Stomachs churn in unison as the chopper clears the ridge and the ground beneath us falls away to reveal a hillside cleared of the ubiquitous pine trees that seem to march forever through the rugged remoteness of inland Hawke’s Bay.
To our north lies the vast Te Urewera. Way over to our west Taupo and the central plateau beckon the careless and the energetic. And to our south and east the sophisticated, genteel cafes and vineyards of the coast seem a world away from this rugged hinterland with its waves of ridges and crests, their naturally-sharp contours softened and smothered by the blanket of imported pine.
Bright green new-growth vegetation and the muted olives, greys and browns of the shrubs, debris and soil on the cleared slope contrast with the sea of mature conifers stretching away to three sides of us.
“This is our latest section”, a voice crackles in my headset. “Look down there and you can see where we’ve come from.”
I crane my neck in the direction Pete’s pointing and can see where new-growth juts into the forestry block – the lighter green and drab olive of young, regenerating native bush spearing into the darker coloured uniformity of the imported pine.
This is the Maungataniwha Pine Forest, a 4,000 hectare logging concession now managed by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, established in 2006 to provide direction and funding for the restoration of threatened species of fauna and flora, and to restore the NgahereMauri (forest lifeforce) in native forests.
Just three decades ago this was mature native forest. It was logged progressively and then burned before being put under pine.
Now, in the largest and most expensive project yet undertaken by the Trust, the entire area is being turned back into regenerating native forest. The wheel is turning full circle.
The Trust has progressively taken control of land that has been harvested each year under a 12-year hand-back agreement with logging concessionaire Matariki Forests. This is now being regenerated in the largest privately-funded initiative of its kind yet seen in New Zealand.
My host, Trustee and estate manager Pete Shaw, says there is sufficient residual seed of native species within the soil to enable regeneration without the need for additional seeding. A major challenge, however, is the regeneration of pine seedlings which emerge and effectively crowd out the slower growing native forest species.
“They’re a bugger to get rid of,” Pete says. “We try to rip them out manually where possible but where the terrain is too difficult to get a ground team in, or where the re-growth is too dense, we have to resort to spraying them.”
The optimum time for getting rid of this wilding pine is within two years of germination, after which they become more difficult to remove. And it’s an expensive business - manual clearance costs around $500 a hectare, while spraying it costs $140 a hectare for the ‘brew’, the chopper hire and other equipment costs.
The project is funded by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, one of the country’s leading privately-funded conservation initiatives. It manages the block, along with the adjacent Maungataniwha Native Forest - 6,120 hectares of wilderness straddling the ridge system between the Te Hoe and Waiau Rivers. It is bordered to the north by Te Urewera National Park and to the west by the Whirinaki Conservation Forest.
The Trust also manages Pohokura, 11,348 hectares of native forest north of the Napier-Taupo highway, and a 23 hectare property situated in the north-western corner of Lake McKerrow in the Fiordland National Park.
It runs eight forest regeneration and restoration projects on these properties, involving both fauna and flora, including the country’s most prolific Kiwi breeding programme.
“These places have had the soul ripped out of them through generations of neglect and commercial exploitation”, explains Pete. “But we’re part of a growing move across the country to help restore that soul. That indefinable energy, or lifeforce, of a forest that is alive and functioning properly, as nature intended.”
It takes two years to clear logged land of wilding pines, and a further eight years to get it to the point where it can be described as fully regenerated. During this time the land is nurtured, treated and monitored by Pete and his team to ensure that the species they expect to appear do so.
“We haven’t had to seed any regenerating blocks yet,” Pete said. “The native seed is in the soil, waiting. Given a chance to flourish it does so – it’s quite amazing to witness.”
The grasses are first off the block – native species like hookgrass and toetoe. Then shrubs or small trees like mahoe and wineberry. These are followed by mountain cabbage-tree, kanuka and native fuschia. Once these species have re-colonised the land the stage is set for larger stuff such as red and silver beech.
