The Government considered bypassing the usual method for approving builds on conservation lands in early discussions around the fast-tracking infrastructure legislation, Marc Daalder reports

Projects on conservation land normally require a concession from the Department of Conservation (DoC), but Environment Minister David Parker floated bypassing this process to make it easier for projects that would stimulate economic recovery.

The idea came in the early stages of discussions around fast-tracking resource consents under the Resource Management Act (RMA). 

Documents released under the Official Information Act show DoC officials pushed back hard against the proposal, saying “there is no compelling policy reasons to include conservation approvals in the bill, either by authorising them through a bespoke process or by imposing a processing timeframe”.

Parker sought advice on whether just resource consents should be fast-tracked or whether other approvals and permissions could be subjected as well. In the end, the conservation agency won out, as the legislation introduced to Parliament last week deals only with resource consents and the conservation approval process remains intact.

Push for fast-tracked infrastructure

The New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi (NZTA) and KiwiRail informed the Department of Conservation that they were particularly keen on accelerating approvals under an array of conservation legislation that the agency has jurisdiction over – including the Conservation Act, the Reserves Act, the Wildlife Act, Freshwater Fisheries Regulations and possibly the Marine Reserves Act or Marine Mammals Act.

Conservation approvals are needed for projects that would take place on public conservation land or affect certain protected species.

The process NZTA sought would have given the transport agency wide powers to ignore or bypass conservation requirements, the DoC memo said.

“NZTA has based their thinking on the Kaikōura [Order-in-Council] model, where it was required that RMA consents and various conservation approvals be granted, and conditions specified. NZTA had the ability to choose whether to accept proposed conditions.

“It would mean that projects on conservation land or projects impacting on other conservation legislation administered by the department would be processed without any reference back to the department – beyond, potentially, a requirement to consult. But the decision-making power which currently rests with either the minister or the department would be transferred to an expert consenting panel to make decisions in relation to conservation land,” Forest & Bird’s general counsel Peter Anderson, who has led the group’s response to the RMA fast-tracking legislation, told Newsroom.

A DoC spokesperson declined to comment.

An NZTA spokesperson told Newsroom, “Waka Kotahi did promote the acceleration of all necessary environmental approvals required for our projects. 

“This included approvals granted by the Department of Conservation. It should be noted that while we sought to align the decision-making timeframes for conservation decisions with those for RMA decisions, as accelerated by the Fast Track Bill, Waka Kotahi did not seek to remove environmental protections or lower the outcomes sought.

“We are working closely and collaboratively with the Department of Conservation on improvements to processing and how we work together to ensure efficient processing of conservation-related approvals, in line with the Government’s desire to accelerate projects that go through the Fast Track Bill process.”

For his part, Parker said he had not proposed bypassing the conservation approval process, but had merely sought advice on doing so.

“I asked officials in various areas to look at the options, as we prepared legislation to fast-track consents. This includes advice on the advantages and disadvantages of fast-tracking approvals under conservation legislation,” he said.

“We concluded that amendments to the Conservation Act were unnecessary. Accordingly, the bill as presented to the House did not contain provisions to fast-track approvals under conservation legislation. It did contain provisions for DoC and the Climate Change Commission to be consulted by the panels considering projects.”

DoC concerned about wildlife and Treaty impacts

The memo from DoC’s policy director to the Ministry for the Environment official in charge of the RMA fast-tracking project shows officials were concerned the move could violate the agency’s Treaty of Waitangi obligations and put wildlife at risk.

“Not having the discretion to decline projects with effects on conservation values presents a major risk to New Zealand’s coast, species, freshwater and biodiversity values,” the memo stated.

The memo found that, if the proposal went ahead, “it is unlikely to be possible to uphold the objective to not undermine Treaty settlement legislation and give effect to Treaty principles as required by the Conservation Act”.

Good faith engagement with Treaty partners would have been compromised by a requirement to speed up the approval process or by any suggestion that a new consenting panel would take over the work, the memo argued. Some Treaty settlements also impose requirements on DoC regarding places or species, and bypassing approvals in these areas could violate the settlement.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, a member of the Green Party, told Newsroom she opposed the move.

“There was a suggestion in an early version of the RMA Covid fast-track paper that other legislation, including decision-making under conservation legislation, be included in a fast-track process. I did not support conservation legislation being included,” she said.

“It’s extremely concerning,” environmentalist Adam Currie said of Parker’s consideration of the fast-tracking of conservation approvals.

“He tried to totally fast-track it, to totally sideline these species that are at the brink of extinction in the middle of an ecological crisis. The fast-track bill is already leaving my generation with an economic debt to pay, we’ll just have an ecological debt to pay as well.”

Anderson also said the proposal to bypass conservation approvals was concerning.

“That proposal has not advanced for very good reasons. That would be totally unacceptable to us to have an expert consenting panel consenting activities on conservation land, in national parks. That wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said.

To Anderson, the proposal and DoC’s response are indicative of broader concerns with the RMA bill. He told Newsroom there’s a general worry among conservationists that projects that are bad for the environment could take advantage of laxer processes.

In the memo, DoC officials wrote that they were concerned the Government might try to rush offshore salmon farm proposals through the fast-track process, taking advantage of the lack of red tape. This would be despite the fact that economic benefits from the farms were a long way off.

“Because the environmental effects are unknown and the economic benefits to New Zealand will not be available for at least three years, DoC strongly oppose the offshore salmon farm proposals,” the memo stated. It also suggests that the Ministry for the Environment raised the issue of salmon farms as a genuine possibility.

“In the broader picture, you have projects that don’t have the merits to get through the proper RMA process and they’ll only get through because you’ve got a truncated process which moves the focus from sustainable management to economic recovery and allow most projects to go ahead, even if they’ve only got minimal economic recovery benefits,” Anderson said.

Officials were also explicit about this in the memo, writing that any proposal that needed a fast-tracked process to receive conservation approvals would not be justified by the circumstances.

If a project would have threatened habitats or species to the extent that DoC approval wouldn’t have been granted, then the project likely wouldn’t have met the obligation under the proposed legislation to ensure environmental outcomes were equal to or greater than economic outcomes, officials wrote.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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