Arboretum future carved in wood

University of the Third Age (U3A) members Ian Glass, Carel van der Merwe and Maciej Soltynski with Dr Ernita van Wyk.

University of the Third Age (U3A) members were happy to hear that the Tokai Arboretum is not only saved from foresters’ saws but could also have additional planting.

Since the veld fire last year and due to the accelerated removal of the pines, some residents have raised concerns that trees in the arboretum could also be felled.

Dr Ernita van Wyk of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) presented an illustrated talk, “From forest to fynbos: the role of stakeholder values and meanings in shaping the landscape change in Tokai”, in the Meadowridge Library hall on Monday August 8. Conservation, she says, is not just about nature, but also about how people experience and value nature and about how people behave when confronted with changes in the supply of nature-based benefits.

The change from plantation forest to lowland fynbos in Tokai led to a doctoral case study for Dr Van Wyk. She wanted to understand the range of responses it elicited.

Since 1652 when the Dutch arrived there has been pressure on indigenous forests. Wood was needed for fuel and to fix ships, for example. After the British took control of the Cape, in 1806, they created policies to protect the natural forests that remained, and they realised the need for a new source of timber.

Joseph Storr Lister was the first forester, appointed in 1875, to import and plant fast growing conifers. Tokai was one of the first plantations, eventually expanded to 600 hectares.

Forestry was a lucrative business and expanded rapidly around the country in the 1900s. At first the forestry agency was cautious about allowing people access to plantations for fear of fire. But foresters noticed that people who came into plantations were respectful and they became supportive of recreational use of the forests. “There’s a 1954 photo showing a drag hunt and SA Forestry built hurdles for the horses,” said Dr Van Wyk.

Realising that recreational use did not interfere with forestry led to the strengthening of forestry recreation policies especially from the 1970s. Another goal was to expose the public to forestry via recreation and to garner support for the industry in this way.

From early on (records indicate since 1914) there was growing awareness and appreciation for the uniqueness of the Cape flora leading to concern over rapid plantation establishment and loss of habitat. Very soon there was an appeal to government to keep some areas for this Cape flora. Later, from the 1970s and 1980s, conservation planning worldwide took off and South African planners used these new skills to influence policy aimed at conserving urban fragments.

In 1997, the forestry industry decided to consolidate their plantation forests, nationally, and agreed to transfer management control over the Tokai and Cecilia State Forests to SANParks. In Tokai, this created an opportunity to restore Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.

From interviews she conducted for her doctoral study, Dr Van Wyk found that many who loved the plantation forests, felt the special meaning they attached to them had not been acknowledged. Acknowledging and negotiating meanings and values would have been important especially given the long history and reinforcement of the meanings and values associated with a shaded landscape.

Old and new users of Tokai enjoy the views opened up after the felling of pines, according to the data collected for her thesis, but others don’t feel the same way.

Dr Van Wyk’s study shows that meanings are human constructs that help people prioritise what is significant to them in their lives.She found that people were more likely to support a decision if they felt the process taken to reach it had been fair and that their meanings and values had been acknowledged.

Her findings are now being used in other areas such as Betty’s Bay where these lessons are used to ease tensions over the removal of invasive trees in that area and to foster and sustain public support for management decisions, even when the decisions are unpopular to some.

As for Tokai Arboretum, Dr Van Wyk said it has national heritage status and the idea is to expand it by planting endangered trees from other parts of the world.

Gavin Bell, TMNP area manager: south, said they want to do everything they can to keep the Tokai Arboretum.

“That’s where forestry began in the country,” he said.

SANParks management would need to wait for a report from the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, whose arboreal experts will assess the condition of more than 1 000 trees in the arboretum during October or November.

“If a tree is declared healthy it will stay, if it is a danger and in an area where people do not walk then it could be fenced off, but if it is creating a danger to users then something needs to be done and the arboreal experts report will make recommendations as to what will happen,” said Mr Bell.

Until then, the area will remain closed for safety reasons and SANParks will communicate an update as the information becomes available.

Dr Van Wyk recently completed her PhD study in Environment and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her early studies focused on zoology and ecology but after a few years of working in the field of conservation and natural resource management and re-search, she developed a special interest in the human aspects of environmental change.