Biodiversity Conservation - National Issue Needs a National Solution

Introduction

The Government’s budget response to Covid-19 will deliver a range of positive outcomes. One area of increased investment is biodiversity conservation and re-organisation of employment into green initiatives. This is generally seen as helpful but is the Government doing enough to support the proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity?

Biodiversity protection through the RMA has been a slow-burning issue for many years with occasional flash-points when the historical conflict between private landowners and conservation organisations plays out in council and court hearings, most often with local authorities occupying an uncomfortable position somewhere between the two.

In November 2019 the Government notified a proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity (the proposed NPS-IB). This represents the latest attempt to establish a consistent framework for management of indigenous biodiversity on private land throughout New Zealand.

This article discusses previous unsuccessful attempts to introduce a NPS for biodiversity and what is now proposed by the Government. It then addresses the need for a national solution to what is a national issue and the changes required to make the proposed NPS-IB succeed.

Decline in NZ's indigenous biodiversity

It’s well accepted that New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity is in a state of crisis. A recent Government discussion document records that almost two-thirds of rare and naturally uncommon ecosystems are now threatened and we have around 4,000 species threatened or at risk of extinction. Biodiversity loss on private land is a significant contributor to this national problem.

Successive governments have grappled with how to arrest the decline. Several attempts have been made to promote RMA regulatory intervention to achieve protection and maintenance of indigenous biodiversity on private land, thus far with limited success.

Previous attemmots to introduce a NPS for indigenous biodiversity

In 2000, the Government funded a Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to consult widely about biodiversity and private land, and whether a biodiversity NPS would be an effective tool for maintaining and protecting biodiversity. The report that resulted from this process (the MAC Report) strongly recommended that the Government should not proceed with an NPS for biodiversity because to do so would result in adverse outcomes.

The rationale for this advice was that successful nature conservation requires willing and motivated landowners. The MAC Report recorded that “…respect for rural culture will more effectively halt the decline in indigenous biodiversity by promoting a vision and engaging land managers to adopt a management style that enhances the values in their care…”

In 2011, a biodiversity NPS was notified however it was not finalised due to a lack of stakeholder agreement. Perceived interference with private property rights caused the proposal to receive numerous submissions in opposition, thereby forcing it to be withdrawn.

Earlier efforts have been unsuccessful because they were seen principally through a regulatory lens which provoked landowner resistance and created an atmosphere of mistrust that erodes the potential for positive biodiversity outcomes on private land.

The proposed NPS-IB

If adopted, the proposed NPS-IB would establish a consistent national direction for how local councils identify and manage indigenous biodiversity on private land. A key policy requirement is that all councils map significant natural areas of indigenous vegetation, wetland and fauna (known as SNA) and manage them appropriately through consistent planning rules. This is a major point of apprehension for private landowners, due to fear that it will constrain existing land use and development rights.

Submissions closed on 14 March earlier this year. The Government is considering them and is scheduled to reach a decision on whether to proceed with the proposed NPS-IB later this year.

The need for a national solution to what is a national issue

If we accept that biodiversity conservation is a national problem then it follows that the issue of biodiversity decline warrants a national solution.

A national policy response via the proposed NPS-IB on its own won’t be sufficient because the costs of RMA regulation will fall disproportionately on the unlucky few (particularly forestry and sheep / beef farms) for the supposed wider public benefit. It will also penalise those landowners that have retained native vegetation on their properties, whereas those that have already removed it will be free from any restrictions.

In order for the proposed NPS-IB to achieve a reasonable level of acceptance among landowners it needs to be accompanied (among other matters) by substantial Government investment in biodiversity conservation on private land.

The Government’s Covid-19 package

The recent Government Budget includes a $1.1 billion dollar spend on creating new conservation-related jobs, as a part of the COVID-19 economic response package. The package includes $433 million to restore wetlands, and improve the health of rivers and estuaries and the Kaipara Harbour; $154.3 million for enhancing nature and indigenous biodiversity on public and private land; $147.5 million for pest control and eradication; and $27.5 million to control ballooning populations of wallabies in the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Canterbury and Otago.

This is an unexpected and very useful start. While further details have yet to be announced, it appears that some of this spending package could potentially provide significant support to private landowners undertaking biodiversity conservation initiatives on their land. It will assist landowner acceptance of the proposed NPS-IB if the Government is more explicit about the extent to which the package will used for this purpose.

Funding ecological assessments on private land

The proposed NPS-IB requires that all SNAs on private land must be mapped by district councils. The ecological assessments required to support SNA mapping are costly and this burden falls primarily on rural councils with the smallest rating base. Consequently the costs of SNA mapping are disproportionate to the ability of rural councils to fund this work.

Additional Government funding to support local authorities to undertake ecological assessments on private land is required for successful implementation of the proposed NPS-IB.

Amendments to make the proposed NPS-IB workable

The proposed NPS-IB presents a higher level of sophistication than its predecessors and the essential framework is a useful starting point. It makes some provision for landowner interests through existing use rights, indigenous biodiversity offsets, and plantation forestry biodiversity areas. All these matters require further attention (and in some instances significant amendment) to make the NPS-IB workable in practice.

Further, the Government needs to review the definition of “indigenous vegetation” and the broad criteria used to identify SNAs. This will simplify the SNA mapping process and focus regulation of private land on those areas that are of highest ecological value.

Conclusion

Climate change has been a focal point of debate for many years that has recently reached the point where there is wide-spread acceptance of need for change. Similar outcomes need to be achieved in the area of biodiversity conservation by shifting hearts and minds into a common position that biodiversity conservation is good for NZ Inc as a country and good for individual landowners.

If we accept this to be the case then it follows that the issue of biodiversity decline warrants a national solution. This needs to go further than a national regulatory response via the proposed NPS-IB. It should also include significant Government investment in supporting landowners achieve positive biodiversity conservation outcomes on private land.

The Government’s Covid 19 response is a good start but the Government should clarify the extent to which the funding package will be available to support landowner conservation initiatives. In addition, further investment in this space is required to support district councils to implement the proposed NPS-IB. Finally, common sense amendments to the proposed NPS-IB are needed to make it workable on a day-to-day basis for landowners and local authorities. These changes will help the current proposal for a biodiversity NPS succeed in a manner that benefits all New Zealanders.

If you have any questions about the issue and documents raised in this article please get in touch with one of the Adderley Head team.

Disclaimer: This is a brief summary for information purposes only and is not legal advice.

Posted on Thursday 21st May, 2020 at 11:28 am