Kākāriki. Photo: Craig Nash CC BY 2.0

A policy aimed at protecting indigenous wildlife, which has struggled to gain consensus, is on its final dash to the finish line. Public support is strong, but landowners and industry still have concerns

The National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity, which will force councils to identify significant natural areas, including on private land, is hoped to improve the outlook for New Zealand’s 4000 threatened species

Not all are happy with the proposed policy, with submissions expressing concern about how areas on private land will be identified, and the impact on private landowners’ ability to use their land.

On the other side are conservationists, who say rules protecting wildlife are lacking for the two-thirds of the country which isn’t part of the conservation estate. With 4000 species threatened with extinction, it’s time to get on with meaningful and enforced rules, they say 

“Stop faffing around,” said one submitter.

In total 7305 submissions responded to the discussion document. Most came via a Forest & Bird template, set up to make responding to the 62 posed questions easy. The environmental advocacy group has around 80,000 members.

There were also 730 submissions  from individuals, landowners, businesses, councils, iwi, crown and science and research organisations.

Support for the policy was strong, with 95.5 percent of submitters supporting it either wholly, or in part.

Subtracting the submissions made via the Forest & Bird template and the numbers change a little. There’s still support but it drops to 55 percent. Of the submitter groups, business and industry and landowners were least likely to fully support the policy, although a high percentage of landowners supported it, in part. 

Forest & Bird’s Lynley Hargreaves didn’t see Labour’s landslide election win as a worry, despite speculation farmers shifted their votes to Labour as a way of keeping the Green Party out of a coalition – and talk that Labour might take a softly-softly approach to changes potentially affecting farmers.

“This is something that is so important that it should transcend party politics. It’s also been clearly signalled, a long time in the making, and very collaborative, with groups involved in the development ranging from Forest & Bird to Federated Farmers.”

She hopes the policy will be in place by April 2021, after the original mid-2020 target was delayed by Covid-19.

The background

The National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity has had a stop-start history. Work began in 2007, but stopped in 2011 after nobody could agree. In 2016 another attempt to get it over the line was made. This culminated in a document released in 2019, the subject of this year’s consultation.

Once in place, the policy would offer indigenous wildlife on private land legal protection. At present, protection is haphazard. If wildlife isn’t listed in the Wildlife Act, or protected by individual council rules, there’s little which can be done to stop private landowners destroying habitat.

This played out in Canterbury where the Eyrewell beetle is on the Department of Conservation’s list of 150 priority species, but not listed in the Wildlife Act. Despite years of campaigning, staff from the DoC were unable to stop Ngai Tahu Farming from turning its habitat into intensive dairying. No beetles have been found since the conversion to dairying. 

When the proposed policy was released in 2019, then-Associate Minister for the Environment Nanaia Mahuta said it would go some way to stopping “drawn out legal battles”.

“Under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) councils are required to maintain and protect indigenous biodiversity. However the RMA has not given councils clear enough direction on how to achieve this. We have seen a serious decline in our native plants, animals and habitats in parts of the country and we need to do more to address that situation.”

The submissions summarised

In the 173 page summary of submissions some key themes emerged.

Reasons why submitters support the proposed National Policy for Indigenous Biodiversity (NPSIB) included that it: 
• will help address the decline of indigenous biodiversity in New Zealand, which is urgently needed 
• will clarify council responsibilities for implementing Resource Management Act  rules requiring the maintenance of indigenous biodiversity 
• has the potential to increase the ability of Māori to exercise their rights as kaitiaki

Reasons why submitters were opposed to the proposed NPSIB include: 
• risk of unintended consequences or perverse outcomes for indigenous biodiversity if the NPSIB is implemented 
• concern that the NPSIB may unduly prevent activities relating to forestry, farming, and the provision of infrastructure and energy 
• belief that the NPSIB will be too resource-intensive and costly to implement, and does not allow for regional variations in biodiversity, management approaches, and council resource 
• concern about the process of engagement with Māori during the development of the NPSIB, and the impacts of implementation for Māori land 
• concern that the NPSIB may breach private property rights 
• belief that requiring restoration as well as protection is beyond the purpose of the RMA outlined for regional councils, and that protection should be prioritised

Identifying the special places

The policy includes a few key activities. Councils would be required to map areas of “Significant Natural Areas” (SNAs) within their boundaries and rank them as high or medium. These areas could be council-owned land, or privately-owned land. The biodiversity in those areas would be monitored, and reported on by councils. 

