Top scientists and a group of conservationists gathered in a Bioblitz on the Denniston Plateau this month to identify what will be lost if an Australian company starts open-cast mining there.
A Bioblitz summary was shown in Blenheim when natural history photographer Rod Morris presented an illustrated talk to a Marlborough Forest & Bird meeting.
One of its members, Mike Harvey, had taken part in the Bioblitz.
It was his first visit to Denniston, located 600 metres above sea level in the Papahaua Ranges, 18 kilometres northeast of Westport.
Mike joined the March 10 and 11 expedition to add his voice to those opposing open-cast mining that will destroy the unique West Coast conservation land.
Promotion and public money spent on scientific research to protect the natural ecosystem has dwindled over the years, the retired hydrologist believes.
He worked for the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Dunedin.
Assignments there had included measuring water levels before projects like the Clyde Dam were built, ensuring adverse effects were understood and mitigated.
It was Dunedin where he joined the Forest & Bird Society and his membership continued when he moved to Blenheim in 1990.
Marlborough has only a small population for the branch to draw members from, he says, but the area it oversees is large.
A long-standing concern for the society has been the lack of native vegetation on the Wairau Plains and the expanding monoculture of grapes.
Forest & Bird initiated the preservation and replanting of wetlands at Spring Creek and the Wairau Lagoon, he says.
Indigenous vegetation on the Wither Hills can be compared to that on Denniston – ‘‘dry and not as glamorous as other areas’’.
But unlike Denniston, weeds are dominant in the red hills around the Wairau Valley, a consequence of human activity disturbing the land.
Forest & Bird members were among the opponents of Solid Energy extending its Stockton Mine to nearby Happy Valley, a rocky, paved landscape where native bush and fragile wetland was home to threatened species like the great spotted kiwi and the large native powelliphanta patrickensis snail.
‘‘We decided to sacrifice the Stockton [expansion] so we can retain the Denniston,’’ Mike says.
No-one had counted on stateowned enterprise Coal Corp allowing its mining permits to lapse and a Westport businessman selling the old coalmine site to an Australian firm, Bathurst. It promises to create 35 jobs if plans go ahead to start open-cast mining in October.
The Bioblitz was divided into eight separate groups for the two-day study. Mike’s group was instructed to search for unusual plants. ‘‘There were about five of us spread out, so we each covered a separate territory. If we found something we called out to a scientist and they had to look at it.’’
Denniston was mined between 1879 and 1967 but the underground operations left the landscape and native biodiversity largely intact.
The Bioblitz study identified what will be destroyed if open mining goes ahead, including miniature rata trees and rare native species of weta, butterfly, gecko, cicada, carnivorous snails and flatworms.
Environmental consultant Mike Harding, left, and a Buller Coal environmental scientist locate a forest gecko during a Bioblitz on the Denniston Plateau this month.