THE BEACH AND THE DAM
What last month told us about Public Conservation in New Zealand
… just as the beach-bidding New Zealand public were putting their conservation faith in the perceived strong-hold of the DoC Conservation Estate, the High Court opened the way for DoC to do something other than lock-it-up-and-throw-away-the-key as the public have previously expected …
I sometimes struggle for punchy biodiversity-trading and public-private conservation news in little ol’ New Zealand. But two things happened recently: first, the New Zealand public bought beach and second, Forest & Bird lost. These things happened on different islands, and in different sectors, yet both tell a story about New Zealand’s attitude to how to conserve our environment, and the public conservation estate.
Crowdsourcing for Sand
First, the beach: just last month, a tender was won to buy a 7-hecter piece of Awaroa Inlet, Nelson, New Zealand public crowd-sourced 2 million dollars for. With an Xmas-BBQ idea, two blokes and a givealittle.co.nz page, the New Zealand public was convinced to shell out 2 million dollars and compete with cashed-up overseas investors to try and buy 800 meters of sand and 7 hectares of kanuka shrub. It’s a stunning piece of natural coastline and they want it placed with the Department of Conservation (DoC), for the conservation and public access of future NZ generations.
Household names like Spark and Stuff got behind the bid, government ministers murmured about finding some grant money, and journalists from print to television waxed lyrical about the ‘people-power’ and feel-good community spirit the project had demonstrated. Someone even referenced the Australian cult movie The Castle with its little-guy-versus-big-guy ode to humble Joe Public.
But DoC pointed out that it really wasn’t worth 2 million dollars in terms of the conservation value and TVNZ talked to those in the conservation industry who poitned out that is was 190 times more expensive that other similar land-pockets that have been added to Abel Tasman and Kahurangi in the past.
Gareth Morgan reminded us that it made little practical sense for the public to spend money on conservation this way – competing with overseas millionaires, worrying about a conservation-land-locked postage stamp at little practical risk, and getting all uppity about ‘public access versus private rights’ which isn’t an environmental issue anyway. The left was roaring. On hearing of it ultimately going back to the Government, local Iwi reminded us that the government took it spuriously in the first place anyway.
Underneath the nation’s straining heart-strings and grinning journos, I could see just how our voting public’s relationship with how we conserve our environment needs improvement. No one (save perhaps, Mr. Morgan) had a handle on how to spend conservation money wisely and get bang for anyone’s buck. And there is an overwhelming sense that when the land is in Department of Conservation hands, it will be protected and conserved and the job will be done. The end of the environmental race will be one with a swift click of a givealittle.co.nz closing page.
Those on the inside of NZ conservation policy and politics know this couldn’t be further from the truth. I am worried why the few good ladies and men who know where to take our future conservation and environment aren’t speaking out to those who clearly do not.
Land swap: loosing and winning
And then Forest and Bird (F&B) lost, and I got closer to proving my point. They were trying to fight an Environmental Protection decision that allowed some land to be taken out of the DoC Conservation Estate so it could be used as part of a water reservoir for the Hawkes Bay. In exchange, a more valuable conservation land nearby would be added back into the Estate. It is a trade, if you will; a kind of rudimentary Biodiversity Offset.
In fact, the whole Ruataniwha Dam project had a whole suite of mitigation and offset components to its Resource Consent to try and ensure that the land lost in the project is more than made up for by conserving and improving environmental values elsewhere. My discussion here doesn’t include the impact of the resultant irrigation increase or economic issues – that’s a different and still-to-be-resolved issue. What we’re talking about there is the land-swap part.
F&B say the land swap is unlawful because to do it, DoC will have to de-register the Specially Registered Conservation Park land to enable it to be swapped out, and they say that is against the law. F&B argued it also sets a precedent for being able to take land out of the conservation estate and swap it around.
Also last month, the High Court rejected F&B’s bid to have the land swap overturned. The precedent is set, and the land swap stays. The endangered species on the land that was going to be added to the Conservation Estate will now get protected. That, and the Dam is one step closer to being a reality along with its development gains and mitigation plans (never mind the long-term impacts of overly irrigating farmland – I’m save that for another day).
Dark Days and Bright Sparks:
So just as the beach-bidding New Zealand public were putting their conservation faith in the perceived strong-hold of the DoC Conservation Estate, the High Court opened the way for DoC to do something other than lock-it-up-and-throw-away-the-key as the public have previously expected.
Some might say this is a dark day for conservation in New Zealand. I say not.
It’s a bright day that so many New Zealanders got to thinking about the conservation of a (questionably) worthwhile environmental asset, and that people like Gareth Morgan could hold them to higher standards of analysis about it.
It’s a bright day where we have a precedent set that says we can trade an average conservation area for a better one, and bringing private land into conservation uses like the Ruataniwha offset does.
The Dam project itself remains contentious, but removing barriers to creating good biodiversity offsets is critical if NZ is to stand up and be part of the global movement towards more mature sustainability. If we want a better environment and continued development we need to get smarter, not angrier.
Changes towards allowing smarter allocation of our conservation resources won’t happen without political will, and that will comes from the very people who though buying a beach for 2 million dollars was a responsible decision. Oh Dear.
Let’s hope the light that has started to shine (and voices that could be raised) on these issues gets brighter and more focused, New Zealand.