A big funding boost for the Department of Conservation comes with a warning from the minister – it must continue to be thrifty. David Williams reports.

The “years of neglect” narrative being used by Government ministers is easy to craft in conservation, because the cuts have been so public.

The last decade has been punctuated by budget cuts, departmental restructuring and the loss of several hundred jobs. In 2013, as a round of job losses was announced, The Press’s Philip Matthews wrote: “All of a sudden, people are looking at the Department of Conservation like it is one of those threatened species it was created to protect.”

Last year, Green MP Mojo Mathers claimed DOC’s annual allocation from the Government was down nearly $55 million on 2008.

Sure, volunteers and corporate sponsors are helping. But the cuts have hampered the department’s ability to respond to a growing number of challenges, including the threats to rare species, controlling pests and providing adequate facilities for the increasing torrent of tourists.

“The Department of Conservation has existed on the smell of an oily rag,” Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage tells Newsroom. “Staff have had to go above and beyond the call of duty because of their dedication to conservation. The major restructurings, the loss of over 200 staff, the piecemeal funding, the cuts to the baseline, had demoralised the department – had put it on a downward trajectory.”

Last Thursday, on Budget Day, Sage announced an extra $181.6 million in operating funding for DOC, over four years. That’s made up of $81.3 million for predator control, $76 million for biodiversity initiatives, $5.5 million for better visitor management and $16.2 million for DOC to “strengthen its core capability”. The Green Party minister calls the announcement a career highlight.

“This funding increase will actually allow the department, once again, to be front and centre of conservation work, working alongside iwi, councils, community organisations and committed individuals and philanthropic investors.”

(Earlier this month, the National Party’s conservation spokeswoman Sarah Dowie was underwhelmed by the Government’s pest control announcement, calling the increase “barely more than inflation”. She said DOC’s budget, in total, grew by 20 percent under National and it made significant progress with programmes like Battle for our Birds.)

“We’ve got to get the best value for every dollar spent on conservation.” – Eugenie Sage

Sage says the funding boost means the department can “thrive again”. But her message is paired with one of financial responsibility.

“I’ve made it very clear, that the department has a reputation for being very thrifty in the way it spends money and that whole ethos has to continue. We’ve got to get the best value for every dollar spent on conservation so we maximise the funding for protecting natural landscapes, waters and threatened species and habitats.”

Under the previous government, DOC had to go cap-in-hand to central government to get additional, one-off funding boosts in predator plague years – when high level of beech seeds spark an explosion in rodent and stoat numbers. By locking extra money in for pest control, Sage says the department can now work with contractors, like helicopter operators, and they know there is a sustained programme of work over the next four years.

The money for biodiversity is a bit more complex – and won’t be spent immediately. “Unlocking that funding requires a business case that the Minister of Finance approves,” Sage says. “So we’ve got a bit more work to do in the freshwater and marine space, in particular, to ensure that there’s more resource going out. So that’s probably not till the next financial year that that’ll actually be spent.”

The $16.2 million to rebuild DOC’s capability is for things like maintenance of staff houses in remote areas like Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, on the South Island’s West Coast.

Mackenzie boost

It’s up to Director-General Lou Sanson to work out where the money’s best spent, Sage says. But she’s got a few suggestions. Like Resource Management Act advocacy – for DOC to have a stronger presence in front of councils when native species and habitats on private land are affected. And science policy – for example, about threatened species, that can feed into the work on the ground, like predator control and freshwater restoration.

At the bottom of Sage’s Budget Day press statement is $2.6 million “to fund better protection of the unique landscapes and biodiversity of the Mackenzie Basin”. The Minister says that’s to better implement the collaborative Mackenzie Agreement and might include money for the Mackenzie Country Trust.

“This money isn’t enough to do whole property purchases, but it is to actually look at the agreements that were made and how we’re actually going to implement them.”

So, another review, then? Sage is quick to shut down that argument.

“It’s not another review – it’s actually getting on and doing the job.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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