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Michael Eason hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to observe Washingtonia filifera in situ
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Plant Focus

Quercus xjackiana acorns
The hybrid of Q. alba and Q. bicolor

Saving the Keirunga Oaks

An admirable community effort in the town of Havelock North in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay has saved dozens of 80-year-old oaks that had been slated for removal by the local city council. The successful campaign was spearheaded by, among others, IOS member David Cranwell of the Himalayan Oak Trust (see article). It serves as an example on what can be done when misguided decisions threaten trees whose benefits far outweigh the risks or inconveniences they may present.

Keirunga Oaks
Arthur's Path in Keirunga Gardens, Havelock North, Hastings, New Zealand

When news got out late last year that chainsaws were at the ready to fell the beloved oaks and other large trees in Keirunga Gardens, a favorite walk in Havelock North, the community reacted fast. Articles were published in the local and national press, raising awareness of the council’s plans to destroy the woodland, and pointing out that the reasons cited did not justify the action. The decision had been taken without a professional, scientific investigation to determine whether the trees posed a threat to neighboring houses, as claimed in a draft proposal.

Keirunga Gardens
An autumnal bird's eye view of Keirunga Gardens © Tim Whittaker

The Gardens were planted by George Nelson in the 1930s, and English engineer who had a fascination with Kew Gardens and had collected oaks from all over Hawke's Bay. He spent a great deal of time and expense landscaping his park, apparently employing five gardeners for the purpose. Nearing the end of his life he gifted the Gardens to the city of Hastings, of which Havelock North is a suburb, and since the 1960s the woodland has become a much-loved feature of the area, popular with families who have walked under its canopy over several generations.

The park is a favorite with locals, who supported the campaign to save the Keirunga Oaks, signing an online petition and submitting proposals to the city council

When a few trees failed, due in part to poor management practice, and others were felled prematurely, councilors drafted a plan to remove around 90 mature trees, effectively destroying the woodland park. The decision hinged partly on the controversial notion that oaks in New Zealand grow fast and therefore must die fast, never surviving as long as in their natural habitat where they grow slower and can live for centuries.

The campaign to Save the Keirunga Oaks was started in February and encouraged residents to sign an online petition and submit proposals to the Hastings District Council. Australian IOS member Peter Marshall and I visited David Cranwell in April, and he took us to see Arthur’s Path, as the woodland is known, and we were able to offer support and encouragement. Signs had been placed outside the gardens informing about the situation and the need to take action, and the group of activists was preparing for a key meeting with councilors.

Marshall and Cranwell
Peter Marshall (left) and David Cranwell inspecting the section of Arthur's Walk where several oaks had been felled

A Facebook page helped spread the word and also raise funds to finance advertising and an independent arborist’s report to assess the health of the trees and recommend the best way to manage the woodland.

By May the campaign had gathered 4,000 signatures and 210 submissions had been made to HDC—only five of which supported the felling of the trees. On May 31, the campaigners were able to announce that the Council had reconsidered and the trees had been saved. A committee drawn from the campaigners would be responsible for the management of the woodland and Richie Hill, the arborist commissioned to prepare the assessment report, would be engaged to advise the committee.

Save the Oaks
A felled oak's stump displays a campaign poster

According to Johno Ormond, who led the PR efforts for the campaign, the 210 submissions were of key importance. “The council officers produced a report for councilors based almost entirely on these submissions,” he said. “The council decided the outcome on a quantitative analysis of that report.” Direct lobbying of councilors also helped win the battle: the campaigners took a few councilors out individually—and then again collectively—for 45-minute walks around Keirunga, stopping at various occasions and taking turns to make speeches to them. “This was smart because it’s so beautiful in the woodlands,” said Johno, “and because the off-the-record discussions were much more candid than in the formal hearing.”

Visit the Save the Keirunga Oaks page on Facebook to read the whole story. Kudos to Pat Turley, Johno Ormond, Jeff Whitaker, and David Cranwell (and many others) for their terrific work keeping their oaks safe. Oaks may indeed grow faster in the Southern Hemisphere, but it is still to be determined whether they are doomed to die faster too. It is more likely that judicious management and informed care will allow them to extend their lives to their full potential and continue to share their bounty for centuries to come.

Photos © Roderick Cameron, unless specified