Maungatautari Ecological Island rises out of an expanse of farmland; a bush-clad mountain, which overlooks the Waikato towns of Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Putaruru. This is where 47km of predator-proof fencing surrounds 3400ha of native bush. Think of an area the size of 7000 rugby fields, with dense bush and rugged terrain, free of warm-blooded predators, save a few mice.
These days mainland ecological islands are de rigueur, but ring-fencing a mountain, one that includes and borders public and private land, was always an audacious notion. Yet, David Wallace, the Waikato farmer who came up with the idea a decade ago, was charismatic, enthusiastic and determined. He also had contacts, public standing and powers of persuasion, and so the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust (MEIT) was established. The fence was completed in 2006, hundreds of volunteers got involved, millions of dollars have been invested and birds such as takahe, hihi, kiwi and yellow-crowned kakariki have been returned to the mountain. Within the fence, everything is brilliant.
Outside the fence, less so. In the past six months Wallace has resigned, two trustees have been voted off the board and three landowners who have the fence bordering their property have locked their gates, preventing staff and volunteers doing their monthly checks of the fence. More recently, electrical sensors along the fence, which alert staff to any breaches, have been cut.
This is serious. There is always one predator or another trying to get inside the sanctuary. It would only take one fallen branch, one hole, around 20 minutes, a pregnant ferret and, well, it’s good night kiwi.
At least one landowner has threatened to knock the fence on his land down altogether.
And so the largest community-driven conservation project in the country, one that has revolved around getting rid of possums, rats, stoats and ferrets et al, now faces the threat of another mammalian species, known taxonomically as Homo sapiens – Latin for “wise man”.
There are several sides and strands to this story, but the version told particularly effectively is the one according to those no longer involved in the project. Mainly, MEIT’s founder and former chairman, David Wallace, along with dumped trustee Fiona Judd and dumped trustee and landowner Peter Holmes.
Holmes and two other landowners have formed the Maungatautari Landowners Council, which is the group that has locked its gates to MEIT staff. Of the 24 landowners who have given permission for the predator-proof fence to run through or along their property, three have publicly joined the council.
It was their side of the story that was presented so compellingly at a public meeting in the Cambridge Town Hall in late February. As it transpired, that was six hours after a 6.3 earthquake wrecked much of Christchurch. You might have thought people would have been at home watching the news, but more than 600 turned up, sitting on the stage, in the corridor, standing at the back, spilling out onto the square.
The MC was Gareth Morgan, a man likely to draw the crowd. He’s a friend of Wallace’s – they’re co-investors in a farming venture in Brazil run by Wallace’s son. Morgan had already presented his case on Close Up a fortnight or so earlier; “virtually all the money has come from non-iwi sources,” he told Mark Sainsbury, “and now iwi is making a lunge for control. And spineless bureaucrats are supporting that lunge.”
He also made his views clear in a letter published in the Waikato Times last November: “Like a spoilt child, local Maori – now that much of the work, land and money contributed by the community and landowners is in place – are demanding effective control of the mountain’s future …”
So, Morgan introduced himself as “one of the community funders of this project” and said he had been talking to Wallace about building a canopy walkway on the mountain, a crucial step in making the project the self-funding ecological venture that has always been Wallace’s aim.
“And I just want to say that I’m quite prepared to put a million dollars up for that walkway,” Morgan announced, which promoted a burst of applause. “But I’m not going to do it unless the tripartite democracy on which this project was built is restored,” he went on. “And the role of the local council is replaced by central government. And hopefully we can make this some sort of national park.” Which prompted another round of applause.
And there was more applause over the following two hours, as Wallace, Judd and Holmes described how a “breakaway” iwi, Ngati Koroki Kahukura, had moved in on the community-driven project, assisted by the “spineless bureaucrats” of local government who, in a series of “backroom deals” had handed the community-driven project over to an iwi-government liaison that would turn off funders and undermine the project.
