Overhauls vs. Swaps, and bringing Net Benefit further into the conservation spotlight

Currently, most of the nation’s environmental minds are weighing the positives and negatives of the National Party’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act. Debate swings between reforming the existing versus re-writing entire legislation. About the only common thread among the increasingly anti-proposal voices is that the RMA, as it stands, is not working for anyone from big government to the smallest New Zealander.

But how about legislation we have in place that we can work with? While most voices are calling for change, I’m interested in a recent report by the Conservation Authority that highlights how existing legislation can be used to get the best resource management outcomes for everyone.

The report discusses land-swaps between Department of Conservation (DoC) land, and valuable conservation land outside of it. The Conservation Authority is clear that existing legislation does permit this. Furthermore, it is in the interests of conservation to make good land swaps possible.

Refreshingly, this report seems to show me that we need not wait for large-scale RMA overhauls to bring modern and effective tools onboard. With the right guidance and assessments applied, our existing legislation can be made to do some very modern things.

 

Courtesy of Radio New Zealand Conservation Estate Gallery

Stewardship Land in the DoC Estate – Courtesy of Radio New Zealand Conservation Estate Gallery

Land Swaps and Offsets

Last month I wrote about land swaps and the Ruataniwha Dam – allowing land to be removed from the DoC estate in exchange for larger, arguably better privately-held land being added.

Land swaps are a step towards the modern resource management area I’m interested in: offsetting. Both offsets and land swaps theoretically allow areas of average value to be take up by a development project, in return for the exchange of another area of higher environmental value that could do with more conservation attention.

Some call this kind of exchange issuing a license to trash. Instead, I think of it as piggy-backing on development dollars (instead of public dollars) to secure more or better land for conservation. Of course, that win-win is the best-case scenario, so the whole process needs to be done in an astute, comprehensive and well-informed way.

Part of that is to knuckle down how we swap one piece of land for another. There are some great minds that can work this out ecologically, but to make it into the world of development and business, it needs to be legally sound too. So while not your mainstream news item, the Ruataniwha decision was quite a landmark in that it cemented certain ideas around land swaps for the purposes of mitigation in New Zealand.

More language is creeping in, and more space is being made for exchanges of land that result in net conservation benefit – and at its heart, that is what biodiversity offsets are.

 

What the experts say

Last April the minister of conservation, Mrs. Maggie Barry, wrote to the Conservation Authority of New Zealand to seek their opinion on how to make such land swap decisions:

“… guidance on the principles and processes that should be used when making decisions on net conservation benefit” in the context of land exchanges.”

In particular, the Minister and her Parliamentary Commission for the Environment were concerned with:

  1. Consistency across land swaps
  2. Comparing benefit to the public DoC estate versus benefit to conservation in New Zealand generally
  3. Consultation with the public.

In its report, the Conservation Authority is very supportive of better enabling land swaps in New Zealand. They take the view that land swaps open possibilities to practically improve the conservation values of New Zealand as a whole, and this result is entirely reachable within our existing legislation.

Some of their key points for land swaps:

  1. The Conservation Act itself doesn’t need to be re-written

All the suggestions by the Conservation Authority are within reach – Standard Operating Policies and legislative amendments will do. Borrowing from enabling legislation in the Crown Minerals Act and The Reserves Act will help.

  1. Like for Like outcomes are good, but they’re not the best we can do.

Net Conservation Benefit is what should be really guiding processes around public conservation resources no matter which Act or Law governs it. With a Net Benefit attitude, land swaps are possible.

  1. Look at ‘additionally’

Is an action or swap actually adding to conservation, or are you swapping out a conservation action (or protection) for another too much the same? Land protection should be considered on the benefits to the environment as a whole, not just because it increases the DoC estate. Simply adding more land area is not necessarily a proxy for more conservation overall, especially if the land to be added already had protections via a covenant or other management plan.

  1. Land Swaps should be just as accessible as other permissions:

To streamline the use of land swaps, Net Conservation Benefit should be available for all activity permission requests. Applications for land swaps must be (not, ‘may be’) considered, timeframes must be applied, and land swaps could also be integrated into consents under the RMA (this one would be a great step for offsetting and even offset banking).

  1. Land Swaps and ‘swappable’ Stewardship-classified land should be seen as opportunities to achieve Net Benefit for conservation, not liabilities.

Permission to use land within the DoC estate is given by concession and concessions don’t allow for Net Benefit; it’s effectively no impact at all, or no concession. Alternatively, land swaps that remove conservation land from the estate in exchange for better land added elsewhere, can indeed provide a Net Benefit outcome. Currently, stewardship land is the only public land available for land swapping out of DoC protection. Therefore, land swaps and Net Benefit exchanges such as offsets should be available to all classifications of land, and Stewardship land should be seen as valuable for making Net Benefit land swaps possible.

“As we have noted, we consider that flexibility to achieve conservation gains is required from any regime. We are advised there is no flexibility to achieve net conservation gain outcomes with the current concessions regime. We recommend that you consider applying the access arrangement assessment criteria under the Crown Minerals Act to concessions under the Conservation Act to allow for net conservation gain to be achieved.”

Overall, land swaps are a good thing, and with the right, well-informed guidelines they can deliver positive environmental outcomes. If New Zealand can come to terms with good, robust Net Conservation Benefit land swaps, it’s a small step closer to better use of biodiversity offsets. And all this is possible while we wait for the large macro-level changes rumble through the cogs of democratic process and reverberate around our halls of governance.

There are real things we can do without overhauling the RMA, so lets’ not wait for that to happen to make progress. Once we have land swaps on public land for Net Conservation Benefit locked down, it’s a small step for private-private land swaps to be approved too, and therein lies the basis for a better biodiversity offsetting system for New Zealand.

Stewardship Lands from the Federated Mountain Club campaign for better protection of Stewardship Lands

Stewardship Lands from the Federated Mountain Club campaign for better protection of Stewardship Lands

The Report: STEWARDSHIP LAND: Net Conservation Benefit Assessments in Land Exchanges, Report from the New Zealand Conservation Authority (22 January 2016), is available by request from nzca@doc.govt.nz

New Zealand Conservation Authority

PO Box 10420

Wellington 6143

Telephone: +64 4 471 3289

Fax: +64 4 381 3057

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