...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

...keeping it simple, at the risk of seeming stupid....

As my research time in the capital draws to a close, I can reflect on what has been a pretty interesting week. PhD research is like the world's longest rollercoaster. Some days you you're on the straight and narrow, the wind's in your hair and there's not a green-faced, puff-cheeked kid in sight. Others....well, it's like it stalled upside down, you didn't tuck your shirt in and theres a storm brewing on the horizon.

This week's been more positive than some, and included a conference in which several presenters indicated that research like mine was needed and fast. That's always a boost because you're never far from feeling pointless as a research student (the dabbling duck with its beak caught under a rock is my favourite analogy). The conference was a trans-tasman one and covered a range of environmental management issues that are just not all that different to the usual.

The same themes filter through everything....the same type of people turn out, spouting the same things...only their faces really change. They talk about systems, and 'paradigms', and predictive models, and what three case studies indicated to them about another fifty thousand....

I'm sure the generation of ecology types before me endured lectures not dissimilar (probably identical!). And despite all these decades of posturing, politicking and chest-beating about exactly how to theoretically save the world....biodiversity continues to diminish, systems continue to fail miserably and the only thing that stops us looking like total idiots is that we dont monitor well enough to show the problems clearly enough. Phew...?

I am glad my research is what it might not be the most technical or have the fanciest name but it suits me because I am simple too (yes, funny, I know). The research process is more about conducting mini archaeological digs in council file rooms than conquering wild forests in some far flung corner of the globe. I spend more time speaking with landowners about the excess turnips they just cant find a use for than quizzing them on the meaning of life under controlled conditions. And I certainly couldnt stand alongside the bright bods presenting today, with more jargon and acronyms than the free world really needs.

Nope...I'm just going outside and seeing what really happened and figuring out what we can learn from it. Not heavy stuff....KISS model...suits me...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

...tomtits, paunch cutters and motorcycles...

When the context of your research is the real world (wait, isn't all research fully applicable to everyday life? No...oh right!) it is easy to become distracted. The trick is to fret and flap about your research as much as possible until it almost, but not quite, limits your ability to have any fun at all. I'd mastered such a skill up until the day before yesterday when I hit what I think was the first wall.

I did, in true tree geek style react in the only way possible...trudge off into a National park for several hours of largely uphill trekking. I had a good time though, so enjoying myself watching the tomtits and tuis that I didnt notice what must have been a million sharp things I wandered through. When I got back to my accomodation it looked like I'd gotten into a fight with a combine harvester with scratches on all bare skin. Despite being cut to ribbons I had a blast :)

I slept like the dead after an intense week. I had sloshed around a piggery watching fat piglets squirm delightedly in the mud. I then went to a rendering plant, savouring the delicious odour of rotting flesh and blood drying merrily in the sun, all the while enduring the most matter-of-fact description of exactly why paunch cutters are crucial parts of the process. Finally I discovered the joys of the killing floor of a meatworks and....well, long held visions of vegetarianism moved sharply back into focus and the mass produced meat industry will no longer recieve my custom.

I woke this morning and prepared to ship out of sleepy Stratford. The day started well with free range eggs and SOLDIERS (some people never grow up!) and the drive through to Levin was uneventful despite onerous traffic reports. I took a minor twitchers detour to Kuku Beach which I knew to have shorebirds present. Sure enough before long I had my binos trained on a bunch of them, scurrying happily around the dunes and flats. A horrendous sound and flying mud all over where a pair of oystercatchers were quietly sitting brought into view a motorcycle rider.

Said rider was shouting for an ambulance and me and a pair of tourists also attempting to bird watch as they scooted noisily and dangerously all over the dunes quickly obliged in ringing triple 1. Turned out that while jumping over a dune (shorebird habitat *cough* waahi tapu *cough*) one of their mates had managed to break his femur. What then ensued could have been a silent movie, black and white of course. Frantic piano music could have easily accompanied the confused fluffing of the scores of locals that quickly showed up.

There were many cooks in this here kitchen, and the first plan to emerge from this gaggle was to bring the guy back off the beach (3km away) on the bike. I gently pointed out that if they were to nick the femoral artery with an edge of broken bone they would have all of two minutes left alive with their friend. That ended that concept thankfully and they then set to work figuring out which of them would go onto the beach in the 4wd with the trailer to apparently 'carefully' transport him out on the flatdeck and which of them would stay back and guard their bikes.

Thankfully as the self appointed medics were setting off, the ambos arrived and it was decided that since the beach was now apparently impassable to the 4wd, it could only be crossed in a tractor. One of the riders helpfully piped up that he had a tractor and would go and get it. St John's finest agreed to go in on motorbike and have the chap follow them in his tractor which seemed a good solution. I dusted my hands of the whole pending disaster and headed off back to the main road.

