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Published: 2008-10-17 00:00:00

Environment Waikato’s finance and audit committee has recommended the council commits $400,000 to the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust this year to help keep the visionary project alive.

The trust has overseen the development of a 50km long predator-proof fence surrounding the 3,400ha Maungatautari mountain reserve, and the removal of introduced predatory pests such as possums, stoats and rats. This has helped native plants and animals flourish on Maungatautari.

The majority of councillors on the committee felt Maungatautari would become, if it was not already, an iconic Waikato feature on a par with Lake Taupo.

Despite its successes and widespread community support, the trust is struggling financially. It had approached the Department of Conservation (DOC), Waipa District Council and Environment Waikato for an immediate injection of money to fund this year’s operations and to help it find future funding.

The trust’s chief executive Jim Mylchreest explained to the committee that pest eradication had taken longer than expected and so costs had been greater than forecast in initial budgets.

Trust Deputy Chairman Gordon Stephenson said extra financial support from EW was warranted because the project was on the cusp of creating “something dramatic” by eradicating mice from the mountain and the community should not let the efforts of the past six years be lost.

Since the project was launched, Environment Waikato’s total contribution to Maungatautari has been $2.4 million, Waipa District Council has given $1.5 million and the Government has given $5.6 million.

EW has been told the project is now considered to be at a critical stage: the fencing and pest control is complete, but the trust has to turn it from a capital investment project to a sustainable enterprise with estimated annual operating costs of $1.4 million.

The finance and audit committee acknowledged the extraordinary level of community support for the project, with a number of councillors stating that restoring biodiversity was Environment Waikato’s core business. Under the Resource Management Act, the regional council is responsible for managing and protecting biodiversity.

Environment Waikato has already consulted with the community about whether it should become more involved in protecting natural heritage areas, including Maungatautari.  In 2003, 84 per cent of respondents said they supported EW playing a greater role in natural heritage protection.  In 2004, 1,500 submissions were received and 65 per cent supported the creation of a targeted rate specifically for this purpose.  The current natural heritage protection targeted rate of $5.62 was created as a result of this feedback.  The rate has not been increased since 2004.

After hearing reports on the trust’s business planning, its current position and future funding options, and the positions of DOC and Waipa District Council in relation to the trust’s ongoing funding, a majority of the committee voted in favour of Cr Ian Balme’s motion that the council give $350,000 to the trust to meet this year’s immediate operational funding requirements.

The committee also agreed that an additional $50,000 be set aside to fund investigations into ways of funding the project over the longer term. The total of $400,000 would come from environmental fines received last year. The question of whether EW would support the project in the long term should be considered during the council’s Long-Term Council Community Plan process, the committee decided.

The final decision of giving the trust the money is due to be made by the full council on October 30.