Eugenie Sage, speaking truth to power

Sacked ECan regional councillor and life-long conservationist Eugenie Sage talks about ECan, doing conservation better, and her aspirations to and for Parliament, as the Green Party's Selwyn candidate

“Negligent … dismal … short-sighted”. “The new ‘romancing business’ approach risks decisions which are legally dubious (given the requirements of the conservation legislation) and sacrifices conservation values on the altar of commerce.”

Sage views on conservation, these — addressing, in turn, the under-funding of DOC, marine conservation, “starving” the Nature Heritage Fund, and the Crystal Valley land exchange.

Eugenie Sage is a self-described “green Greenie”: an environmental activist, who lists among her motives “seeing in the mid-1980s the pathetic forest that remained after rimu logging in Wanganui and Ianthe forests south of Hokitika, weeping at the callous and needless destruction, and then turning grief and anger into action”; and a conservationist, on Forest & Bird’s front line for 13 years (“I tend to get absorbed in what I’m doing, so 13 years did not seem long”).

She is a lawyer, too, an arts graduate (BA history), and former journalist, who was Helen Clark’s press secretary in the Lange years. Naturally, then, one would dispense with all that. With a similar-looking CV myself, I can certainly understand it.

She had, she says, “A desire for worthwhile work. A joy in nature’s beauty and integrity. There is always so much more that needs doing and needs to change … ”. Her legal skills, she points out, were converted to other uses, as a conservation advocate.

She is perhaps better known as one among the number of sacked Environment Canterbury (ECan) regional councillors.

The anti-democratic and unconstitutional parts of the ECan stoush have been well gone over, the environmental ones not so much. But Sage insists ECan was working on the ground for the environment; that its culture, while robust, was not dysfunctional; and the council was beginning to deliver benefits in the right way, that were (or would have been) evidence- and consensus-based. ECan had proven it could succeed on air quality, and was turning to water management, with the Canterbury Water Management Strategy. She is emphatic about the size of the ECan challenge, and its titanic achievement: they were turning the boat around.

And, as her valedictory tribute to fellow councillors shows, she is capable not just of plain speech, but also, some grace and wit and finesse — all good stuff in Parliament.

“The appalling way in which the ECan Act was drafted and passed, with scant debate and scrutiny by Parliament, and its consequences for water conservation orders and democracy” is her motive now for standing for the Green Party, in very blue Selwyn.

However, she is moving forward, not just fighting last year’s battle.

Earthquake recovery is a Green issue too, ensuring that Christchurch is rebuilt for the next century, not the last one. It says something about how broken the city is, when restoring democracy to it has slipped below the basics of water and hygiene and winter warmth. But Sage is already (or still) on the job, defending due process (again) against the renewed threat to it, in the guise of emergency powers.

“Environmentalist and Green Party candidate Eugenie Sage was not impressed when she spotted the dumping through binoculars from the other side of the harbour …” reported 3 News last week.

Post-quake, the Lyttelton Port Company had been purporting to use its emergency powers to do something it wanted to anyway, with about 100 trucks a day transporting demolition rubble and dumping it for reclamation. The Environment Court was scheduled to hear objections to the same work in the same spot. There was, apparently, “a misunderstanding about the extent of the consent”. Sage made a fuss. The work was stopped.

She calls it a “short, sweet and successful” campaign, and lists some other wins, among them “the culmination of the 30-year West Coast forests campaign involving several generations of activists,” when “the Labour-Alliance government stopped Timberlands’ West Coast beech scheme within days of being elected in 1999, subsequent ending of all native forest logging on Crown land … the protection of 132,000 ha of Timberlands’ beech and rimu forest, and its addition to the conservation estate”.

