Tawatawa history: Preston’s Gully becomes Tawatawa Reserve, and the Southern Environmental Association (SEA) spreads its wings

Part 1 of this history of Tawatawa Reserve and the SEA was published in our newsletter of March 2022.

Following closure of Preston’s Gully tip in August 1976, the area was put to several uses including mini-bike riding, horse grazing, and in 1977, dumping of soil from the Terrace Tunnel project.  For a decade much of the surrounding hillsides were covered in fennel, gorse and other weed species with a large stand of old pines on the western ridgeline. The Wellington City Council (the Council) owned part of the land with Preston’s Farms still owning the remainder.

In the early 1990s, the Council proposed using the eastern side of the hills for a residential subdivision, effectively joining Quebec Street and Frobisher Street along what is now the City to Sea walkway, with the flat area below to be turned into playing fields.

There was much public opposition to this plan and in 1992, the Southern Environmental Association (SEA) was formed, led by Wellington lawyer and environmentalist, Robert Logan. The case of those opposing subdivision was strengthened by the find of a 5-hectare remnant of coastal forest including a stand of (then) 70-year-old kanuka, a couple of mature kohekohe and some rare local natives such as wharangi at the northern end of the gully which had been protected by tall gorse and the steep terrain.

The SEA joined the tide of lobbying by a group calling itself ‘Save our Skyline’ and other groups and individuals against the proposed subdivision that was eventually successful in convincing the Council to work towards establishing a reserve rather than a subdivision.  By 2006, the area was recognized as an informal reserve. The entire tip face was capped with clay to seal it and the flat area was extended, upgraded, and grassed to make it more attractive and usable.

However, Tawatawa Reserve’s use as a landfill was not quite over. Excavated rock and clay from the construction of the inner-city bypass (Karo Drive) in 2005/2006 were dumped at the northern end of the valley to form a bund with the intent of reducing surface water leaching through to the landfill by creating a small wetland at the north end of the valley in the resulting hollow. Despite some attempts in 2009 and subsequently to landscape this area it has proved difficult to create a wetland.

In 2010, Council named the area Tawatawa Reserve, and resolved to gazette the area as a scenic reserve. It was finally gazetted in November 2014.

The development of the SEA

As well as the successful campaign to create Tawatawa Reserve, the SEA, led by Robert Logan was very active in lobbying for environmental causes around Wellington and especially on the South Coast.

The SEA was registered as an incorporated society in June 1994 with the aim of protecting those parts of the Wellington environment that were under threat and warranted permanent protection for the benefit of the community. The Society’s objectives included protection and enhancement of the environment and heritage of Wellington particularly southern Wellington.

Working sometimes with other groups, its early achievements included:

  • closing the quarry operation located west of Ōwhiro Bay and creation of a public reserve (Te Kopahou Reserve);
  • persuading the council to give greater protection to the Waipapa Stream behind Red Rocks and Makara Stream;
  • laying the ground work for the creation of Long Gully Bush Reserve between Karori and Brooklyn;
  • lobbying for the elimination of water pollution and stream bed modification of Ōwhiro Stream;
  • establishing the flourishing native plant nursery that remains today in Tawatawa Reserve;
  • spearheading the campaign in 2006 to support a separate private trust to purchase a piece of land in the heart of Island Bay: another remnant of native bush that is now known as the Paekawakawa Reserve and which continues to be developed as a bush and bird reserve.

During 2008, the SEA reevaluated its activities and the organisation decided to narrow its focus to the restoration of the Tawatawa Reserve.  In particular, the development of the on-site native plant nursery using eco-sourced seed to grow native trees and shrubs for planting in the Reserve – all 64 hectares of it. 

Subsequently, the Council formalized its relationship with the SEA, granting an occupation license over the Reserve for the purpose of allowing the SEA to grow native plants in the nursery for regenerative plantings. This was one of the benefits of being an incorporated society. In 2012, the SEA was registered as a charitable trust.

When a storm in 2013 decimated a large stand of pines on the western ridge, the Council took the opportunity to remove them, along with others that remained standing. The ridge is now regenerating native bush.

The SEA’s vision was formalised in a comprehensive Restoration Plan in 2015. The aim of the plan remains that of creating a healthy native forest and wetland habitat supporting abundant and diverse native flora and fauna and providing a community asset that is valued by both local residents and visitors.

Some of the SEA’s more recent achievements have been:

  • entering into an agreement with Conservation Volunteers NZ (CVNZ) in 2016 to share the nursery space and provide mutual assistance with environmental projects.
  • Developing the natural drainage area that formed early on near to where the nursery is now. The current wetland area was fenced in late 2018 after a project by a Victoria University Masters student showed that invertebrate and plant life would flourish if it was fenced off from humans and dogs.  So it has proved with frogs, other invertebrates and many birds now frequenting it.
  • Building relationships with neighbouring reserves with a view to developing a unified strategy for weed and pest control.
  • In the 30 years between 1992 and 2022, an estimated 50,000 native trees have been planted in the reserve by way of an average of 1600 volunteer hours each year.
  • Creation of a Lizard Garden on adjeacent to the City to Sea Walkway
  • Creation of the Link Track, linking the green spaces of Tawatawa Reserve, Manawa Karioi and Paekawakawa to the heart of Island Bay.
  • Implementing a comprehensive predator control programme.

The SEA is still run by volunteers in partnership with the Wellington City Council and with help from volunteer corporate groups, dog walkers and other members of the community.

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