“Communities Caring for their Coasts” Coastal Dune Vegetation Networks Conference, Wellington

  • Marian Hobbs

I’m a firm believer in the capacity of the community to make a (positive) environmental difference.

The community is the key. We need to turn the information you have into something the community understands and wants to use. The question is how to get the message to a wider community audience. Ask yourselves, “where is the greatest pressure on coastal dunes?” “who or what is causing this pressure?”, and “who in the community could make positive changes?” Get your information to them in a way that pushes those people’s buttons.

How many organizations are in your Coastal Dune Vegetation network? More than 200! That’s impressive, and that includes councils, CRIs, industry, tertiary education institutes, iwi, consultants, nurseries and community groups such as Beach Care and Coast Care. Each of those organizations and groups include large numbers of people within their networks. Look at coast care and beach care groups. I hear that there are 25 community groups of Coast Care volunteers throughout the Bay of Plenty. Eight community Beachcare groups are working on both the East and West coasts of the Waikato region. And they’re all over the country.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in trying to involve the community in management is speaking a common language, often my problem with community ownership of district plans. You already do this pretty well. Look at the great transfer of information that there is from your organization to the community – you have links all the way along the necessary network.

The challenge is how to expand it. Ask yourselves what you could do better, what are the gaps in information and what’s stopping those gaps from being filled with management solutions. Where have you got really effective uptake within the community and how can that be transferred to where this is not happening? What are the barriers to the community being involved? What does the community want? And remember, communities differ. Do they understand long-term coastal processes and the issues these present? How can you show leadership in coastal environmental management? I’d like to see you all leave this conference thinking about how to use your existing networks even more effectively and to consider innovative ways to move towards a clean and sustainable coastal environment, an environment that satisfies a multitude of demands – especially those within the community.

Like most New Zealanders, the coast is a special place to me – my preference is for the wild and natural south coast of Wellington, however I obviously don’t speak for the rest of Wellington. The South Coast reduces my high-flown policies to the practicality of surviving in the teeth of a southerly – exhilarating. Oriental Bay has lying room only on fine days, it’s as if the entire inner city population has togged up. It’s a great indication of how much people value the coast. Before it was a scraggy stony beach that we walked beside and now it’s the jewel of the harbour.
I was particularly interested in your case study in Days Bay. This sounds like a marvellous liaison within the whole community, including businesses in the area. It’s great to see businesses getting involved in more than just a sponsorship way and seeing the building of the community’s understanding of coastal processes and the dynamics of the coastal environment. The other case study that caught my eye was the Eastbourne scenario – this looks like it could be an interesting case of turning competing demands into a sustainable community outcome.

Government recognises the value of the coast. Take a look at our National Policy Statement – we have one. It’s for the coast. Dunes get a special mention in here, in particular their vulnerability to modification. This emphasizes the importance of the coastal area – and the balance necessary to enable development in a sustainable manner: Every community has different values, lifestyles that they want sustained. The difficult job is marrying those with natural/biological sustainability.

Dunes are the backbone of our beaches, the buffer between the land and the sea. They’re vulnerable and exposed to a legacy of change much of which is human induced. We know that native dune plants play a vital role in stabilising sand dunes. Without these plants, the sand blows away and dunes disappear, leaving the land vulnerable. In the old days the levelling of sand dunes between properties and the sea was a common practice of coastal development. Nowadays the pressures on dunes and dune vegetation are just as significant; we have grazing by stock, disturbance by development, exotic plant species overtaking natives. And to top it off you’ve got people trampling and driving on dunes and decimating native dune vegetation.
Over the past few years there appear to have been even more than the usual clamber for people to secure their piece of paradise, and in New Zealand that generally means a piece of the coast. The picture of the quintessential New Zealand holiday – beaches, barbeques and baches (or cribs if you’re from the deep South).