Native birds such as kereru and silvereyes play a vital role in the regeneration process, spreading seed and propagating the land.
“Once we see these guys on the land we know the battle is half won,” Pete said.
It’s still early days. The Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust team have only been reclaiming the land from pine since 2008. Pete is characteristically cautious about claiming any great success. Yet.
“There isn’t a precedent in New Zealand for forest regeneration on this scale. This is real ground-breaking, work-it-out-as-you-go-along stuff. So there are no guarantees we’ll succeed but, if we do, the area will be fantastic for native species such as kiwi.”
Manual, or ‘field’, removal of the wilding pine at Maungataniwha has not kept up with the harvesting rate, so Pete is increasing the number of staff involved and adding aerial spraying into the mix.
Like the regeneration effort itself, the story behind the spraying operation is a real example of ‘suck it and see’ – figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The team needed a spray formula that knocked the wilding pines on the head while giving the natives a chance to establish themselves and flourish.
“The nuclear option was never going to work for us so we worked with Lin Wilson, a former deer recovery pilot, to come up with a brew that is potent enough to knock off about 95 percent of the pine re-growth but sufficiently benign to let enough of the wild stuff take hold,” Pete explained. “Since then we’ve tweaked and refined the process to the point that we’re pretty happy we’ve got a good balance.”
Lin died some years ago. But, as Pete says, “Lin lives on in his brew and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the time, patience and expertise he devoted to formulating a solution that works for us.”
The pioneering work being done by the Trust in the area of forest regeneration is mirrored in restoration projects across all four of its properties.
“Regeneration is about re-creating what was there in the first place; restoration is about making good the damage that’s been done to original forest that remains,” Pete explains. “As with regeneration we’re constantly charting new territory when it comes to large-scale restoration of our native forest environment. The learning curve is just immense.”
To this end the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust is open to approaches by commercial and research partners wanting to use its land and resources for science and new product development. It’s already working with DOC on a Whio (Blue Duck) research project, and on baiting and trapping assessment exercises.
The Trust’s primary restoration focus is on the reduction and elimination of predator populations in an effort to provide a safe place for a variety of native plant and bird species to re-establish viable or healthy populations.
At Pohokura this involves targeting possums to protect a population of Pittosporum turneri, a shrub or small tree ranked as ‘Nationally Critical’ by DOC – an indication that it’s at serious risk of national extinction. Possums kill the juvenile plant and suppress the emergence of adult foliage.
This is the most threatened ranking of any species yet identified on this property and the Trust estimates that the total number of plants here exceeds 1,000 - five to 10 percent of the estimated population remaining nationally.
In 2008 and 2009 seed pods were collected and taken to Taupo Native Plant Nursery for propagation, with the intention of returning any resulting plants to Pohokura.
Across at the Trust’s Maungataniwha property it’s a similar story with Kakabeak (Clianthus maximus) - an extremely rare shrub.
It holds the highest possible threatened plant ranking: ‘Nationally Critical’. There are only 90 plants known to be growing in the wild across the whole of New Zealand, three of which are located on the Waiau Bluffs within the Te Urewera National Park, adjacent to Maungataniwha.
So the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust has established a Kakabeak restoration project at Maungataniwha under Crene’s watchful eye, using the plants located in Te Urewera National Park as a source population. This involves a range of seed collection and propagation activity designed to bring this plant back from the brink of extinction. Planting of the first Kakabeak returned to Maungataniwha happened during the winter of 2010. These seedlings were propagated from seeds gathered by the Trust from the plants within Te Urewera National Park.
“This, in essence, is what the Trust is about,” Pete explained. “We’re breaking new ground in the field of large-scale regeneration and restoration of privately-owned forest land – all with a view to restoring its soul. Its lifeforce.”
As the helicopter veers towards home I’m struck by the immensity of this challenge. But with socially-aware private conservation initiatives like the Trust and dedicated, pioneering men and women of worth like Pete Shaw and his team, the future of collaborative, research-based, privately-funded conservation in this country is in good hands.