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Where the wildings are!

Desert Road is named after the iconic landscape it runs through. However, the Central Plateau would not look like an alpine desert if it wasn’t for collaborative and intensive pest plant control done by a number of regional councils, the Department of Conservation and New Zealand Defence Force. 


Images - Kevin LoeDesert Road is a treat on a beautiful, sunny day.

The golden tussock shimmers in a light breeze and the mountains stand out in their full glory, not stuck in clouds.

On a day like this, the Central Plateau is Kevin Loe’s favourite stomping ground for work.

“If you have had a bad day, this is where you go the next day,” says the gruff pest plant contractor hired by Waikato Regional Council to work with landowners in the region.

But, he’s not skiving off. Kevin always has his eyes firmly trained on the stark landscape as he drives the Desert Road, searching for a blob of bright green that sticks out.

“Most people don’t even know what goes on here. They drive through here and they’re worried about the road conditions and looking at the scenery rather than what’s growing in the landscape,” says Kevin, keeping an eye out for a young, offending wilding pine.

“When I was attending Massey University in the 70s I used to drive over the Desert Road towards Waiouru and the landscape looked like a young pine forest! A lot of work and time means now you only see the odd tree. There’s bugger all trees left down here now.”

Pinus contorta was planted in the region by the Government in the 1920s as part of a logging species trial. It is now a pest plant targeted by four regional councils, two Department of Conservation (DOC) offices and the New Zealand Defence Force. They work as a group to stop the spread of wilding pines across the Central Plateau.

The Waiouru Military Training Facility has the lion’s share of land, some 63,000 hectares to look after, while DOC manages 19,000ha and Waikato Regional Council works on 7000ha of private land owned by Rotoaira Forest Trust.

“It’s all adjoined, so it’s quite important we are all singing from the same song sheet,” says Kevin, who is retiring in January after about 15 years of battling wilding pines.

When he first started, huge trees were being felled by chainsaw by a team of workers.

“Now we can fly for five hours and get about 50 seedlings. We fly over and reference trees with GPS and go back on foot. Now two people can cover shedloads of ground.

“It just takes over. It can grow at 10000 feet where large natives don’t grow,” says Kevin. “I have cut contorta way over there on the slope of Ngauruhoe.”

Contorta spreads like wildfire because its seeds are superfine and light. When it’s not such a nice day, and the wind rips across the desert plateau, the seeds can be spread far and wide, as far as 40 kilometres. Without control, pine forests can form in as little as five years.

“It’s pretty amazing when you look at it, now. It’s pretty spectacular country to ride through. This is the only area of alpine land that we have got in the North Island and that is why it is important that we look after it.”