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Prosperity or Posterity? The Future of Conservation Land

Press Release – Parliamentary Commissioner For The Environment

Prosperity or Posterity? The Future of Conservation Land Otago University Symposium Public Conservation Lands 2040 8 November 2011 Thank you very much for the invitation to come and speak today. I always like coming back to my home island. I am sorry …Prosperity or Posterity? The Future of Conservation Land

Otago University Symposium
Public Conservation Lands 2040

8 November 2011

Thank you very much for the invitation to come and speak today.
I always like coming back to my home island.

I am sorry that I cannot be here for the whole symposium
But Karl from my office is here and hopefully wide awake and taking copious notes.

In June I spoke to the AGM of the Federated Mountain Clubs and announced that I had decided to undertake an investigation into commercial use of conservation land.
Although this investigation is in its infancy, I will share some thoughts on this subject with you today.

The commercial use of conservation land is I believe highly relevant to your theme of Public Conservation Lands in 2040.

A large part of New Zealand is in the conservation estate — about a third.
There is a clear intent for it to be used to play a much greater role in the economy.
You need look no further than DOC’s new brand — “Conservation for prosperity”.

I have called this address “Prosperity or Posterity?”
Admittedly it’s a dreadful tongue-twister and my Communications Adviser was rather cross about me using it.
Prosperity is great but we also need conservation for posterity — for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.
To 2040 and beyond.

But before I begin, I want to explain my role briefly and what it is that I do.

Like the Auditor-General and the Ombudsmen I am what is known as an Officer of Parliament.
This means that while I am a public servant, I do not work for the Government, but for Parliament as a whole, and am not bound to follow the policies of any party.

This means that I am politically independent.
In my role I provide advice to MPs through investigations that result in written reports.
And through other mechanisms such as submissions to select committees.
A report will generally contain recommendations to specific Ministers.
And I aim to make those recommendations well reasoned and pragmatic.
I have no power beyond the ability to persuade and it is up to the Government of the day as to whether or not those recommendations are taken up.

But I do follow up and keep track of on whether progress is being made or not.
I am looking forward to reading the book being launched here – the possibility of wilderness.
Wilderness means different things to different people.
One thing that comes quickly to my mind is that wilderness is becoming more and more scarce globally – and is likely to continue doing so.
Increasing scarcity means increasing value.
When I say value in this context, I’m not thinking of dollar value – of hocking it off and seeing what it will fetch in the marketplace.
I am thinking of people around the world – and their children and grandchildren – increasingly seeing wilderness as something rare and wonderful.

We have of course some parts of New Zealand that are specially designated as “wilderness areas”.
There are 11 of these – 4 in the North Island and 7 in the South Island.
I’ve got a gammy knee – not much chance of my tramping into these remote places.
So there’s not much possibility of me experiencing these wilderness areas directly.
But I’m very glad they are there.

But returning to my topic of commercial use of conservation land.

There is clearly growing interest in gaining revenue from the conservation estate.
Conservation for prosperity signals this.
So does the increasing effort to raise funds for protecting iconic species through sponsorship by private companies.

The standard way in which commercial use of conservation land occurs is through the granting of concessions.
When private companies gain permission to conduct businesses on conservation land, the usual procedure is that they are given concessions and pay concession fees.
The word “concession” comes from the Conservation Act.
It implies reluctance.
As in you can do this, but I don’t really like it.

That reluctance seems to be fading.
It’s not just DOC.
The Ministry for the Environment now sees its role as:
“Environmental stewardship for a prosperous New Zealand”.

Can the conservation estate be used to make us more prosperous?
Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Without wrecking the natural heritage we hold in trust for future generations – for posterity.
You will recall well the furore last year over mining on conservation land that was on Schedule 4.
When 20,000 people marched up Queen Street.

I made a submission on the proposal – as some of you may have — and subsequently we wrote a report on mining on conservation land that is not on Schedule 4.
We have some copies here if you wish to pick one up.
If you read that report you will see that I certainly have some concerns about mining – about this particular commercial use.

