The driving force behind Queenstown’s ground-breaking wilding tree control group has stepped down as co-chairman. Queenstown reporter Guy Williams asks Peter Willsman why, and looks at his legacy. 

Wilding trees throughout the Wakatipu — and probably in the rest of the country as well — may well be standing a little taller this week.

That is because one of their biggest scourges, Peter Willsman, has called time on his leadership role in the Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group (WCG).

Co-chairman since the group’s formation in 2009, he announced his resignation at its annual “reporting night” last week.

The former Presbyterian minister, who was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal last year, says he tried to step down two years ago, but was persuaded to stay on.

Although he will remain on the group’s executive, he declares there is nothing worse than the “old fellas hanging around”.

“I’ve had my 80th birthday and it’s time to move aside.”

Under his leadership, the WCG has come a long way.

It was established in 2010 at a meeting that drew together representatives of the Queenstown Lakes District Council, Otago Regional Council, landowners, the Department of Conservation, Linz and others.

It was crucial in reaching a consensus on the magnitude of the mounting threat wilding trees posed to the Wakatipu landscape, he says.

Royal rep's thanks: Peter Willsman accepting a Queen’s Service Medal from Sir Jerry Mateparae at Government House last year. 
Royal rep’s thanks: Peter Willsman accepting a Queen’s Service Medal from Sir Jerry Mateparae at Government House last year.

A strategy was set for control work and funding.

“It was realised the problem was far bigger than a bunch of keen people with loppers could handle.

“We said now or never.”

Now, the group is held up as a model throughout the country for other communities with a wilding tree problem.

Willsman says the battle is far from over, but he feels satisfaction at what has been achieved so far.

Extensive areas once infested with trees are now under control, while virtually all seeding trees have been cleared from the Roaring Meg, Walter Peak Station, the Skippers area and the hillsides from Kingston to the foot of the Remarkables.

Those areas can now be managed with sweeps every three to five years.

He is also heartened by the “huge” progress made in improving public understanding of the issue.

Residents are increasingly well-informed about wilding trees’ environmental impact and their lack of economic value, he says.

He now rarely receives phone calls from people concerned about aerial spraying or the “wasting” of trees because they are not being milled or cut up for firewood.

Many residents had come to public meetings to voice their opposition to control work, and ended up asking how they could help.

“I tried to seize upon every person who struggled with the wilding thing as an educational opportunity.

“To have opposition was great, because you could explain it to them. I don’t think that was televangelism.”

Changing skyline: Conservation Minister Maggie Barry with Willsman last year
Changing skyline: Conservation Minister Maggie Barry with Willsman last year

He believes a decisive factor in the group’s progress is a growing sense of stewardship of the landscape among residents — especially in trampers. climbers and those who “get out and about”.

They saw with their own eyes how wilding trees had been invading the landscape in the past two decades.

That was in stark contrast to a generation earlier, when a few lone voices spoke up about the looming threat.

People such as former Branches Station owner, the late Arthur Borrell, and environmentalist Colin Day were often derided for their views, Willsman says.

In 2016, even the Government recognises the scale and seriousness of the problem.

“Now, every taxpayer is funding it, so it’s recognised as a national problem — not just a few greenies or grey-hairs.”

Despite all this progress, money remains the biggest challenge.

“We could bring this thing under control by next season if we had the funding.

“If we had $5 million thrown at us, we reckon we could do it.”

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Vanessa van Uden says Willsman has played a crucial role in the fight against wilding trees in the region.

His “quiet determination and passion” has put the district at the forefront of national awareness.

“He has lobbied and secured funding for this job locally, regionally and nationally.

“We’re very lucky he was willing to put his hand up, way back when we still didn’t quite get the issue.”

Grant Hensman is now the WCG’s sole chairman after sharing the role with Willsman for the past few years.

He paid a heartfelt tribute to his colleague in a speech at last week’s function.

Willsman’s polite but persuasive manner, physical stamina and “leading from the front” style made him a hard act to follow, Hensman told the audience.

“The hours this man has put into the success of this group is unequalled, by a long shot, by any of us.”

Getting the group established and making it the force it is today “needed someone who would be listened to and who had the conviction it wasn’t a hopeless task”.

When the WCG was founded, it had only $90,000 to spend on tens of thousands of hectares of infested land.

“A lesser person would have been cowed by the task.”

Willsman has been a driving force on a national advisory committee lobbying the Government for more funding, Hensman says.

That has resulted directly in new funding in this year’s Budget of $16 million for the next four years.

WCG highlights

2008: Queenstown Lakes District Council asks for a community group to tackle wilding trees

2009: WCG formed, starts control work with a $90,000 budget

2011: An estimated 73,000ha of the Wakatipu Basin infested with wilding trees

2015: Adopt a Plot scheme starts — 21 plots are now being maintained in One Mile Basin beside the Ben Lomond Trail, with 12 more plots to be adopted this spring

2015-16: WCG spends $1.5 million on control work at 70 sites. Volunteers assist with 4560 hours of work

Otago Daily Times