But what people often fail to realise is that the coast is a highly dynamic and fragile environment and its natural state is a state of flux. Storms can cause rapid changes to a beach, but recovery time may be much more gradual, and we can expect more of these storms according to climate change predictions. This doesn’t bode well for people’s idea of secured pieces of paradise. We’re then faced with situations where people are fighting with the sea to maintain their property – we see it all over New Zealand’s coastline – the car bodies piled up along the beach, car tyres, ad hoc barriers and concrete structures attempting to fend off the sea. How do you balance coastal planning and the pressures of development with restoration and the maintenance of healthy dune ecosystems?
You know this – it’s your bread and butter. You use your knowledge to promote and encourage sustainable coastal development. We need to get people to live in harmony with the dynamics of the coast and accept that part of the natural coastal process is erosion.
And what do I do? And what does the Ministry for the Environment do? As Minister for the Environment I want to support and lead community initiatives in caring for the environment. To facilitate this, the Ministry for the Environment has set up a Group (Corporate and Community) to promote environmental awareness and action in the community. The main funding avenues for supporting practical community initiatives that I see relating to your work are:
§The Sustainable Management Fund
§The Environment Centres
§The New Zealand Landcare Trust (which MfE funds to the tune of $450K/year)

And who else is there to work with? It is my strong belief that young people can make a real difference to the environment. Engaging their hearts and minds with the sustainable development of New Zealand is something I am strongly committed to. One of the great things about many of the dune care groups I see out there is the involvement of young people. This is how the perception of the coast and its dynamic nature will change in the community. The leaders of tomorrow are the young people of today and investing in them - building their confidence and experience is another form of sustainable development.

Towards this end, the Ministry for the Environment’s Sustainable Management Fund has assisted in funding the development of a Coastal Management kit for Schools called “Life’s a Beach”. Environment Bay of Plenty pulled together this kit. “Life’s a Beach” seeks to promote awareness and understanding of beaches and in particular dunes. It’s a great example of transfer of information from technical experts to students and, knowing what kids are like, on to the wider community.

Other tools to come out of the Sustainable Management Fund are the Coastal Dune Vegetation Network Guidelines for seed collection, propagation and establishment bulletins (see the ones for sand tussock and pingao). Great pieces of work the Ministry for the Environment is proud to be able to fund.

The Ministry for the Environment has been encouraging community action to establish a clean and sustainable environment by funding environment centres since 2000. There are currently 25 centres in operation with an average of 10 receiving funding from the Ministry in any given year. These are great information hubs that you could use to get your knowledge out there.

And the Landcare Trust is another great information hub. In November last year the New Zealand Landcare trust ran a ‘catchments to coastlines’ workshop. A predominant theme through this was the importance of communities in integrated management. Apart from pointing out that sustainability is the number one buzzword in every politician’s speech, this workshop identified, apart from funding, two key ingredients needed to achieve this goal of sustainable development:
§One, science and the communication of research, and
§Two, the power of the community

Communities and action groups need science. Past mistakes are evidence of this, the obvious example - marram grass used to stabilise beaches and extend farming into the coast. Mike Hilton in your network has been battling with marram grass on Stewart Island for years. If science was in place in the beginning we might not be dealing with intended solutions that have turned into problems. But Science needs to be accessible to those people that will be applying it – the ones with the immediate management problems. That’s the challenge I put out to you.

I’m not here to tell you how to do your job. You know far more than me all the issues around dune revegetation programmes. What I want to emphasise is that the community needs to know what you know, and there needs to be a knowledge exchange. There’s a wealth of knowledge invested in the community. This is why your theme “communities caring for their coasts” is so appropriate. In working with communities we get to understand what they want and how they are prepared to achieve it. There is a much better chance of a project succeeding if the people who will be most affected by it are an integral part of the project.

So, what have we got?
§A dynamic coast faced with increasing development pressure, and it seems we can expect more storms and coastal fluctuation
§Communities with power – they are the ones affecting and being affected by the coast
§A challenge to you to think about how to get knowledge out to the community even more effectively.

There will always be people within the community who are sold on the idea of sympathetic coastal management – they are the easy ones to get on board. The challenge is working with the ones who do not have the same understanding of coastal processes and the environmental values. Make these people understand the dynamics of the environment they see as a recreational, cultural and economic treasure and at the same time listen to what they value. You then have the platform for working towards sustainable coastal management solutions.