The objection is to a new governance structure the trust has adopted; so far, in principle, it’s a two-tiered structure that at one level allows for three seats to be elected by iwi and three seats by non-iwi. This replaces a single board, which was split between the landowners, iwi and community.
“Reducing a three-way partnership from iwi, landowners and community down to half iwi, half non-iwi is a daft suggestion,” says Wallace later. “We always said, and it has always been, that the community is making this happen. They’re raising all the funds, they’re supplying all the volunteers … The essence of Maungatautari is that it’s a community project. It’s driven by the community for the community, and it’s got two special partners, landowners and iwi, who are two special minority interest groups.”
It was a lively public meeting, with strong presenters and narratives that included plenty of high drama. “It’s terrible what those Maoris are doing,” said the elderly woman beside me, before the meeting began. She had driven over from Hamilton, even though she had no direct involvement with the project. Later she said, “I suppose you’ll be able to have a more objective view when you write this.” Yes, well, there is bound to be another side. She nodded at the presenters and said: “I’m on their side.”
At the end, Morgan called for his three resolutions: that tripartite democracy be restored to the trust; that the Waipa District Council be stripped of its statutory authority and the reserve made a national park; and that the Government suspend any pending agreement on Treaty claims on the mountain.
At least one long-serving trustee, Lance Hodgson, wasn’t at the meeting, although he heard all about it. “It was initially over governance. The whole world is fighting over governance. If you can tell me the perfect governance structure, I’d love to know about it. But now we’ve got to settle the Treaty claim and make it a national park as well. We might as well add in a cure for cancer!”
The alternative version of the story, less Shakespearean than the one presented at that meeting, can be traced back to 2009. This was when MEIT sought to revise its governance structure, to draw a clearer line between governance and management – not an unusual stage for a developing charitable trust to go through.
Around this time, iwi said if the structure was being revised, they wanted to resume their role as partners, a role they had let slip in recent years. The original trust deed states MEIT’s commitment to “partnership” with iwi. Wallace and his supporters insist it was always a three-way partnership, and it’s true that was how it evolved over the years, but his reading of the actual deed is somewhat subtle – or maybe the deed is simply unclear. As it has transpired, iwi and Wallace have different ideas about what they mean by partnership.
The three government agencies – Waipa District Council, Environment Waikato and the Department of Conservation – which were collectively funding the project to a tune of $900,000 a year for three years, supported Ngati Koroki Kahukura’s request for partnership. The agencies have obligations to partnership under the Treaty. It also made sense. Any proposed tourist venture on the mountain would require iwi consultation. Moreover, any project aimed at restoring the dawn chorus depends on the co-operation of iwi, from the iwi gifting the birds, for example, and the iwi receiving them.
At one stage the trust thought it had reached agreement on a revised governance structure, and so did iwi, who were led to believe it would be ratified at a meeting in March 2010. Iwi turned up for the happy event … only to be told by Wallace that it was a workshop meeting, and the trust therefore couldn’t make a decision. Iwi left, furious.
And there was more toing and froing until, in June last year, the trust (at Wallace’s instigation) asked Doug Arcus, a barrister and environmental specialist with experience as a hearings commissioner and mediator, to come in as a temporary and independent chairman.
After two months, and countless meetings, Arcus found the trust had more problems than he expected, which he outlined in his initial report; it was financially weak, volunteers felt they were kept out of the loop, iwi had walked away from the table and landowners were annoyed because there still weren’t any legal agreements in place in relation to the fence. Many agree it was important to get the fence up first and sort out the legal matters later, but it was now some years later and the legal matters still hadn’t been sorted.
Under Arcus’s chairmanship, a working party was set up that, after some months and more consultation, came up with the two-tiered structure. There would be the Guardians, made up of landowners, iwi and community, who’d set the policy and direction of the MEIT. There would be a second tier, an operational board of six, three of whom would be elected by iwi and three by non-iwi. There was also room for two others who could be elected for their expertise.
Most trustees decided the new model was worth a try. The problem was the original deed, written when everyone was riding a wave of goodwill, required 100% agreement to make any changes to it.
