Selling Tane short, on conservation lands

Our native forests and the creatures that live in them are in retreat, says the PCE; commerce is a lesser evil than rats, stoats and possums. Barbeque sacred cows, says DOC. Just uphold the law, says Green MP Kevin Hague

Joe Harawira says Maori honour the natural world, for its mauri, mana, and tapu. So, he says, do the Federated Mountain Clubs, whose conference he is addressing -- although many of the delegates are silver-haired and white, and few raise their hands, when he asks who understood the karakia.

“Let our hearts beat in unison with Mother Earth,” Harawira concludes, “and only then will we have true balance in our lives”.

It was FMC’s 80th birthday: time to stand on the peak and take stock, of the conservation lands travelled behind, and those up ahead.

Conservation lands are not empty spaces. They house creatures and plants. They are part of the ecosystem. They are wilderness, where we find ourselves, and remember our place in the world. They are, in New Zealand, wilder than almost anywhere else in the world
-- but not, unfortunately, beyond our power to tame. They have their own, intrinsic value, already recognised by our laws, for which FMC fought and won.

Above all, they are not about us.

Our laws make that much clear; the challenge is how to give effect to its principles. How pragmatic should we be?

The conference topic was “Forever Wild?”, with a question mark. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright subtitled her keynote speech “Conservation for Prosperity and Posterity?”, with a question mark. Posterity, she says, is threatened by pests, which we introduced.

Is our wilderness to be threatened, or paradoxically saved, by now introducing more people to it? Conservation values are threatened by pests and people both.

The Department of Conservation has a new strapline: “conservation for prosperity”. It puts DOC in the same space as the Ministry for the Environment, whose strapline has for some years been “environmental stewardship for [not the environment but] a prosperous New Zealand”.

Three defenders of conservation said that the way we do this needs to change.

Minister of Conservation Hon Kate Wilkinson wondered, rhetorically, how we can ensure that the wild stays wild. Wild places, she said, are important to the economy. They are vital to both our big earners, cows and tourism. We need to ensure that they continue to add value to the wealth of New Zealanders.

She believed the best way to protect our wild places is for New Zealanders to see for themselves why they deserve protecting. “Some of you are more like rugged mountain goats,” she joked, but the offer of access to them should be extended to a broad spectrum of the population, and the world. Since the world’s wild places are vanishing, it was our duty to share ours.

According to DOC official Kevin O’Connor, it is now all about what conservation can do for the country, rather than what the community can do for conservation. DOC’s focus in the past had been asset management. It was now on visitor experience, and ways to increase participation. The challenge was how to protect the natural world without appearing to “lock up vast tracts of land” or “sell conservation for a quick buck”. It would require the barbequeing of some sacred cows.

O’Connor and another speaker, Conservation Authority member Kay Booth, focused on recreation and tourism as ventures for raising people’s awareness, and reminding them why we should care about our wild places.

The price of revenue and consciousness-raising is that wilderness risks being lost, and resource channelled from the back to the front country, where those of us less like rugged mountain goats are more game. And conservation philosophy risks being lost, if people learn to regard these 'wild' places as 'their' own local playground.

But according to PCE Jan Wright, the biggest danger to conservation lands is not commerce but pests -- both animals and plants, but in particular, possums and rats and stoats. Only on one-eighth of conservation lands is there any pest control. “Our native forests and the creatures that live within them are in retreat.”

With the proviso that she would not report for another year, and was proffering a few ideas to provoke thought and talk, she was interested in how principled and consistent commercial use and revenue-raising might be done. Her preference was for payment in kind, in perpetuity, via trusts, for pest control. The “concession” necessary to operate on conservation lands implied reluctance. However, many commercial uses will be reversible; inadequate pest control is not.

Some commercial uses are not reversible, either: irrigation of the rumpled brown lands of the Mackenzie, or the Mokihinui River hydro project, for example. Wright, with the caveat that it left much still to be worked through, suggested “no net damage to conservation”. Resource management lawyer Mark Christiansen, on behalf of industry, said uncertainty was much more of a risk and a problem than just being told they could not do something they would otherwise seek to do.

FMC President Richard Davies likened the legal framework of the Conservation and National Parks Acts to our constitutional Bill of Rights and Public Finance Acts: critical to the wellbeing of the many, though understood by few.

Section 6 of the Conservation Act lists DOC functions: to manage conservation lands for conservation purposes -- not prosperity purposes, except insofar as prosperity benefits conservation -- and, “to the extent that the use of any natural or historic resource for recreation or tourism is not inconsistent with conservation, to foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, and to allow their use for tourism”.

That is, two uses, that do not explicitly include business, per se, except recreation and tourism-related business. Also, a distinction between recreation (“foster”) and tourism (“allow”) -- a distinction that some of the delegates seemed keen to give fuller effect, between low cost-recovery and profit-generating, and perhaps, New Zealanders and others.

Section 4 of the National Parks Act says, “the provisions of this Act shall have effect for the purpose of preserving in perpetuity as national parks, for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public”: two separate reasons to preserve them, in perpetuity.

National MP Louise Upston summed up the issue, as she saw it: government policy did not mean pristine areas would be turned into shopping malls.

Labour’s conservation spokesperson Ruth Dyson focused on different values. The government’s needed to be turned upside-down, and thrown out. The Conservation Minister and her department must recognise the economic and social value of conservation in itself, and ecosystem service and tourism contributions ought to be fully valued. There needed to be inherent recognition and respect for value. Talk of land being “locked up” was wrong: it is “locked up” only as regards certain uses; and it benefits us all, all the time.

Green spokesperson Kevin Hague lives on the back doorstep of Paparoa National Park, and looks out on it, from his kitchen window.

The issue, he said, is not insufficient dollars. It is about priorities: conservation versus roads, government bailouts, or anything else that you like. We could learn from Patagonia, he suggested, which contributes a mere 1% of its budget to conservation. Our conservation budget is 0.6%, and reducing. Conservation lands are one-third of the country, tourism our top earner. A good thing to do for conservation for the future would be, let’s just uphold the law.

The law doesn’t answer all of the questions. It doesn’t tell us how to manage conservation lands for conservation purposes. But remembering what it says would be a great start.

By obfuscation and omission, those principles are as much at risk right now as the wild places they seek to protect.