Conservation lands: resources, naturally?

All of the government’s signs are pointing the same way: relocating conservation and the Department of Conservation within the “natural resources” sector, the better to “streamline and simplify” its activities

Last year we learned that the Conservation Minister and the Energy and Resources Minister would both decide about giving access to conservation land for mining. One has an interest in the minerals beneath, the other in the land and the creatures who live there, on behalf of us: the public, the land holders.

All the usual suspects complained more noisily than I thought was really warranted at the time ... but they have been around the block (or the national park) one or two more times than me; which is to say, they were right and I was wrong.

Re-involvement of the Minister for Energy and Resources was the first item on a bigger agenda now written plain enough that anyone - even I! - can read it. Conservation for this government is all about making the most of our natural resources, and making conservation do that job; which is to say, not conservation at all.

We at Forest & Bird spend enough time ourselves pointing out the economic values of public conservation lands: their ecological services that support us and our export production; the crucial part they play in our other big earner, tourism, and to a lesser extent the film industry.

But the Conservation Act is clear. Conservation has this purpose (my emphasis): “the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations”.

Land is managed for conservation purposes and, to the extent that it is not inconsistent with conservation, DOC must "foster" recreation, and "allow" tourism. Other activities are not mentioned but are all subject to concession applications, without which nothing can happen on conservation lands.

It sets up a hierarchy; it says explicitly that conservation is about intrinsic value.

By contrast, DOC’s new strapline is “conservation for prosperity” (previously, “protect, enjoy, be involved”).

In the National Party’s 2011 election policy, conservation was not one of the “building blocks to a brighter future”. Far from one of the foundation cornerstones, it was one of the “other policies”, down the bottom, hardly worth a mention, let alone a wee graphic design.

The policy itself talked a lot about resources - more money (to be earned from, not spent on), and more access. Here are its first lines:

Our natural environment is a valuable resource that we need to preserve and protect. National’s sound management of our natural landscapes and our focus on balancing our environmental responsibilities with our economic opportunities is helping to build a stronger economy and create jobs, through more tourism and increased primary production. National is making the most of our great outdoors so that New Zealanders and visitors can enjoy our natural environment. Public conservation land and oceans provide New Zealanders with economic, environmental, and recreational opportunities. Access to these underpins our way of life.

Achievements brightly headed “boosting the conservation estate!” and “protecting our great outdoors!” (okay, without the exclamation marks) had a lot of stuff about camping grounds. Ambitions for “protecting our native species” named the Game Animal Council (which reclassifies former “noxious pests” as “herds of special interest” - to hunters). Intentions for the next three years included renaming Conservation Boards as “Conservation and Recreation Boards ... to better recognise the place of outdoor recreation in conservation”.

The law already recognises the place of outdoor recreation in conservation just fine: conservation comes first, recreation is to be fostered, if not inconsistent. They are not two halves of a whole, and there is a distinction, too, between recreation and tourism which is only “allowed”.

Moving on. The government has a Resource Management Act reform project. This hints at “streamlining and simplifying” DOC decision-making about use of our conservation lands, by aligning it more closely with decision-making under the RMA. Currently - the Denniston Plateau is an example of this - resource consent is granted, and DOC must also separately consider whether access (for mining) and concessions (for activity on conservation land) will also be granted, consistent with the Conservation Act. Ministers, both Smith and Wilkinson, defending their refusal to publicly notify the decision for the Denniston Plateau, have said that any issues have already been dealt with under RMA, on which there was a public process.

There are two decision-making tracks because ... conservation lands are for conservation purposes! Whereas the RMA is about sustainable management of natural resources for human purposes. The Denniston commissioners expressed their anguish about the threatened, iconic conservation values on the Plateau, but had to consider the economic benefits. Conservation does not require this, because otherwise, it's all for sale.

Moving on. Our Minister of Conservation, the week prior to the election, joined a Radio Live debate. New Zealand, she assured us, was a “stunning stunning country”. The Mackenzie country, too, was “stunning country, absolutely stunning”.

On the matter of irrigation and dairying there, turning brown country green and extinguishing, forever, the native dry high country species, she said, more than once, that the “soil was like talcum powder”. It would be helpful to water it, to stop it from blowing away. “This is not conservation, is it?” interrupted Graeme Hill, “... we’re talking farming?”. Astoundingly, Mrs Wilkinson agreed: “No, it’s not really, is it Graeme, sorry ...”.

Mrs Wilkinson remains the Minister. Meanwhile, despite her apologies, a number of the irrigation proposals have been turned down because of their environmental risk.

The new Associate Conservation Minister, Hon Peter Dunne, has outdoor recreation very much at heart. Answering Forest & Bird’s pre-election questions, his spokesperson described United Future’s policy for restructuring DOC, separating conservation and recreation within the department, and making them semi-autonomous, which under the Act they are not.

Reassuringly, this is not an item in Mr Dunne’s confidence and supply agreement. But whereas preserving free access to outdoor spaces did make the grade, his policies for protecting wild rivers did not. Top of the list was the Game Animal Council, which is not about conservation, but hunting and politics.

Finally, public service restructuring, rolling Fisheries into MAF for example, raises the question of whether DOC might be confronted by more “super ministries”, and is being readied for consolidation into a Department of Natural Resources.

This is unlikely, and a little alarmist. But the Fisheries thing happened quick. DOC is already a part of the “natural resources” working group of Chief Executives, from departments such as Primary Industries and the MED Crown Minerals unit, and Environment. And at this point, this government's hubris on conservation is such that I would believe just about anything.

The assumption is that all have the same interests, our best interests, at heart, and that DOC’s part in the conversation is important, to put DOC's different point of view.

It also risks reinforcing the wrong mindset, that this is the right frame.

The natural resources sector does not put conservation first, it puts economic benefit first (which includes some environmental benefit). Conservation is about conservation even where there is no economic benefit, only benefit of the intrinsic and natural heritage kind.


Disclosure of interest: Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate.