Mining threat to Russell Forest eased but forest collapse continues

Quietly a controversial mineral exploration permit covering 6500 hectares of Russell Forest has been handed back to the Government by De Grey Mining Ltd. Independent conservation group Forest & Bird says although the threat of toxic mining has reduced for Russell Forest, it needs to be seen as the first step to bring this ancient forest back to life after years of neglect.

“The Government handed one of the last kauri forests in the world to a mining company on a plate. Now Russell Forest needs to be included in Schedule 4 to give the area the highest form of protection against mining,” says Dean Baigent-Mercer, Northern Conservation Advocate for Forest & Bird.

“After mining raw rock, it’s really tricky to remove gold that is trapped in the volcanic rocks of Northland. The rocks must be crushed to dust then mixed with cyanide and water. This reaction brings out gold and silver, but it also frees heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. So instead of being safely trapped in the rock, mercury and other heavy metals can be taken up by plants and animals. 

“This toxic waste needs to be stored out of the food chain beyond timescales we can’t imagine. It is usually stored in giant dams near to the mine itself to cut down on transportation costs.

“The Russell Forest exploration permit was issued to De Grey in 2012. The public were excluded from input and the government rolled out a consultation process for hapū, all of whose concerns were apparently ignored. However, Northland-wide opposition to mining has caused headaches for mining exploration interests. The low price of gold also appears to be a factor in De Grey Mining’s exit from Russell Forest,” says Dean Baigent-Mercer.

A DOC report from 2005 listed 26 threatened plant and animal species, including king fern and kiwi, living in Russell Forest. Russell Forest is one of the most important native forests of the north but has been neglected for many years with virtually no pest control. A study showed that kukupa numbers plummeted by 80 per cent between 1979 and 1993.

“Possums, rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels and feral cats have had free reign. Russell Forest is now in a state of collapse and you can now see dying and dead puriri, taraire and totara throughout the bush,” says Dean Baigent-Mercer. 

Sika deer have also been illegally released and DOC has been working to eradicate them. Deer prevent natural regeneration of native forests. 

“The good news is that there is a window of opportunity to bring this forest back to life but together we must act swiftly and effectively with the health of the forest as a priority,” Dean Baigent-Mercer says. 

“Thank you to everyone who worked to oppose the mineral exploration licence over Russell Forest: hapū, community groups and individuals. Let’s give this forest a different future from what the Government and mining interests had in mind.

“You can experience the beauty of Russell Forest by travelling from Waikare Inlet along the old Russell Road to Helena Bay.

“Unfortunately the toxic mining threat remains over Puhipuhi and the catchments out to the Kaipara Harbour and Helena Bay,” Dean Baigent-Mercer says.