But mining or any other commercial use is not my biggest worry.

It is my view that the biggest danger to the conservation estate is the onslaught of pests.
By far.

In June I released a report into our investigation into 1080.
We have some copies of the 1080 report here.
The great majority of New Zealanders think of possums as the pests destroying our bush.
But of course, it’s not.
It’s possums and rats and stoats.

And only on 1/8th of the land managed by DOC is there any control of these pests which I have come to think of as the evil triumverate.
I have developed a particularly visceral hatred of stoats.

On huge tracts of native forests, there is no rearguard battle underway – the invasion of pests has been met with only very limited resistance.
And the result is that those pests are largely winning.
In the main, our native forests and the creatures that live within them are in retreat.

Given the controversy over 1080, I was really surprised by how good 1080 actually is.
How good it is when you step back and test it against the job it is intended to do, and what else you might use instead.
One of its big pluses is that aerial 1080, used well, can deal to all three – possums and rats and stoats.

But what does this have to do with commercial use of the conservation estate?
Well simply that more commercial activity could generate more revenue which could be used to control pests and lead to a net conservation benefit.

So let me elaborate – by sharing some thoughts and questions with you.
The conservation estate already plays a large role in our economy.

When you look at a map of New Zealand, there’s an awful lot of land in National Parks – and National Parks are only 40% of the land managed by DOC.

It is one aspect of our environment, where our “clean green” image meshes pretty well with reality – and that really helps us market ourselves abroad.

Not all tourists actually set foot in National Parks.
But photos of our stunning landscapes must be a major reason why virtually all of them come to our country.
And the direct spending of tourists is a crucial part of some of our small regional economies.

But stepping from the economy to commerce.
From the more general role that our conservation estate plays in the economy to its direct commercial use.

It is all too easy to muddle these two, when they are quite different.
And if economy and commerce are muddled, debate on this very important new direction for DOC will become confused.

Focusing then on commerce and the commercial use of conservation land, I mean activities that:
Create profit for commercial users.
Generate income for the Crown.
And of course lead to jobs and other spin-off benefits.

I have no quarrel – in principle – with commercial use of the conservation estate.
It is an enormous asset and there is no reason why there should not be a monetary return on that asset.

In fact there is every reason to get a monetary return where there could be an overall benefit to conservation.
I referred earlier to the evil triumverate of possums, rats and stoats.
They are chewing the life out of our forests.
And on only a small fraction of the areas where they thrive is there any control at all.
These pests are not going to pack their bags and go back to where they came from.

Yes – we are saving our special plants and animals on offshore islands – mostly not open to the public.
And in fenced sanctuaries and intensively managed reserves.
But if we are to restore the dawn chorus to our mainland, we need a lot more money.
And most of that is not going to come from taxpayers.

So earning revenue from conservation land and using that money to fund more pest control – and not just control of mammal pests — is very appealing to me.

Because it provides a way ahead.
But – and this is a big but – it must be done well.
It should be based on principles, not done in an ad hoc way.

I suggest one fundamental principle:
Conservation is the priority – therefore – at a minimum — there should be no net damage to conservation.

Easy to say – far from straightforward to apply.

But that’s the nature of principles.

So what revenue is currently earned from commercial activity?

There are nearly 5000 concessions that have been given to various companies.

DOC earns about $13 million per year from these concessions.
That’s about 3% of DOC’s funding.

And if “conservation for prosperity” is signalling more commercial use to supplement DOC’s funding, we could see a great many more private businesses operating on the conservation estate.
Because the current revenue from concessions is a bit more than a drop in the bucket, but not a lot more.

Actually the $13 million paid for concessions is not all the revenue from commercial use – there is also money coming in from mining.

Mines do not appear to be dealt with in the standard concessions system.

I took an interest in this in my investigation into mining on conservation land that was not on Schedule 4.
And I was really surprised how little money appeared to be paid by companies that were digging up gold and coal and other minerals on conservation land.

Miners with access to many hectares are paying access fees in the low thousands.

My staff have had a look at some of the access agreements for mines.

I am concerned because there is a confusing mish mash of different kinds of payments:
one-off payments
$s per year
$s per hectare
administration cost recovery
$s per mature tree killed
$s per square metre of vegetation removed
in-kind payments such as track maintenance.

Maybe there are good reasons for this mish mash.
But maybe there aren’t.

In our investigation into commercial use of conservation land, we will look more closely into this and other commercial uses.
I’m particularly interested in what the principles are that underlie the payments made by commercial users.

And are the principles used as a basis for mining payments different from those used as a basis for setting payments for other activities?
Different from payments for tourism, for telecommunications, for guiding?
And if so why?

I’m not picking on mining here – it’s just seems to be different from the others and I’m curious.
Now another question.
What form should revenue from commercial uses take?

Revenue can be money or it can be paid in-kind – pest control, track provision, track maintenance, hut use…

Money is very attractive because it preserves flexibility – it can be spent in different ways as priorities change.
But Treasury will take it back if you haven’t spent it at the end of the financial year.
And in these straitened economic times, it will inevitably be used to offset cuts in base funding.
If I worked for Treasury, that’s what I would probably be recommending.

So I think there may be a great deal of merit in in-kind payments.
And the kind I’m interested in is pest control.

Let me repeat my mantra – pests are the greatest threat to the conservation estate.

But in-kind payments can be tricky.

My thinking is that DOC should get on the front foot – take control of the negotiation, not just respond to an offer made by the company applying for a concession.
With in-kind payments there are two issues – the size of the payment and the nature of the payment.

On the size of the payment:
When it comes to pest control, go for all you can get.
We’ve got a war to win here.
And it’s got to be a lot easier to motivate staff to be hard-headed negotiators if they are fighting for plants and animals than if they are fighting for the Crown accounts.

On the nature of the offer:
Personally I’d probably hold out for 1080 drops – if you read my 1080 report, you’ll see why.
A company may prefer much less controversial ground control of an iconic species.
Much better for PR – even though the bang for the buck is likely to be much less.

Then – one thing I’ve learned about pests – we can’t exterminate them except on offshore islands.
Even then, constant vigilance is required.
Rats swam back to Ulva Island.
And recently and distressingly — stoats have swum back to Kapiti Island.

We can’t exterminate these pests on the mainland, but what we can do is to periodically knock down their populations.
So I would want in-kind payments in the form of pest control to go on – in perpetuity.
And this could be done by putting revenue from commercial uses into a trust.
I’m now going to shift gears again – this time to look at the category of conservation land known as “stewardship land”.

Stewardship land is very different from all the other categories.
The difference between stewardship land and other categories is much greater than the difference between Schedule 4 land and land that is not on Schedule 4.

Stewardship land has a different status under legislation.
Stewardship land is the only land that can be swapped.

A case recently is the swapping of a mountain side to allow its development into a ski field for a piece of coastal land with a struggling podocarp forest.
I’m not commenting on the merits of that particular swap – just using it as an illustration.

And really the term “land swap” is very unsatisfactory.
The conservation estate is not just land – it is trees and birds and tussocks and snails and eels and geckos and mosses.
And it’s tramping and camping and kayaking and climbing mountains and just sitting and looking.
Let’s roll back time to the reforms of the eighties.

Public lands – it was decreed – were to be for either production or conservation – and never the twain shall meet.
No more mixed use.
Production land is to go to Landcorp and Forestcorp.
Conservation land is to go to DOC.
But wait – there’s a problem.
There’s a whole lot of land that we’re not sure what to do with.
So let’s call it “stewardship land”.
And DOC can mind it, be the steward of it.

