Forest & Bird delivers a lesson in economical resource use — simplifying and streamlining, if you will — that doesn’t involve balancing the environment and the economy; and a reminder of the conservation job, put on ice for a quarter century

As the flagship Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Bill proceeded in 2009, Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee was at odds with his government, pursuing economically-inefficient resource management, in his ill-advised grab for Schedule 4.

Forest & Bird — joining others catching hold of Brownlee’s coat tails, and riding their momentum — told the Local Government and Environment Committee last week that it is especially important and urgent, following Brownlee’s assertions of a non-Schedule 4 mining ‘mandate’, to ensure that everything is in the Schedule that ought to be. I wrote about that here; I am not going to do it again, but there are other aspects to it.

Talking to the government in a language it understands, Forest & Bird had commissioned work on the economic function of Schedule 4, from consultant economist Geoff Bertram.

Ironically, his advice suggests that, in a way, “resource management (simplifying and streamlining)” is what Schedule 4 is all about. It was a bipartisan compromise, but yet, not really a concession by economic or mining interests, because its very rationale supports those interests.

According to Bertram, in high-value conservation areas, where balancing the environment and the economy simply isn’t possible in any meaningful way, because too many important values are unquantifiable, the least-cost method for everybody is to rule out any balancing, at all:

Economic efficiency requires, among other things, the minimisation of transaction costs so far as possible. In the case of areas of very high natural value, it is not efficient to allow continual battles between the competing interests, both because the issue of “development” versus “conservation” is inherently impossible to resolve except by exercise of judgment (usually with an arbitrary component); and because such battles have negative spillover effects. Extractive industries as a whole face the chilling effect of aroused public hostility, while the threat of major impacts on high-value landscapes and ecosystems has an equally chilling effect on tourism and aggrieves affected communities.

In most western democracies, legislation has been enacted to enable low-value areas to be developed by extractive industries, while removing the highest-valued areas from all developments and then providing some intermediate areas in which commercial and non-commercial values must be balanced by a formal process.

Striking a balance between the measurable economic gains from commercial development and the unmeasurable (non-quantifiable) loss of natural values in the process of development is time-consuming and difficult, placing heavy cost burdens upon all parties (as the history of the RMA, and the debates over mining in the Coromandel during the 1980 and 1990s, make clear). Those costs inevitably increase with the scale of the natural values at stake, as public concern (expressed through submissions, litigation, and political activity) increases.

Taking account of the uncertainties involved, and given the benefits of regulatory certainty, an economically efficient (least-cost) administrative solution is to classify the conservation estate into areas of progressively higher inherent value, to place a boundary around the highest-value category, and to ban extractive economic activities within that boundary. This in essence is the origin of Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act.

This is the resource management (simplifying and streamlining) that you’d have, if you weren’t so busy having economic growth simplifying and streamlining.

The other interesting part of Forest & Bird’s submission is a paragraph tucked away at the back, highlighting a quarter century old problem:

Finally, we note that much of New Zealand’s public conservation land has yet to be adequately classified to recognise its conservation values. Places of national park quality are in limbo as stewardship land, a category of land administered by the Department of Conservation (and protected by the Conservation Act) but not yet classified. A prominent example is the Mokihinui Gorge adjacent to Kahurangi National Park, most well known for a proposal to build a 14km-long hydro-dam despite the Gorge’s extremely high natural values. A mining company is prospecting in the Mokihinui Gorge at the same time. The Gorge area is stewardship land, but evidence presented by the Department of Conservation in defending the area from a dam shows that its conservation values are exceptional, perhaps national park quality. The main implication of an area being still unclassified is that legal tests under the Conservation Act and Crown Minerals Act are much weaker than is appropriate.

The Department of Conservation (DOC), and the conservation estate as we presently know it, were established in 1987. A great deal of unclassified land was dubbed ‘stewardship land’, pending a review, that would see it all properly allocated to other conservation categories. As former Minister Philip Woollaston told a Wellington symposium recently:

The classification of land which was allocated to DoC was a major and time-consuming exercise involving considerable research and fieldwork. To complete it was clearly going to take many years. The land which was not National Park or already classified under the Reserves Act, the Forests Act or the Wildlife Act became ‘stewardship land’ — a statutory holding pen — until it could be assessed and, if merited, given more precise statutory protection.

["Origins of the legislation and policy relating to minerals in conservation areas", paper delivered to the Institute of Policy Studies' symposium, Mining in the Conservation Estate: Lasting Lessons from the Schedule 4 Debate, August 23, 2010.]

A comprehensive review was supposed to happen within three years; nearly 25 years later, it hasn’t, presumably because DOC is not funded and resourced for it, nor is it a Ministerial priority. Certainly Woollaston confirms this, in the term of his own government:

DOC was struggling with limited resources to establish itself from the fragments of a number of departments and the government, preoccupied with major social and economic reforms on a number of other fronts, did not see reserve classification as a priority.

But this is not just a ‘nice to have’, one day, when we can afford it. It has real world implications, right now. Forest & Bird points to the Mokihinui River hydro proposal, on our television screens and in our courts at the moment. That is one example of an iconic place, in stewardship limbo, where developers are trying to get consent for projects utterly unsuited to the environment, under law (generic Conservation and Resource Management Act provisions) not properly tailored to the values at stake.

If the millions of money and other resources currently being poured by Meridian, DOC, et al, down the Mokihinui River litigation channel was directed to clarifying the status of some of that stewardship land, we might actually make a little progress. In Bertram’s terms, by offering certainty, it would minimise everyone’s long-run costs.

