An examination of the strange suggestion, spread by the Green Party, that our native ecosystems are at a greater risk than those of any other country on Earth except for Burma.

Part of living away from New Zealand is accepting that things change back home. Last week, for example, I learned that my favourite coffee shop, 32 The Terrace, has changed hands. I can no longer look forward to a latte made by Marg and Owen on my next trip to Wellington. On a grander scale was the discovery that New Zealand's indigenous forests have started vanishing.

On Friday, all of New Zealand's main online media outlets reported the news, with headlines like "New Zealand forest ecosystem crisis" and "New Zealand's forests disappearing". The rationale for the story was that US environmental group Conservation International had concluded that our forests are currently "the second most threatened in the world".

Radio New Zealand reported, "Only Myanmar is reportedly worse than New Zealand and countries often criticised for deforestation - such as China and the Philippines - fare better."

The media's attention appears to have been directed to this startling news by the Green Party's Kevin Hague, who issued a press release ("World's eyes focus on New Zealand's disappearing forests") that said, "New Zealand stands at the brink of losing some of our most precious plants and animals unless the Government works smarter to protect them".

Admittedly, I have been out of the country for a while. There are recent trends - like the fascination with Phil Goff's hair, or John Key's indestructible popularity - that I don't begin to understand.

But I figured things must have changed a lot if our management of indigenous forests is now comparable to that of Myanmar's military regime and worse than that of China, the Philippines - or, for that matter, a long list of countries such as Honduras, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, Ecuador, Haiti, etc.

I went in search of what Radio New Zealand and Mr. Hague called the "report" that sparked this reportage. It turned out not to be a new research paper, but a press release issued by Conservation International to bring attention to the launch of the International Year of Forests.

Combining two things the media love - doomsday hyperbole and a good list - the lobby group issued a global ‘Top Ten Forests On the Edge of Collapse".

First: Myanmar. Second: us.

The press release included quotes like this one -- "Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate to give room to pastures, agricultural land, mineral exploitation and sprawling urban areas " - which made it clear that the group's top ten forest hot spots were at threat of extinction today. Alarming stuff, and it got international attention, outside New Zealand.

Yet New Zealand's placing in this list just didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

First of all, I thought this might be because of Conservation International's measurement criteria. in determining which forests in the world are the most at risk of disappearing, Conservation International didn't measure anything as obvious as current deforestation rates. It didn't count the percentage of forest that was protected.

What it claimed to have done was to calculate New Zealand's "original" forest cover. Which it considered to be 100% of New Zealand. Then it claimed that only five percent of the "original" cover is left.

Another criteria for inclusion in the list was that forests have at least 1,500 endemic plant species.

And that combination was apparently how we ended up second.

So New Zealand's inclusion in the list rests on the fact that our  forests have many endemic species, and are a lot smaller now than they were before humans arrived. Much of that destruction happened shortly after inhabitation, and certainly a long time ago.

But even setting this objection aside, the numbers appeared plain wrong. About 6.5 million hectares of New Zealand is covered in native forest. That's close to 25 percent, and a long way from 5 percent. Even Conservation International's own figures don't match the claim.

Now I'm no forestry expert, and I figured it was possible Conservation International had a different way of measuring 'forest' than everybody else. So I emailed their PR person. I didn't hear back by the time I wrote this, but in the meantime, something odd happened to the organization's press release. References to New Zealand disappeared. It now reads:

"** CORRECTION: The press release distributed originally in February 2nd reported erroneously that New Zealand was #2 in the ranking, when New Caledonia is actually #2. See below correct version.***"

Oh.

Whoops. Wee mistake there. New Zealand doesn't make the list at all!

It turns out I wasn't the only person alarmed by the news of New Zealand's vanishing forests. The New Zealand Institute of Forestry was understandably perturbed, and sparked the change in the Conservation International press release. Good on them.

It's a shame that the New York Times' Green blog still has us included in the list of shameful forest-destroyers, and that a bunch of environmental blogs and websites around the world have repeated the story.

It's disturbing that neither the Green Party MP who trumpeted the news in New Zealand, nor the media who reported it, seemed to spend any time looking at the "report" itself.

Neither Mr. Hague, his press secretary, nor a series of reporters and sub-editors stopped to think that the figures might be just a little counterintuitive. They just shared the grim news.

Comments (14)

by Raymond A Francis on February 07, 2011
Raymond A Francis

Good work

Of course the problem is that NZ was one of the last places on Earth ( often it is stated to be the last but the Azore Islands beat us) to be settled by humans

And we all know what we do to forest and indigenous plant life

by Tim Watkin on February 07, 2011
Tim Watkin

Good catch David. Sad no-one else took/had the time to check source material.

Maybe tomorrow's headline will be: 'New Zealand natives kill off world's largest bird'!

