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New Ways to Create a Shady Refuge

13 November 2006

By Brett Myrdal,
Manager Table Mountain National Park.

To have a national park as part of the city makes Cape Town exceptional among the cities of the world.  It's a factor that privileges our lives here, and one that brings tourists flocking.
But managing a mountain park in an urban environment is a delicate business, especially when everyone regards that mountain as their backyard. We all feel that it's our mountain and we all believe we have a right to walk on it whenever we choose-an attitude I share.

Except I also know it's not that simple. A park needs policies that will protect and conserve its natural resources for ourselves and our children.  Future generations might not be impressed to discover that we wiped out their heritage and made their city less interesting.

Given these pressures on the park I often think it would be easier managing a fenced reserve such as Kruger. Or one that is not situated in the world's richest (in terms of the number of species) and smallest floral kingdom.  Especially when that park is also a World Heritage Site.

Currently, SANParks is taking a beating for the felling of pine trees in the plantations at Tokai and Cecilia.  We are charged with destroying quiet, shady recreational areas in a city where such facilities are few and far between.  Once Tokai and Cecilia are gone some people are even saying that the wonderful old trees of Glen, Newlands, Van Riebeeck and Groote Schuur Estate will be next in SANParks' policy to eradicate alien vegetation.

But this is not the case.

Firstly, SANParks is not cutting down the pines of Tokai and Cecilia.  Rather it is the private timber company, MTO, which won the public tender and purchased the pine trees from the Government in a multi-million rand deal involving other plantations in the Western Cape as well.

Secondly, the pine trees of Tokai and Cecilia will not all come down at once but gradually, in stages, over a 20 year period as provided for in the lease which the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has 'assigned' to SANParks to manage.

Thirdly, in South Africa commercial plantations of pine trees are planted in 'single-age lots' and 'clear felled' once the trees have matured.  It is totally uneconomical to selectively fell mature trees only as happens in Europe's pine forests or in South Africa's indigenous forests.  The resultant clear felled areas are understandably disturbing to those who seek a shady place to walk their dogs.

Fourthly, SANParks has no intention of indiscriminately cutting down the old stone pines and oaks that are such features of the historic parts the Park.  They will remain and will only be removed if the trees are dead or in danger of falling over or, in areas such as Newlands forest, where an agreed rehabilitation plan is already in place.

Fifthly, the international funding received from the Global Environment Facility to eradicate invasive alien species in the park - mostly rooikrans and wattle - has been spent and that project is finished.  There is no international funding condition for SANParks to cut down pine trees as claimed by some.

Sixthly, TMNP is as concerned about global heating and carbon sinking as anyone else.  The Park has a massive afromontane reforestation program underway with over 40 000 indigenous saplings already planted in Newlands forest.  This job creation program is to be expanded fivefold to include Tokai, Cecilia and Orangkloof.

Finally, it should be stressed that Tokai and Cecilia plantations were destined to be incorporated into the Table Mountain National Park from the outset.  This flowed from the Government's original decision in 1996 for all conservation worthy public land on the Peninsula to be incorporated into the new National Park.

And conservation worthy this land is!  Although the plantations comprise only 2% of the Park, as some have repeatedly pointed out, this 2% holds the last remnants of the most threatened ecosystem of the entire Cape Floral Kingdom - lowland sandplein fynbos. From a biodiversity point of view, securing these last remnants is a non-negotiable.  Fortunately fynbos has an excellent recovery record after pine trees have been removed.  Silvermine, Newlands and Orangekloof stand as testimony to this success.
SANParks is not deaf to the noise and clamour of the supporters of pine plantations, even if misinformed and emotionally driven.  The recreational value, heritage significance, eco-tourism opportunity and need for 'shaded landscapes' at Tokai Cecilia is recognized by the Park.

This is precisely what the ongoing public engagement process to prepare a management framework for the Tokai and Cecilia is about.  Over recent months this process has been advertised in newspapers and on radio, the public has been invited to make submissions, and there have been two open days and workshops with authorities and interest groups such as the City Council, SAHRA, the Urban Forest Protection Group, MTO, Friends of Tokai Forest, and Cool Forests and this is only the initial 'scoping' phase of the process to identify the issues.

The overall objective is to take the long term, 20 year view and put in place a plan to guide the future rehabilitation and use of the plantations taking into account biodiversity, heritage, recreational and ecotourism needs.

We all agree that Tokai and Cecilia are important recreational areas for the city.  Over the decades they have become part of the Cape Town way of life: shady places to picnic or exercise. Over the decades, too, we have forgotten that they are commercial plantations and that from time to time the trees will be cut down.
The mountain is also my backyard, and whenever I walk its paths I realise how vital the Park's tree planting campaign.

To date SANParks has planted over 40 000 saplings, indigenous trees that belong here and won't be harvested and will last their lifetimes.

Some 30 years ago a forester with great foresight planted an area of the Tokai picnic site with a variety of indigenous trees - yellowwoods, saffrons and the like.  Today these stand 20 meters tall and provide beautiful shade for picnickers and anyone seeking cool from the harsh summer sun. 

There is no reason why we cannot repeat this initiative and also create the cool, shaded, recreation landscapes reminiscent of the real forests of the Cape Peninsula.