Comments (5)

by Claire Browning on September 21, 2010
Claire Browning

Forest & Bird — joining others catching hold of Brownlee’s coat tails, and riding their momentum — 

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released her report this morning, Making Difficult Decisions: Mining the Conservation Estate, adding her voice to Forest & Bird's, the Conservation Authority, et al.

Her summary is here, see also Forest & Bird's press release here.

It picks up on the issues I posted about earlier, with some recommendations to address them. For example:

Mining already enjoys a special status above that  of other commercial activities on conservation  land. Applications to gain access to conservation  land for adventure tourism, for instance,  must pass a higher hurdle than  access for mining. This makes no sense. The environmental impact of an adventure tourism operation will generally be far less than  that  of a mine, and will encourage people to get out and enjoy the beauty and wildness of the conservation estate. And yet no one is proposing  that  access for adventure tourism be jointly approved  by the Minister of Conservation  and the Minister of Tourism ...

Forest & Bird is happy to have company:

The report recommends that ecological areas – 55 specially protected areas of high ecological value covering 176,000 hectares – should be added to Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, which lists areas that cannot be mined.

Her recommendation coincides with a submission by Forest & Bird to Parliament last week that argued that ecological areas, national reserves, world heritage areas, and marine mammal sanctuaries also be included in Schedule 4 because mining is incompatible with their protection.

The commissioner’s report highlights that mining currently has preferential treatment compared with other commercial activity on conservation land. In situations where most activities would be declined, mining decisions need only “have regard” for conservation.

“Mining is prince among peasants – a company taking guided walks faces a tougher test than a mine even though the mine’s footprint will be so much greater than trampers’ footprints,” said Duthie ...

by Simon on September 23, 2010


Geoff Bertram is a very good analyst, isn't he? 

Thats a very good point that it is "effective" and "optimal" to have some (if not most) areas of the conservation estate absolutely "off-limits" to any mining.

I made a similar point back in March on Matt Nolan's blog. (

The current regime for mining on conservation land can be seen as sort of a resource allocation plan. 

But its not a particularly equitable allocation of property rights. The Crown (wearing its conservation hat) remains the land owner and responsible for long term public "bads" such as acid mine drainage and orphan mines. The miners don’t need exclusive property rights to mine if they can get an access agreement. Even if it involves some level of compensation, the miner will never end up with the full ownership responsibility (e.g. liabilities such as orphan mines like Tui mine). The miner gets the minerals as "private goods" and DOC keeps ownership of the "public bads", the degraded mine sites.  Its a bit like a Tui beer add, isn't it?

Jan Wright is right on the money to say a private landowner would not put up with the sort of access agreements DOC enters into. I'd take that one step further. The private landowner would really say "You want to mine this land, you buy it!"

Then the miner has its own property rights in the mined land as its skin in the game. Instead of being able to leave the liability with DOC.

Of course, I am not suggesting that DOC should sell conservation areas to miners. The property rights approach just reinforces Wright's point that DOC as the Crown's ownership agent is giving mining access far too cheaply and in far too many instances. Which says to me, expand Schedule 4, and make the mining access provisions of the CMA more rigorous and make the requirements for bonds and compensation more beneficial for DOC.

Thats of course, the opposite of what I assume Gerry Brownlee intends, when (hopefully if) he becomes the joint decision-maker along with the Minister of Conservation.

by Che Nua on September 24, 2010
Che Nua

Anybody who has travelled the area will know that the Mokihinui catchment is NZ's 'Last Great River' & forest wilderness.  Because the Mokihinui exceeds much of the adjoining Kahurangi National Park in terms of biodiversity, cultural history, scenic beauty etc it is incredulous that this amazing eco-scape has no proper statutory recognition

This situation makes a mockery of our whole conservation & National park system.  Surely there is more to how the Mokihinui got left out of Kahurangi National Park than chronic under-resourcing of DOC? I'm sure the backroom story would be interesting reading

Because this whole subject pisses me off I will also mention that the 6 Maoris who recently sold out to Meridian so the Mokihinui hydro proposal would be one step closer to going ahead are not the Tangata Whenua - why arn't more people challenging their so-called mandate?

Finally, I wonder how Jeremy Wells feels about fronting the hydro-energy company that is about to destroy the forest wilderness of the Mokihinui river on the West Coast >   Bird Land Man or Hypocrite?


by Claire Browning on September 24, 2010
Claire Browning

Because this whole subject pisses me off I will also mention that the 6 Maoris who recently sold out to Meridian so the Mokihinui hydro proposal would be one step closer to going ahead are not the Tangata Whenua - why aren't more people challenging their so-called mandate?

Che, did you catch Craig Potton's Rivers on Prime last Sunday? It featured Mokihinui, and there was a bit right at the end, where he chatted to a Maori gentleman -- I guess I can take the liberty of calling him 'kaumatua', though I didn't catch his name or how he fitted into the overall picture [Edit: I'm told he was Ngati Waewae's Rick Barber] -- who took a somewhat different view of the matter, from those who, as you put it 'sold out'. Between the lines, I wondered if he was running up a flag that the iwi Meridian paid out [which I mentioned in my post here] may not be representative of local Maori, or Maori more generally. But it wasn't clear to me at all that he would be doing anything more directly to challenge their mandate, and Potton (who was interviewing) didn't ask him.

by Simon on October 02, 2010

Claire, Che,

That was Rick Barber talking to Craig Potton on "Rivers". He is (or has been) on the West Coast Conservation Board.

Re the Tangata Whenua for the Mokihinui, (and what we ex-RMA bureaucrats would call the "Section 8 matters"); here is the Cultural Impact Assessment.



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