Raymond, how big are the Azore Is.? Do they really count? NZ was fter Madagascar, wasn't it, which made us the last major land mass settled, from memory.

by Iain Butler on February 07, 2011
Iain Butler

Fear not, David. Coffee 32 is still open and doing a nice flat white - it's just you can'r rely on Marg knowing what you want the moment you walk in the door.

by Claire Browning on February 07, 2011
Claire Browning

This (and the link from it, to 'history of the Azores') says settlement several centuries earlier than NZ colonisation, which of course is not the same thing.

by Kevin Hague on February 07, 2011
Kevin Hague

Fair cop David! I should have picked up the error but didn't. I'm sorry about that. In my defence, my release mentioned the ranking by CI in passing, but only as a hook for a number of points that are undeniably true: NZ's forest (and other) ecosystems are in deep trouble, with many animals and plants that exist only in NZ threatened with extinction from habitat loss and introduced predators. The Government doesn't seem terribly interested and should be. Cutting DOC's budget isn't going to help.

by Chris Morris on February 07, 2011
Chris Morris

I always thought that only about 3/4rds of NZ was originally forested. However, it has to be said Maori destroyed most of it. To quote the NZ Historical Atlas "...nearly half the forestr that had existed at the time of human arrival had been destroyed by the time of Pakeha settlement."

I think it is rather disengenuous for Kevin to claim he mentioned it in passing. It was his second and third sentence and the hook on which he hung his criticism.

by David Young on February 08, 2011
David Young

Tim: In the days of Google, I don't think that time constraints are a good reason not to check the original source of whatever it is you're reporting on. And it takes no time at all to wonder aloud in the newsroom, 'Does anybody else think it seems a bit dodgy that New Zealand's forests are apparently in worse shape than Burma's?'

Tim and Raymond and Chris: Yes, the report did seem tailored to pick up on past behavior, not today's policies.

Kevin: I think your points were actually more interesting and newsworthy than the 'hook' that you unfortunately chose to hang  them on. It'd be great to learn more about how DoC is affected by budget cuts, and what would change under the 'complete protection' of native plants and animals that you propose in your planned Member's Bill. I think telling people that story would be much more compelling than trying to frame your argument for change around the idea that the 'Eyes of the World Are On Us'.

IainB: Thank you for picking up on the most important part of the article! I will certainly give Coffee 32 another chance when I next make it back to Wellington. But I have to say, it was Marg's truly amazing ability to recall every visitor's coffee order (and her and Owen's charm) that really made the place special for me!

by Claire Browning on February 08, 2011
Claire Browning

It'd be great to learn more about how DoC is affected by budget cuts, and what would change under the 'complete protection' of native plants and animals that you propose in your planned Member's Bill. ...

I'll be interested to hear that one too, given that under the Wildlife Act, everything -- all wildlife, defined as "any animal that is living in a wild state" -- is already "absolutely protected", unless excluded (as to which, see the Schedules).

It may be that something further is planned to better protect "our most precious and vulnerable species", but it is simply not true (as a statutory matter) that:

"Many of our most precious and vulnerable species remain unprotected even today," Mr Hague said.

Sorry, Kevin. Better luck next time ... and happy to chat about it ...

by Kevin Hague on February 08, 2011
Kevin Hague

The issue is that the Wildlife Act is a very weak form of protection. For example it protects kereru to the extent that it is an offence to shoot them (as we saw with the Norwegian tourists last year), but, except in extraordinary cases, this is neither here nor there for the survival of the species. The threat to individual species’ survival and to maintenance of biodiversity comes mainly from loss of critical habitat as a result of human activity and from introduced predators. There is no systematic protection from these threats. Individual TLAs may consider biodiversity impacts in their district plans (but also may not) and where they do these are almost always a balancing consideration (eg on the West Coast the text in the AEE reports is usually “Western Weka are a threatened species in New Zealand, but are relatively abundant on the West Coast” hence it’s ok to destroy a bit of their habitat). Predator control to any kind of meaningful level happens in only a small fraction of the conservation estate.

So for most of the species (about 90%) listed as threatened or critically endangered (and for the vast majority of the individuals within those species) more or less  nothing at all is happening to halt or slow decline towards extinction. Except it’s against the law to kill them by a deliberate act.

by Kevin Hague on February 09, 2011
Kevin Hague

While it was overshadowed by Metiria's terrific speech. I did expand on some of these issues about biodiversity protection in my response to the Prime Minister's statement:

 

 

by Daniel Laird on February 09, 2011
Daniel Laird

Claire: It's worth pointing out that the quoted part of the Wildlife Act only refers to "animals", which it defines as birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and those marine and invertebrate species specified in various schedules. Protection for invertebrates, marine species and plants is not nearly as strong, and I would include many of these among NZ's "most precious and vulnerable species". Species such as the bat-winged fly and the batfly, both unusual, evolutionarily distinct, and probably threatened, receive no protection under the Wildlife Act. I can't retrieve the original press release, so I don't know exactly what Kevin said, but as far as you've quoted him, I'd say he was correct on this count.

by Claire Browning on February 09, 2011
Claire Browning
He said exactly what the quote says that he said! But apart from that, fair cop.
by Daniel Laird on February 10, 2011
Daniel Laird

oops - sorry Claire, didn't mean to suggest you were misquoting, just that there might be more context in the rest of the press release.

Also (sorry to go a bit off topic) is there any way of getting an email notice or something when new comments appear on posts, in particular posts that I've commented on?

by Claire Browning on February 10, 2011
Claire Browning

No ... we don't have that function, unfortunately ...

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