It may take 50 years to restore the health of the Tauranga Harbour but it’s achievable believes avocado grower Lawrie Donald of Katikati, who has worked hard towards that goal.
“There have been incremental improvements in the time I have been fishing in the Northern Tauranga harbour and any improvement is good,” says Lawrie who, while still actively involved in environmental projects, has stepped down as chair of Project Parore.
The health of the harbour and its fish has been the end game for Lawrie through decades of working with landowners and councils to improve the quality of waterways entering the harbour.
“I’m optimistic about the future especially in the Bay of Plenty where the policies of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Western Bay of Plenty District Council have helped change attitudes and encouraged so much more native re-vegetation. Now the rest of New Zealand is catching up.”
Lawrie, who as a child helped his father clear a swamp for grazing land and had a stint as a scrub cutter, possum hunter and deer meat shooter, went on to become an ardent and effective advocate for the environment, with the skill of getting landowners on side.
In his time as BOPRC Senior Environmental Field Officer, Lawrie oversaw around 180kms of re-fencing on farms to protect waterways.
“We averaged about 10km per year, but I have no idea about how many trees were planted as part of retirement schemes as the number was increasing all the time. The BOPRC ordered about 180,000 indigenous trees a year prior to my move to Taupo in 2008. Of those about 80,000 went to farmers I or my staff were working with.
“In the BOPRC Operational Plan, the ability to protect streams and bush has been a boon to the Western Bay of Plenty environment. This is a monetary incentive to protect parts of farms and people are the same regardless of their vocation. Money is always a great motivator.”
Lawrie was born and raised in Maramarua and attended Wesley College before taking a degree in Agricultural Science majoring in soils and geology at Massey University.
Lawrie joined the Rangitiki/Wanganui Catchment Board working in the Taihape hill country before heading to Darwin in Australia for a year working in land conservation.
He returned to New Zealand, took a job scrub cutting and married social worker Heather. “Heather wanted me to get a proper job when she was expecting our first child, so in 1980 I joined the Hauraki Catchment Board working on the Waihou Valley Scheme.
“This was the first really formative job, the previous were interesting but without the structured catchment approach to river and flood management by looking at the total catchment.
“Fencing is a huge capital cost to farming and has little impact on profit. Grants from councils and large catchment schemes like the Waihou Valley scheme have been instrumental in the protection of waterways where I have worked.
“One of the things I used to discuss with landowners was to look at their farm as a series of assets. Land Use Capability mapping of NZ was done in the 1970s and is a great tool to use.
“I used to tell farmers to invest in the best land first. Too many were breaking in some rough paddock out the back that soaked up money and gave little return. A little more fertiliser or a subdivision of better land with fencing was a better option.”
In 1990, Lawrie joined the BOPRC and the family moved to Katikati.
“At BOPRC I had a boss Tony Hall who was in my opinion miles ahead of the rest of the councils in NZ. He allowed me to develop the Coast Care programme, the Estuary Care programme and to be part of the biodiversity development team for the BOP Land Management Team. These things gave the community a place in management of their environment and changed peoples’ mind set about looking after 'your place'.”
Those initiatives, and Lawrie’s special gift to get on side and relate to farmers and growers are among the reasons for environmental improvements wherever he has worked.
“When I first started there had to be an erosion problem that was impacting farm infrastructure for me to get an invite onto farm. In the 1970s only mad greenies fenced off waterways.
“Historically water was always fenced into a paddock for stock water, not out. The fencing of waterways was slow to develop for the very reason that it was a complete change of practice. Now most farmers know it is the right thing to do.”
Lawrie has a knack for finding the ‘why’ to motivate landowners. “When I went to see landowners about tree planting, I made sure to sit down with both husband and wife because if the wife didn’t agree with fencing off waterways, ninety percent of the time it wouldn’t happen.
“If we got the OK, then we did the first plantings in the paddock you could see out of the windows of the house. Once people appreciated that nice vista we could continue to plant more.”
Lawrie also tapped into a love of fishing to convince Bay of Plenty landowners to retire waterways. “I’d ask if they liked fishing and if they said yes, I’d say; “why are you stuffing up your closest fishing grounds?” and then talk about the impact of sediment on the harbour. If you can find a way for people to see cause and effect, it makes improving the environment personal.”
In 2008, Lawrie joined the Waikato Regional Council and moved to Taupo. His initial role as land management changed to manging the Waikato River from the mountains to Lake Karapiro.
“Council had a policy of fencing off land along the big river but had not done the small streams and wetlands. I employed students to map all the wetlands in the Lake Taupo catchment and recommend they also be fenced off.” When Lawrie retired, he and Heather returned to Katikati.
It isn’t just the opinions of landowners that Lawrie has influenced. He’s also been instrumental in directing the focus of community groups towards addressing cause and effect, including the Uretara Estuary Managers which now operates under the ‘brand name’ of Project Parore.
“Initially the group was concerned about the increase in mangroves in the estuary, which was caused by too much sediment flowing into the harbour. I saw that as an opportunity to give them a different focus and expand their concerns to look at what was happening to the streams in the catchment area,” says Lawrie, who in 2018 became chairperson of UEM.
“The name Project Parore came from discussions I had many years ago with landowner the late Derry Seddon. As usual I was simplifying things and said that perhaps the issue of sea lettuce in the Tauranga Harbour was because we had put too much sediment into it and that had ruined the spawning and habitat of the parore fish which are herbivores. When we were looking for the trade name UEM 'Project Parore' seemed to fit.”
Looking back to all that he has achieved, Lawrie says it’s been about; “lots of collaboration with people I consider friends. I am just another cog in the machinery to make positive changes for our environment.
“Most people want to look after what they have. Farmers, over the years have had the message that more and more production is best. But often it’s not for their health or the health of the land.”
Lawrie is optimistic about New Zealanders’ chances of improving the environment but acknowledges at the local level much of the work is done by “retired old farts and there is no pay”.
“However, new retired old farts are coming along behind us.”
Now he has retired from Project Parore, Lawrie is working on a Predator Free Katikati project to create a pest-free peninsula at Sharp Rd.
Doing good for the environment is not always easy, but the mantra by which he lives; “it’s only a bad day if you haven’t learnt something new” helps Lawrie get through.
“There is so much to know. The more you know, the more you realise how little you do know.”