Things came to a head on October 28 when the new governance structure was put to the vote. Fiona Judd and Peter Holmes made it clear they wouldn’t support it. Wallace had said he wouldn’t, either, but he was overseas and unable to attend, despite the meeting having been notified in advance. In the end the rest of the trustees decided they had no option but to vote Judd and Holmes off the board.
The remaining trustees then voted, unanimously, to change the constitution so that any amendment to the deed required 75% rather than 100% support. Wallace returned from overseas the next morning, and soon after offered his resignation, for the reasons cited previously.
“We were making no other decisions,” says Lance Hodgson. “[Governance] was dominating everything.” And yes, there was pressure from the government agencies that were putting in money; they were losing confidence in the project. “You can’t put public money into a trust that is in a deadlocked position. We had to do something about it.
“I’ve been a trustee since this started, and these last six months have baffled me,” he adds. “But there were 18 trustees, and 15 have been united since that debacle. I think that represents the community.”
Gordon Stephenson, founding trustee, one of the Waikato’s most highly regarded and proactive conservationists (and one of the first people Wallace asked to help him achieve the Maungatautari vision) agrees. “It was a reluctant decision, but we were hamstrung in our ability to move forward in a democratic manner.”
Since then, an interim operational board has been set up to include three iwi representatives (a farmer/landowner, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Waikato, and a lawyer) and three non-iwi representatives (two farmers and a prominent businessman). “In the last few weeks things have gone so smoothly,” says Stephenson. “I just ring up and say, ‘We want to bring in robins.’ They say, ‘Okay, we’ll deal with the consultation, go ahead.’”
And since then, the gloves have come off. This is evidenced from the tenor of the arguments on the Save Maungatautari website. This is a well-resourced site, with technical support from Gareth Morgan and PR by Darrell Carlin, a Tauranga-based consultant. Its mandate is “to save Maungatautari Ecological Island from destruction”. The criticisms are often directed at former friends and acquaintances and many of them are too inflammatory to repeat here.
The acrimony is also evident in the local papers. Until recently Wallace couldn’t speak more highly of Waipa’s mayor, Alan Livingston, but in a letter to the Te Awamutu Courier, he accused him of “limited understanding of iwi … matched by his minimal grasp of governance”.
Stephenson responded in a letter published in the South Waikato News: “If I had my way, David Wallace would by now have been Sir David, in recognition of his vision in starting the Maungatautari Project. However, I now lament the manner in which he and his business partner, Gareth Morgan, seem intent on seeking to destroy that project through an energetic publicity campaign.”
To return to those points made in the town hall on that hot, humid summer evening: “They are saying they want it based on the Bastion Point model – two chairs! – with an iwi co-chair to have the casting vote,” said Gareth Morgan. “So, total control.” Well, that idea might frighten the horses, except Ngati Koroki Kahukura have never asked for a casting vote. They have asked for a co-chairmanship, and have agreed that the concept be trialled for a year.
Morgan described iwi as “johnny-come latelys”. It’s true iwi may not have been a strong presence at MEIT meetings in recent years (more of that later), but Ngati Koroki Kahukura is an iwi group recognised by the Crown, with whakapapa links to Waikato-Tainui and Raukawa, who have occupied their land for many generations and over centuries – Maungatautari is one of their key landmarks.
Morgan’s involvement with Maungatautari goes back to 2008, when Wallace asked him for an interest-free loan of $1 million. This was paid back after a year when the Waipa District Council agreed to guarantee the trust’s bank loan.
Wallace said his objection wasn’t to do with iwi, but the fact that iwi hadn’t “been in the room”. True, often they weren’t. The Listener also understands they were in the early days, when they expected partnership, but dropped off as they began to feel outnumbered at the table. “If you dig into the reasons, they either weren’t involved in the discussion or had no ability to influence the direction,” says MEIT’s former chief executive, Jim Mylchreest. “This was by no means an iwi takeover, it was more a frustration at not being able to influence the direction it was going.”
In an aforementioned letter to the Te Awamutu Courier, Wallace insisted the greatest efforts had been made to involve Maori, that “at all times iwi have been listened to carefully and with respect”.
Iwi beg to differ. “Our people were falling off because they felt they weren’t being considered in the discussions,” says Ted Tauroa, a member of Ngati Koroki Kahukura, a long-serving (and popular) MEIT trustee, and a landowner who has donated 3.65ha to the project. “Most of the time iwi issues were left to the end of the agenda, and a lot of the meetings went on to 11.00pm and midnight, and no one was in any frame of mind to discuss issues at that time of night. We felt there was a little bit of disrespect.”
And what of the suggestions made at the meeting, and in subsequent letters to the paper, that all this was steering the project into the lap of the Waipa District Council? “Well, that provides a threat to our ratepayers and certainly homes in on Waipa District Council, although we were the best guys in the street prior to this,” says Waipa Mayor Alan Livingston. “I have publicly stated the council will probably continue to have responsibility for management, but in no way will it take over MEIT. It’s beyond the ability of ratepayers and you’d also say it’s not one of our core functions.”
It became apparent at that public meeting in Cambridge that this wasn’t just about governance, but had something to do with the Treaty claim on the mountain. To quote consultant Darrell Carlin’s press release, the third resolution reflected “concerns … that a Treaty settlement involving the Maungatautari Reserve would destroy the project”.
Yes, Ngati Koroki Kahukura have Treaty claims on the mountain; the first was lodged in the early 1990s, well before the whole project was ever imagined. Wallace has always known about it; the trust has always known about it and supported it.
What has changed? According to the Office of Treaty Settlements, if the Crown-owned land (which obviously excludes private land) is vested back to iwi, the land will be preserved as a scenic reserve, public access will guaranteed, it will still be administered by the Waipa District Council and the underlying title to Maungatautari Mountain Scenic Reserve will be held by iwi. “The only change is that the land title will be transferred to an ancestor title … it won’t even be to the local iwi but to Tainui iwi,” says Tauroa. “Ngati Koroki Kahukura gets nothing, just recognition as the local iwi.”
What of Morgan’s statement (on Close Up) that this “takeover” had been led by an iwi group, even though most of the money had come from non-iwi sources? The implication seems to be that if iwi want partnership, they should get out their chequebook.
Maori have, in fact, gifted private land to the project (more, collectively, than Pakeha landowners) and for some Maori that land, now locked behind the fence, is the only land they own. “If you convert the land value as a contribution, even a rental, I think it would amount to quite a contribution over the 10 years of the trust’s life,” says Tauroa.
“David Wallace and the founding trustees came to us to ask if the fence could be built and initially we said no because it was the last of our tribal land,” he adds. “But we relented because it’s for the betterment of the mountain itself. And the question was asked of them, ‘What else did they need of iwi?’ The reply was ‘Nothing, they will find the money and they will look after the mountain.’”
Moreover, Ngati Koroki Kahukura have always said if they receive a cash settlement from the Treaty claims (which is likely), that money will be put back into the mountain. Tauroa says they have not changed their minds.
“[People] are jumping at shadows – if iwi get it then they will take it over,” says Mylchreest. “Iwi have never said they want to take it over, they’ve always said they haven’t got the resources; they’ll need all the help they can get. But they want to see the mana of the mountain protected.”
Ngati Koroki Kahukura’s settlement is due to be signed on June 19. “That will give iwi more than 90% of the land inside of the fence,” say Tauroa. “We think we are being very generous in allowing the community to sit with us at the table in an equal partnership. This has always been about partnership, and if we are to own the bulk of the land, we think that’s fair.”
‘Look what happened to the moa,” wrote a member of the public on the Save Maungatautari website. Maori might point out that hihi, takahe, tieke, kokako, kakapo, kiwi, kaka and kakariki were all getting along perfectly well before Europeans arrived.
