Wilding pines are no Christmas gift
With the cost of living crisis still in full swing, it may seem fair game to try to save a few bob by lopping down a free wilding pine to use as a Christmas tree this festive season.
After all, the Government, local councils and conservation groups are spending millions each year trying to eradicate the pest plants.
But taking a wilding pine from public reserve land is illegal, and can land people in court, facing a hefty fine or even potential jail time.
However, the issue for the authorities isn’t so much cutting the trees down, but dragging them out.
Trish Grant, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation, said that while it was aware of some people cutting down the pest trees, and “appreciated” people’s “good intentions”, DOC certainly didn’t encourage it.
However, DOC had previously on its website advised saw-carrying trampers in the Mackenzie-Waitaki area on best practice for pine chopping.
“If you are doing this, it is very important to cut down the whole tree stump and not leave any branches or green needles behind,” the What You Can Do section said.
Where it got squirrelly was removing the trees.
“While trampers sometimes cut down small wilding conifers to contribute to protecting the natural environment, it is unlawful to cut and remove trees on public conservation land, including wilding conifers, without DOC authority, requiring a permit or concession,” Grant said.
“Wilding pines should not be removed from public conservation land, as it risks releasing the seeds from cones during transport, which could seed new wilding pine populations.”
Under the Reserves Act 1977, anyone caught removing wood or trees from reserves faces a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000.
Sherman Smith, Biosecurity New Zealand’s manager of the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme, echoed the DOC stance, saying seed dispersal was the “key reason” it was illegal for people to remove pest trees from public land, including roadsides and beaches, without permission.
“Many of these are classed as pests in regional pest management plans around New Zealand, (and) the most invasive species, the lodgepole pine (pinus contorta), is an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act 1993,” he said.
“It is an offence under the Biosecurity Act to move or spread a pest plant or unwanted organism without permission from Biosecurity New Zealand or the regional council.
“This means any viable part of the tree, especially the cones and seeds. One pine cone can release hundreds of seeds when it opens, which can still happen after the tree is dead, [and] these can be carried several kilometres in the wind.”
However, Waihopai Valley farmer and keen tramper Murray Chapman said he thought the rules were “illogical”, and that “every dead wilding pine is a good thing”.
Chapman said he often “pulled up” small wilding pines on his trips through conservation land. He became proactive in battling the spread of wilding pines across Marlborough after a tramp through the Leatham Valley left him “horrified” at the numbers of pest trees he saw “everywhere”.
However, he thought that taking one for Christmas carried little risk of spreading seeds.
“So I would imagine if people pick up pine cones and put them in their pocket and carry them out, then that’s illegal as well?
“It’s the pine cones that will spread the seeds itself, not the trees, and most trees that are cut down for Christmas trees are not even at the coning stage,” he said.
Like DOC, the Marlborough District Council takes a similarly dim view of members of the public helping themselves to a wild spruce for their Christmas decorations.
“Whilst on the face of it this sounds like a reasonable idea, it goes against the principle of removing trees from publicly owned land,” said Glyn Walters, the council’s communication manager.
“There are wilding pines which are clearly the wrong tree in the wrong place.
“However, [the] council doesn't endorse or condone cutting down trees, wilding or not, on someone else's land, which includes council land, without permission.”