Halfway up the road, Tractor Guy waved me down. He'd managed to run out of gas and faced a 1.5km walk if he was to get his tractor down to the beach. I told him to leave his bike roadside and hop in and drove him to his farm. He reeked of alcohol, but in that acrid way that makes you think he sees drinking as a marathon not a sprint. I dropped him off and headed for the nations capital where I now sit reflecting on a rather odd week in the wild Naki. Let's see what the windy city has in store....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

...on the assumptions associated with clouds...

A few days into my Stratford adventure, there isn't too much else to report. Field work is as always a juggling act. Trying to get ten different sets of site information and attempt to visit them is something of a challenge. I am glad on reflection that I kept the number of different councils in each region to a minimum as working between any more than two or three would probably send me packing. The weather with the exception of one day has been poor and it's freezing. But I am hesitant to worry too much as it will only get colder as I go down the country. Next week I am in the capital and have a conference to work in around my field work.

On the mountain visibility front we have made some progress. The morning after I complained about the cloud cover I looked up from my toast at breakfast and saw Mt Taranaki in all it's glory through the window. Its an incredible feature on the landscape and it seems that no matter how many times I see it still has that same effect. I am thankful that the clouds stepped aside for one fine morning so i could hurriedly drive up to the plateau and take some snaps.

Nevertheless, I am still a fan of clouds, especially scudding ones. They always seem the most modern and progressive of all the clouds as they determinedly whiz across the sky. I find myself drawn to paintings of clouds which I suspect would scud if given half the chance.

The owner of the B&B I am staying at is an amateur artist and the whole place is covered with samples of their work. The landscape around the mountain is so crisp and beautiful on a clear day that you can well see why it would inspire such a hobby. Of all the things in the world I'd like to be better at, painting would be one but me and paint brushes (despite some genetic indications that I should be good at it) just dont mix....gotta work on that....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

...taranaki rocks....

Yesterday I spent the day immersed in Hamilton-related festivities before setting off westward to the Taranaki Region. Most people dissolved in giggles when I told them I was spending more than a week (or is that a day?) here. Buoyed by other more positive accounts I kept an open mind.

Well...Taranaki rocks....protrude from everywhere.

Every hillside on the road in (SH 3) had giant boulders; some smooth, some scraggy, some flat sticking out all over the place. It became the seared-in first impression of the region in my brain. The kind of image that makes you check everywhere for sticking-out rocks and other associated trip hazards such as loose pebbles.

Someone extends their hand to you and you half expect a rock (perhaps one suitable for skimming?) to be proudly protruding from their forearm. Its all rather strange and it wasn't until I saw the beautiful mountain that I had any greater visions of Taranaki.

The cloud ate the mountain that day and each day since. You can only see the foothills, and even if you drive 50km trying to get a better view (*looks guilty*)the cloud still wraps it in it's fluffy arms, guarding it jealously like I might a bag of candy for example. If there's not one clear day between now and Sunday, me and that cloud are going to have words...which is unlikely to change anything...because nature has every right to guard such treasures.

Have had a productive day though, have learned a range of exciting new things in relation to some of the industrial sites I will be going to. "Stick-water" is not something you want to swim in, Im suspicious of any place with an entire room devoted to offal, and remain oddly impressed by people who seem to invent the most digestable euphemisms for the most disgusting really it is.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

terra incognita...second leg

The 'research roadie' so far has been through places I am well familiar with. Many a more minor road trip and camping extravaganza has taken place in the Far North and twelve great years were spent in the 'super' city of Auckland. The next leg of the journey is 54 days of going through areas I am almost completely unfamiliar with, and starts tomorrow.

The traverse of the west coast of the north island will precede a week in the windy city....and a ferry ride will then take me to the mainland in time for next month. Two weeks in the top of the south island will introduce me to one of the wine-making capitals of the world and all that that entails. A short deviation to Farewell Spit (predictable for a twitcher) is planned before heading south.

The bottom of the south promises the wildest of the weather and terrain and it's my hope to take a teensy break to beautiful Stewart Island. Such a protracted programme of field work is bound to see me earn a day or two away from the computer surely...! Its a huge programme and I only avoid fretting by thinking about it one region at a time. goes....

(image from

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 save an ailing farm....

I was playing the part of the tumbleweed on the west coast today. Wandering high above the volatile shoreline along the beautful Te Henga walkway, I was reviewing matters related to development on coastal pasture. Scores of related discussions and case law revolve around the retention of 'rural coastal character'.