Remembering that this took 30 years, and considering how very long, by contrast with the wins, is the list of to-dos she would bring with her to Parliament (what follows is not the whole list), you can see how another 13 years might pretty swiftly elapse:

  • Resource rental for commercial use of water.
  • National Environmental Standards for water quality.
  • A regulatory consent regime for offshore oil prospecting and mining.
  • A rudimentary oceans policy.
  • Constrain the expansion of coal mining, particularly by Solid Energy.
  • Stop Southland lignite.
  • Refocus Solid Energy on expanding its ‘Nature’s Flame’ business, based on wood pellets.
  • Changes to state-owned enterprises’ statements of intent, especially Solid Energy and Meridian. “Solid Energy needs to be reined in, in terms of greenhouse emissions and biodiversity destruction. … Why, in the 21st century, is a state company [Meridian] able to promote such an environmentally-destructive scheme as the Mokihinui dam, for which no environmental offsets are appropriate?”
  • Prohibit dairying expansion in sensitive areas like the Mackenzie Basin.
  • Stop privatisation of Crown pastoral leases, through the tenure review process in the high country, and require all leases to have a sustainable land management plan.

She believes in collaborative process, but fears the new Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust could be just a “talkfest”, with a real potential (as the government no doubt knows) for sidelining and defusing public concern, and of environmental NGOs feeling silenced by having a representative at the table.

“Very little information about the Trust has been in the public domain and it is probably too early to judge,” she says, but ticks off a list of matters that would be needed to make it work, based on her experience of what worked for the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, most of which there is no evidence of at the moment.

Instead, LINZ Minister Maurice Williamson is ignoring calls to press pause on tenure review, and the upper Waitaki water consent applications by Mr Peacocke et al await decision, which if granted would see massive landscape change and biodiversity loss, and sideswipe conservationists' calls for a 'drylands park'.

Sage's comments on the Mackenzie and the recalcitrant SOEs show the breadth of her take on the issues. Many of her answers and examples locate the root cause of the problem somewhere else; she has her eye on the whole picture, and would change the whole picture if she could.

For example, when I ask how we might do conservation better, and what is needed to get more of the wins, she talks about the importance of good regulation, and the role of DOC, because of how their current weakness affects environmental NGOs, and the need, therefore, to reform the Resource Management Act.

DOC doing less, under funding pressure, means environmental NGOs like Forest & Bird having to do more, and rely on every-day resource management tools, rather than locking land away in the conservation estate. Trying to save wild rivers and wild places by "expensive, legalistic and demanding" RMA processes and judicial reviews of Ministerial decision-making leaves them short of energy or capacity for major political campaigns to mobilise public opinion.  A stronger RMA and better national environmental policy and regulation, she says, would help.

And Environment Minister Dr Smith’s enthusiasm for collaborative processes, for water management (Land and Water Forum, Hurunui), and the Mackenzie is not, in her view, a substitute for strong regulation. “Collaborative processes should not be expected to resolve all tensions and conflict where resources are at or approaching their allocation limit.”

She is an advocate for good science, and here again, one thing leads to another: better use of science would help us environmentally and economically. She wants more state of the environment reporting, as controversially implemented by ECan (the user-pays rating decision), and economics with an ecological focus.

“The criticism of ECan in the Creech review as being 'science led rather than science focused' suggests a denial that there are environmental limits to growth. Scientists are simply the messenger. Downplaying the role of science seeks to perpetuate business as usual. We need to respond more urgently and comprehensively to scientific reporting and advice on the state of our climate, waterways, indigenous biodiversity, and fish stocks.”

She talks about establishing a grassroots structure for resilience: “Community self-organisation and humanitarian outreach, not market forces, have inspired and sustained the response to the Christchurch earthquake. We will need similar resilience in adjusting to peak oil and climate change.” It is more ephemeral than building an eco-city, but here again, Christchurch might show us the way forward.

As she told a Christchurch “Our Water” rally in March last year:

“We can do the same in water if we stop playing the blame game, if we co-operate, apply sound science and analysis and adequate funding and if we recognise that a strong economy requires a healthy environment.”

It sounds a bit like a short version of her mission statement for Parliament — that, and keeping an eye on Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee’s due process peccadilloes, which may not always require binoculars.