West Auckland man found guilty of flouting kauri dieback laws in first ever prosecution

A West Auckland man has been found guilty of flouting kauri dieback rules in a precedent-setting prosecution.

Robert Armitstead, in his 60s, appeared in Waitākere District Court in September for a judge-alone trial before Judge Lisa Tremewan.

The court heard he was caught several times on an infrared bush camera in 2019 walking on closed Waitākere Ranges Regional Park tracks off Scenic Drive in Titirangi in breach of restrictions designed to protect the iconic native trees.

He pleaded guilty to one charge of breaching track closure restrictions, but denied two other charges laid under the council’s Public Safety and Nuisance Bylaw.

Judge Tremewan handed down verdicts in the case today, finding Armitstead guilty on both charges.

He was remanded for sentencing on May 21 and could be fined up to $60,000.

It is the first prosecution of its kind.

The court heard Armitstead was first caught entering a closed track on May 14, 2019, when he was spotted by kauri dieback compliance officer Vanda Karolczak at Greenwoods Corner, off Scenic Drive.

Karolczak told the court she had just finished her shift at Arataki Visitor Centre and was driving home down Scenic Drive when she spotted two vehicles parked near an access track.

She stopped and photographed the two vehicles’ licence plates, then noticed a man entering the track.

She called out but he didn’t stop. When she called out again the man turned around and she recognised him as Armitstead, who she had known for about 15 years.

“He came towards me. I said, ‘You can’t be in there Bob – it’s closed for kauri dieback. The sign’s right here and you need to come out’.”

Armitstead allegedly replied that he’s spoken to council staff who’d assured him there were no kauri on this section of the track and the soil had not been tested.

“He said, ‘So mate I’m going in’. He just turned and walked away. I was quite shocked.”

Karolczak told the court a nearby sign at the entrance said:

“Stop, do not enter. Strictly no access.

“Any unauthorised person entering this closed area commits an offence.

“Penalties up to $20,000.”

She returned to her car and took notes about the exchange before leaving. She reported the matter to her superior the following day.

Karolczak also told the court that on August 28 she and a colleague drove to Greenwoods Corner and entered the closed track to retrieve SD cards from two “Brownings” cameras.

The cameras take 20-second motion-activated video footage clips. They can use infrared to take footage at night, recording the date and time.

The pair returned to the Arataki Visitor Centre and viewed the footage.

As they watched a clip taken two days earlier on August 26, Karolczak’s colleague said “is that Bob Armitstead?”

“I glanced at her screen and said, ‘Yes it is’.”

The pair found more footage of Armitstead breaching the track closures after reviewing the cameras in September, she said.

The footage was shown to the court.

Armitstead was issued with a trespass notice after the May incident. But he wrote back to the council challenging its validity and complaining about Karolczak.

The notice was later withdrawn due to inadequacies and a replacement notice issued.

Prosecutor Brandon Watts earlier told the court Armitstead had entered closed parts of park tracks on three occasions. The closures were put in place in 2018 to stop the spread of kauri dieback.

Tree-killing disease

Auckland mayor Phil Goff last year said the prosecution reflected the “seriousness of the issue”.

“While most Aucklanders understand the need for temporary track closures to help stop the spread of dieback, those individuals who flout the rules with no regard for the damage they cause need to be held to account.”

In May 2018, Auckland Council closed high-risk tracks in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park to the public to protect forested areas from the further spread of kauri dieback disease, after Auckland iwi Te Kawerau a Maki initiated the process by placing a rāhui, or ban, over the area.

The closure meant people entering those tracks could be prosecuted under the council bylaw.

The Waitākere Ranges Regional Park has become a hotspot for the tree-killing kauri dieback disease, with a 2018 survey showing it had spread to around 20 per cent of kauri in only a decade.

A council spokesman told the Herald that since the restrictions were put in place, 139 trespass orders have been issued, along with 168 warnings. There is one other prosecution pending.

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