But all those involved in MEIT talk of the desire to make up for the mistakes of past generations and restore a mountain to something like it was in the old days. So far, so good; in late March the 14th kiwi hatched on the mountain. “Within a couple of decades, the mountain could be exporting [to other sanctuaries] 100 kiwi a year,” says Stephenson. “The Kakapo Recovery team has identified Maungatautari as the only mainland site where they could be put to breed. The only mainland site in New Zealand.”
“It’s such a brilliant idea,” says Marilyn Mackinder who, with husband Selwyn (a former trustee), owns the land on which the first part of the fence was erected. “So five or so generations down the line they’ll say, ‘Whoa, they were smart bastards, they saved us a bit of bush.’
“I’ve got stitchbirds visiting our garden,” she adds. “We feed up to three kaka a day on our terrace. Who else wakes up at two in the morning to hear a pair of takahe duetting on one side of the house and another pair duetting on the other?”
Mackinder has no objection to the new governance model. Nor does Rod Miller, one of two full-time volunteers who contributes around 180-230 hours each month to the project, which is surely as community-minded as things get. A few months ago, for instance, he was phoned at 11.30 on Saturday night because five trees had come down on the fence. He didn’t return until 5.00pm Sunday. He went back up the mountain at 2.00am on Monday, returning at 5.00pm. “That’s what you do for something like this,” he says. “I love this project. I don’t want to miss out on being part of it.”
For dozens, if not hundreds of people, Maungatautari is a reason to get up in the morning, if not the middle of the night. “You build a Maunga family … There will always be concerns about change,” he says, when asked what the Maunga family thought of recent events. “But you have to have iwi involved whether you like it or not. And I don’t actually give a stuff – I want to see kiwi on the mountain. New Zealand law says you have to have iwi involved, so don’t piss them off, it’s just common sense. We really aren’t concerned about how it is run, just that it is run.”
MEIT has turned to the Crown to intervene, as trustees would like to reassure landowners they have nothing to fear. They have tried already, in vain. “Iwi have invited them to talk,” says Tauroa. “MEIT have invited them to talk, but they’re resisting that. So we will be approaching the Crown to get a mediator in and hopefully get everyone around the table.”
Gareth Morgan, however, doesn’t expect to be involved in any mediation with those he believes are jeopardising the project. “The only way I can see private funders being brought back is for the councils to be replaced in influence by DoC, and MEIT to be restored to its three-way structure – not to have its operations board subject to the veto of iwi.” He remains pessimistic about the outcome, and no, he will not give his $1 million for anything less. “If the three-way democracy isn’t restored, then I’d have no interest in donating to it – at least no more than the $100,000 of interest forgone I’ve already thrown at it.”
The trust faces a number of pressing issues. It needs to raise funds, to sort out titles with landowners and to reassure one landowner he won’t be liable for any injuries to visitors crossing private land. A couple of weeks ago one landowner, Selwyn Muru, concerned about liability, welded his gates shut, blocking access to one of the enclosures within the mountain. A member of Ngati Koroki Kahukura swiftly removed the welding, not only because the iwi believe public access to the project is imperative, but because a party of visitors had been welded inside.
Those who argue the project will be destroyed because iwi have claimed partnership at the expense of the community appear to be contradicted by the fact many members of the community (both iwi and non-iwi) are still involved and still committed, and would like to get on with things.
“I went to an MEIT workshop recently, and these guys are worn down,” says Livingston. “Their focus is on looking after the mountain, to get rid of the weeds and pests and reintroduce species. They’re not into media campaigns. They are just hoping it would right itself, but clearly it’s not going to. So now they are going to have to use funds that would be used to get rid of mice and maintain the fence to counter this media campaign. It’s all for the wrong reasons.”
Says DoC’s Waikato conservator, Greg Martin, one of MEIT’s founding trustees: “All this noise is taking the focus off the project. You could have any governance structure you want if it works. This is pre-empting things; saying that it will come unhooked without even trying it.”
Says MEIT’S ecological manager, Chris Smuts-Kennedy: “As an ecological project, the governance model is not a threat to its vision and goals. Threats to cut the fence are.”