It occured to me today that the efforts we go to to preserve such character might just beg a deeper inquiry. Why are we pouring resources into maintaining the 'natural' look of degraded pasture atop extremely exposed shore-lines when it's anything but natural?

When New Zealand was discovered it wasn't marvelled for it's erosion-prone grassed's haggard vistas of windswept gorse....nor it's many ailing fencelines. It was marvelled for its outstanding coastal vegetation, clinging resolutely to wild cliffs. It was marvelled for the fact that 40% of the worlds seabirds made their home there and left every year, always returning to their southern paradise. And marvelled still further for many beaches backed by towering dune systems.

And this wasn't thousands of years ago. The pastoral landscape has been a relatively new concept. We spent the past barely 200 years scuttling about with brushcutters and giant saws, pausing only to look at the great works of Constable for inspiration and technical reference. It is a mere blip in our natural history and the costly and unmoving troops marching to retain said degraded pasture, forsaking all other land uses (in this case including indigenous revegetation!)seem to be remiss in the way they direct their energies.

There is a time and place for retention of rural landscapes, but it would seem from my travels that said landscape (degraded, gorse cloaked pasture) seems to occupy a heck of a lot of our land area and its protection a little too much of our time...and perhaps it's value might be somewhat overstated...just putting it out there....

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 never suspect the little one....

I was sitting in the sun near an estuary area today, reviewing some notes before going on to a large industrial site. Despite the sudden cool of Auckland in the past few days, a few of the more reslient mosquitoes around these parts were out in force.

As the odd one zeroed in on my ankles and arms, I was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost. I think it was called 'A Considerable Mite'. It gave rare attention to the activities of a speck of a buzzing insect of some description. I remember thinking the teensy subject of the poem was really rather valiant despite it's demonstrable diminutive stature. Busy in it's toils (which in my case seemed to revolve fairly exclusively around biting me)you had to hand it to it. Providing 'it' was equally microscopic so as not to be an unreasonable burden.

Bitten into departure, I trudged off to the site to be met with typically affable environmental manager. Driving around the site, the extent of operations was quite a contrast to my own personal experience of (mostly) small-site environmental compliance. The detailed site management characteristics provided for some measure of comfort that the onsite natural features had some security of existence, some with management regimes (and resources most likely) superior to our own manager of our Crown conservation estate.

Experts at the helm, the levels of compliance with requirements and extent of ancillary contributions to conservation outcomes are often substantial. But the smaller sites might just be where our problem is nationally. The small scale matters that regularly chip away at our biodiversity...piece by piece....often well under thresholds for needing permission to do so too....whittling away our natural heritage entirely under the radar. I think that may just present the greatest conservation challenge for us yet....

Saturday, October 9, 2010

places to flap arms the wake of the (generally successful and positive) election outcomes is a nice place to be. Amongst the familiar, the challenge is to remember I'm here on field work and no to skylark as is typical when I invade these parts. Have a full programme of site visits to do over the next few days and hope I can cram them all in to the time! Add to that a lecture to deliver that needs to make some sense realistically, and the familiar anxiety is back.

PhDs are like babies....when they're born they're cute...and then stuff starts happening that sometimes makes you wonder why evolution never had a mechanism akin to a pause button or a robust returns policy/escape clause. But no matter what they are inevitably a reflection of you. The fluctations of energy and confidence are all part of the package, but they seem a lot more important when you, a car and three tons of field gear are sitting on a beach contemplating the data collection itself.

The volume of information I'm collecting on all the case studies is pretty decent and it's hard to imagine that I'll not leave at least some stones unturned. The comfort of the past few days has been that I can come back to all these places fairly easily if I do so. As the time wears on however, the location becomes more and more remote from my base and the 'no turning back' concept becomes a little more important.

It's all part of the journey I think. But at least I get to fret on the beaches of the far north....on kauri trails through Puketi forest....on coastal headlands in Pakiri....and amongst colourful travelling folk in friendly hostels... Worse places to panic and flap your arms....

Friday, October 8, 2010

muppets....the bad kind

My time in sunny Northland draws to a close tomorrow, and I trip my way down the coast via some case study sites to the rather more familiar territory of Auckland. The driving, map-checking, filling in forms has all become routine now and I for once can claim to be up to date with much-loathed paperwork (shock horror). Tomorrow is a momentous day however, for more than just the fact that I go from birthplace to what is my true hometown of North Shore City.

Tomorrow marks the end of local body elections...votes are due at midday at your local library (vote...some people would die for that right) and the new mayor/councillors of all the districts and the new 'super' city of Auckland will become known. Some will be no surprise, while others will no doubt engender community chants and hollers alike.