But that arrangement was meant to be only temporary.
Phillip Woollaston who was Minister of Conservation at the time describes stewardship land as a “statutory holding pen”.
Most of that stewardship land is still in that holding pen.

Examples are Big Bay near the Hollyford, much of the Southern Alps between Aoraki and Arthur’s Pass, the Mokihinui gorge, a large tract of land east of the Urewera, and most of Great Barrier Island.

I have heard stewardship land described as an invitation for not just commercial use, but for any kind of development.
It is not legislatively protected in the same way as other land managed by DOC.

And some of that stewardship land may well have greater conservation value than much of the land in National Parks.
It’s time to have a good look at what’s in Phillip Woollaston’s holding pen.
In summary – my thoughts – not set in concrete.

Commercial use of conservation land can generate greatly needed revenue.
It will be a good thing provided it’s done well.
The approach should be based on principles applied consistently to all forms of commercial use.
The proceeds should not be used to cut baseline funding.
A lot more resource is needed to control pests – otherwise the great bulk of conservation land will deteriorate.
The best form of payment from commercial users is probably pest control.
But to ensure the pest control is done well and continues into the future, a trust to manage both the funds and the pest control operations could be set up.
Recognise stewardship land invites development, so it needs checking and some possible recategorisation.
I said earlier that I have no quarrel in principle with commercial use of conservation land.
But the devil is in the detail – as is usually the case.

Here’s one of the things we will be thinking about
It’s to do with wilderness – the subject of this new book being released here.

As I mentioned earlier, there are eleven specially designated wilderness areas on land managed by DOC.
It’s not easy to get to them – on purpose.
They have no tracks and no huts.
Those intrepid souls who go there have to tramp for days from the end of a track to get to them.
You are not allowed to get a helicopter to fly you into a wilderness area.

But sometimes helicopters are allowed to, and do, land in wilderness areas.
Occasionally for search and rescue.
But if the experience of being in a wilderness area is interrupted by the thud thud thud of a helicopter, it is probably heli-hunting.

Heli-hunting for those of you who don’t know is the pursuit of an animal to the point of exhaustion, then shooting it.
Usually chamois or thar – in order to get a fine trophy head.

Shades of red jackets and hunting to hounds.

So why is heli-hunting allowed in wilderness areas?
It’s because it is considered to be pest control under the Wild Animal Control Act.
You couldn’t get a concession to film a movie in a wilderness area but you can chase an animal – noisily for miles – and shoot it.

And even putting animal welfare concerns to one side, something doesn’t seem right here.

So heli-hunting is one issue we will be looking into in our investigation into commercial uses of conservation land.
So in conclusion.

“Conservation for prosperity” – DOC’s new branding – should not come at the expense of “conservation for posterity”.
But “conservation for posterity” – conservation for our children and grandchildren – is already at risk.

The main threat to the conservation estate is not from more commercial use, but from predators that were introduced deliberately or accidentally.

David Attenborough says it beautifully:
“Most of New Zealand’s birds have still not learned that mammals can be dangerous”.
They don’t have time to learn – it’s up to us.

Just because land is added to the conservation estate doesn’t mean it is looked after.

For me the wake-up call in the investigation into 1080 was the discovery that pests are not controlled at all on the great majority of conservation land.
This is the big challenge for Public Conservation Lands 2040.
What condition will these lands be in 30 years from now?

Let me repeat – mining isn’t the biggest problem.
It will be a great day for New Zealand when 20,000 people march down Queen Street with banners saying “Save our forests — death to stoats”.

We grieve over the death of thousands of sea birds in the Bay of Plenty.
How many more birds are we losing in our forests?
Commercial use of conservation land can potentially help in this great battle by providing revenue for battling these invaders.
But we’ve got to get it right, we need to figure out the “whats” and “hows”.
What should the guiding principles be – and how should they be applied?

That’s why I hope to release a report on commercial use of conservation land next year.

We have to make sure that prosperity benefits posterity.

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