To date, this identification process has been patchy. Around 40 percent of councils don’t have any significant areas listed in their plans. Of the councils which have identified and listed them, only 19 percent have lists considered comprehensive. 

This is integral to the policy, but one of the sticking points where private property rights and biodiversity needs clash.

Trouble accessing private land is one reason given in submissions. The Greater Wellington Regional Council said this was a common logistical issue. As a result, it concluded “Poorly resourced districts, and districts with resistant land owners” have chosen to defer the identification and mapping of SNAs. 

The council also raised political issues as a barrier to mapping areas:  “The fact it has been a risky proposition for local politicians – if you get it wrong, they vote you out”. 

Kāpiti Coast District Council suggested the mapping of SNAs should be done by the Department of Conservation to “ensure consistency throughout the country, relieve and reduce friction between landowners and councils and increase collaboration between DOC and councils on biodiversity protection and restoration.”

Others thought the mapping should be coordinated by the Ministry for the Environment. 

There were fears the criteria for what constituted land which should be identified as a SNA were too broad and “would identify virtually all indigenous biodiversity as significant” and fears the criteria weren’t clear enough and identification could end up being subjective.

A number of submitters said there needs to be incentives to make it economically viable for landowners to protect SNAs. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Waimakariri District Council said this would reduce the risk of SNAs getting cleared before the policy came into effect. 

What happens if your land has a significant natural area on it?

Once SNAs have been identified, the proposed policy says local authorities would be responsible if four things occurred:

  • a loss of ecosystem representation and extent

  • disruptions to ecology

  • fragmentation between ecosystems

  • a reduction in the population size or occupancy of species listed as threatened or at risk of extinction in New Zealand’s threat classification system

Comments from landowners about the impact of the policy when managing existing activities, such as farming, included concern about property rights being eroded:

“In essence, this measure will effectively prevent me ever revisiting the use of the land. Private property rights are a fundamental right underpinning our society and legal system. It is my right to choose how I use my resources and whether I choose to share the benefits of that property use with others,” said one landowner.

The proposed policy doesn’t impact existing activities, as long as the impact on biodiversity doesn’t increase over time. Changing farming activities may require council approval. 

Federated Farmers, which was involved in the group that came up with a draft policy, submitted a 208-page submission.

Among its many recommendations was one to consider treating regions individually: “Concerns do remain, however, for those regions containing a substantial proportion of significant indigenous biodiversity, particularly where this is already highly represented within the conservation estate and where there are small ratepayer bases, and only limited remaining areas for production (and contribution of rates). Within the BCG process, we flagged that the West Coast of the South Island was a region that would face real difficulties in this regard.”

Checking the rules are obeyed 

The policy suggests regional councils develop a monitoring framework for indigenous biodiversity. Most of the submitters thought this was a good idea. Others thought councils shouldn’t be responsible, but did have a desire for monitoring to be undertaken in a nationally consistent way.

This desire was shared by councils. South Taranaki District said without the same criteria across the board: “data obtained through monitoring will be incompatible from one area to the next.”

Others felt monitoring costs needed to be recovered from taxpayers rather than ratepayers. Councils across New Zealand have varying numbers of staff devoted to monitoring, with inconsistencies seen in enforcement in some areas

One submitter considered monitoring essential. In a scathing comment, focused on continued degradation of wetlands, she said: “… national, regional and local policies keep coming. The calling on comment for freshwater, the catchment, the coastal, shoreline management, native fish…lists go on. There is a whole industry around it. And none of it fucking matters, for nothing changes. If serious there would be monitoring and compliance to go with policy, but it never happens so why bother? 

“I  say New Zealand will lose even more wetlands to a point where we will be hoping to spot any surviving wildlife scraping out an existence in the drains. Gutters will become the only refuge.”

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