The past few days have, among many other things, illustrated to me the great importance of having a 'no-muppet' rule in local body politics. They really do have enormous control over our daily lives...illustrated in one particular instance where an un-named incumbant politician committed lock, stock and two smoking bean-counters to a large infrastructure project. The finances, the practical resource capacity and the consent/appreciation of iwi were noticeably absent...but on he went, missing only a kilt and a sword.

The outcome was, without going in to al that much detail, that precious little environmental mitigation could be demanded from the orchestrator of the actual project. The costs and benefits barely fell even, and any mention of offsetting of the potentially serious adverse environmental and cultural effects fell on deaf ears. The gateway tests of the relevant legislation somewhat overthrown by a dictatorial attitude and a pocket full of clipped responses.

No muppets rule...jolly good idea methinks...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

a perpetual notion

I've often thought that the commitment to taking a stand for nature must be about the most noble thing you can do. This is because not only are you providing a voice for something which cannot speak for itself but, unlike human assistance, there is no prospect of it ever having a the commitment is perpetual. Whether or not that viewpoint sticks with the mainstream is besides the point I guess, but it makes sense in my head.

It did strike me as being of particular consequence these past two days. Clocking 12 hours in the council file room damn near drove me bananas, so I was very glad to be out on the road, enjoying the supreme Far North weather and chatting to actual people instead of mumbling discontentedly at chaotic files. I visited four large sites, subdivisions of coastal land which would appear to be the development style of choice in these parts.

The one thing they all had in common were assets of public significance wholly contained on the site. All had sites of Maori significance, 3 removed part of public access to coastline, 3 had significant tracts of endangered species habitat (kiwi mainly) and one in particular had some seriously critical sites of early European occupation on them.

In the case of some of the sites, it would seem a shame that they had ever been let to fall in the hands of private owners anyway. Some had been demonstrably degraded as a result (at least historically) and I guess we'll never know what had been lost in the intervening decades. Overall though, I was pleased to see that, without exception, the identified sites were beautifully maintained and clearly appreciated by their current owners. Probably, it's fair to say, to a higher stand than many in Crown ownership.

So I am hesitant to openly lament their private ownership status, but one does worry over intergenerational timescales what will become of them. Land ownership will inevitably change, if not over years, then certainly over decades. Covenants and titles are perpetual in effect, but is the will and the enthusiasm of the owners named on them? I suppose my grandchildren will find out....

Musings aside, I've loved my few hectic days in the Far North....whizzing around in the windom....and tomorrow I trudge a little further south to the town of my birth, Whangarei (which may well struggle to match the beauty of the Bay of Islands) and continue this marathon research effort which is only just warming up....

Sunday, October 3, 2010

how eco is my development?

Any delusions that this trip might be a loosely disguised junket were categorically dismissed today, as I spent near-on five hours reading through a single application for development. Field research is always a steep learning curve in the early days in particular and today is no different...

In the interests of professionalism I dressed as a typical bureaucrat today, and spent the day fussing in a meeting room just off the foyer to council offices. In a collared shirt and dress trousers I fitted in comfortably with the swarm of local government bods buzzing around the premises. This turned to be somewhat negative as the odd aggrieved member of the public zeroed in on me. It came to pass that them not having recieved their CCC (building completion certificate) even after the plumber made a 'special trip' to fix the 'pipe' was entirely my fault. Today I learned that if you're a research student, dress like one and plead ignorance at any and all opportunity....

I've realised that animals and humans aren't all that different...we all function and behave better when there's a reward at the end. The way my fieldwork is structured means I plow through metric tons of documents, photocopy the slivers of paper that I actually need from the mountain and then skip off into the Far North spring to find/see the actual site where it happened (in like, real life!). Am glad it's structured that way...I fear if it were the reverse it just wouldn't work. The exit from the meeting room full of teetering piles of consent documentation would be one-way and the PhD would be further away in the end than in the beginning...

The range of developments is vast....the extent to which their designers are congnizant of environmental values is equally varied...but they all have one thing in common....they are all 'ecologically sensitive'. Well, at least so the application says. A miniscule few probably really qualify for the title, but the term is so calmly thrown around. It makes me think that a statutory definition of the term is probably necessary, so that those who strip every slope of the hundred acre lot of everything down to clay, dont claim the same as those who carefully set aside significant habitat and modify the rest with appropriate kid gloves...

But helter skelter, they seem to troop all over this region...leaving swathes of coastal forest chipped up in their wake, all claiming to be the next green Trump. The only thing green in most cases is the logo of the cheesily-named and likely quite ephemeral company in charge of the whole shooting match. However, all is not lost...a few green stalwarts do exist Im pleased to note, and once I wriggle out of the file room tomorrow I get to put foot to pasture and see them for myself....