• Simon Upton

Wellington Town Hall

I want to focus my discussion on biodiversity - and its relationship to sustainable land management.

More than a few questions have been asked about whether biodiversity is really a different matter - or the same business under a different label.

Let me say that I think both are pivotal to how New Zealand views its environmental future - and to how it will maintain its international environmental profile, and hence build a niche for itself in the competitive global economy.

As I see it, sustaining biodiversity is a performance issue for New Zealand - and for "resource management New Zealand" in particular.

What do I mean by that?

Sustainability is a word that can make a whole lot of good connections - in our minds or in the market place. It ties together good environmental performance with stewardship, with our obligations to future generations, with economic competitiveness.

But it is also a word that can equally hide a multitude of sins. The steady decline of our indigenous biodiversity is one of these.

Biodiversity is one index by which we can measure our environmental performance, and thus judge just how "sustainable" our land management practices are.

If we are to make that quantum change set out in the biodiversity strategy - to halt the decline in New Zealand's biodiversity - and if we can prove that we have made that shift at the national, the regional, the district, and the community level, then we will know that we are managing our land more sustainably. But, if every indicator is saying that biodiversity is in decline, we can waffle all we like about sustainable management systems. The proof is in real performance.

Let me be specific.

There is world of difference between a stand of poplars down the farm, and a stand of kahikatea. Good planting holds hillsides, and I am not depreciating the work of soil conservators. But one of these species has a heritage of 150 years in this country; the other has a heritage of 80 million years.

When you no longer heard the cry of the kiwi at night from the scrub down the end of the farm - once a call heard all over the north island - it is not a call that has moved on for a season. It has most likely moved on forever.

The small pockets of native species which lie scattered across the North or South Island landscape are not equal alternatives to woodlots and windbreaks. They are the last strands of a long and proud history of the land.

The fading of the dawn chorus is not something over which we as New Zealanders exercise no control. To the contrary, every loss reflects not a conscious decision of neglect - but the absence of systems that take into account the particular needs of native species as well as other needs.

The decline in our native biodiversity is not the consequence of occasional action.

The state of the environment report described the decline in New Zealand's biodiversity is our most pervasive environmental issue.

Such an issue warrants a more systematic response. It is for that reason that the Government identified biodiversity as one of its top ten strategic priorities. And why I personally established a Ministerial Advisory Committee under John Kneebone to advise me on the merits of preparing a National Policy Statement on the matter.

I am looking forward to releasing the MAC report. I anticipate that it will have implications for sustainable land management. The report will be available in early November. The MAC will consult on it and receive comments until the end of February 2000. I particularly look forward to comments from your association who will inevitably play a key role biodiversity management in the future .

Where do you fit into this picture?

I know that you are not by and large a bunch of planners and lawyers - they had their bash in Christchurch at the RMLA conference only last week. Rather, you pride yourself as the practical people of resource management - the ones who get more than proverbial mud on their gumboots.

Well, I would say that biodiversity deserves your direct and technical attention every bit as much as the other key strands of sustainable land management to which you are committed.

New Zealand led the world with its development of practical measures to halt soil conservation. Not by high-minded policy, but by sound legislation, a purpose made institutional framework in the form of catchment boards, and most of all, good people on the ground.

Now, we moved on from those sound beginnings to develop legislation that sets out an even higher and more integrated environmental management purpose - the Resource Management Act. And some of the concepts in it still lead the world. We have moved beyond the sustainability of soils to other principles such as "safeguarding the life supporting capacity of air, water, soil and ecosystems". But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that because we have spelt out a high level principle, we know how to give it practical traction.

The papers at this conference - on sustainable land management issues, and on biodiversity issues - will take us to the leading edge of some of these areas. We now have a Biodiversity Strategy to sit alongside our Sustainable Land Management Strategy. But it will take the practical engagement of people like you, your organisations, the communities they serve, and the land owners you work with, to turn the strategy into performance.

Where are we at right now on this matter?

Many people seem to believe that managing biodiversity "is a DoC issue". But a Crown public agency can only go so far. We need to work from the grass roots, and we need to get all of New Zealand's resource management agencies aligned.

A recent stocktake Survey of Local Government and Community Initiatives to Sustain Biodiversity completed in August threw up some very revealing information about who is responsible for managing our biodiversity assets.

For instance the stocktake found that while many councils recognise the importance of the biodiversity issue only half regarded the issue as medium priority or higher for their organisation. Most believed that "some other" agency should take the lead. As I have said above, we can't afford this attitude.

Council responses to the stocktake gave a clear indication that many councils question their role in biodiversity management. Some councils do not consider it is part of their core functions but a number note that their actions to meet other goals have indirect benefits for biodiversity .

It also appears that there is a lack of understanding, particularly amongst elected representatives, about the issue and what councils are able to do about it.

Information sharing amongst agencies and individuals with biodiversity responsibilities is lacking as is co-ordination of effort.

Very few pest control programmes aim at protecting threatened indigenous habitats - fewer again aim at protecting many habitats identified as significant and controlled by district councils.

Land owners are, in the end, amongst the citizens with the closest interest in these matters.

Much biodiversity remains within the stewardship of farmers and other private land owners, and its survival depends upon their day to day decisions.

Landowners' views about the responsibilities they have towards biodiversity are varied.

Many sense that being a good steward involves looking after the land - what it sustains and what sustains it. Others seem to believe that landowners have no role or responsibility whatsoever.

These attitudes are determined, in part, by differing views about property rights - a notion that is poorly understood. The uncertainty over the legitimate role of landowners is clearly visible amongst local government, whose expectations of landowners vary markedly around the country.

Who should have which responsibilities?

From a first review of the stocktake results, there is little consensus about the management responsibilities - the collection of information, the assessment of sites, the provision of incentives.

Most of these responsibilities seem to be carried out on a "if motivated and can afford" basis.

A common comment recorded by the stocktake was "not sure who has responsibility for biodiversity or who is accountable"

I am open to informed and reasoned debate on this subject. However, I believe there is a need for sub-national agencies assuming a lead role. The agency that takes this lead role should have the following characteristics:

* administrative boundaries that are closely align with ecological boundaries,
* expertise in bio-physical management,
* be capable of accommodating multi-statutory responsibilities,
* established networks with rural communities and expertise and experience working with individual landowners.

I have already stated my preference for biodiversity management at the Local Government New Zealand Conference in July. I think the agencies that best fit the characteristics outlined above are regional councils but there are other options and I am keen to hear the debate.

As most of this audience should already know, I am one of the strongest defenders of regional councils. I know the quality of the personnel at the regional level and I am confident that on reflection they would agree that divorcing responsibilities for water, soil, air, and coastal management from responsibilities for biodiversity hardly constitutes integrated management.

That is not to say that territorial authorities don't also have a role. I believe that they do. Biodiversity management is one of those issues that need to be recognised at all tiers of government.

These are complex issues.

Biodiversity management lies at the RMA's interface with other environmental statutes and about performance under those statutes. The biodiversity decline is increasingly referred to as New Zealand's most pervasive environmental problem. I feel passionately that the Government must marshal all the nation's resources if we are to meet the challenge. A National Policy Statement under the RMA is not the final answer but I firmly believe that it is part of it. I will be disappointed if the possibility of an NPS isn't greeted with an open mind at the very least.

The NPS should, in my view, be accepted as it is intended - as an offer of assistance and recognition of a genuinely national problem.

In the end, the actions of land-owners are the key to success

The final point I want to make today is the huge responsibility and role that private landowners can take in caring for our nation's unique biodiversity. It is all very well saying this but there needs to be a real commitment by central and local government to encouraging and achieving changes in landowner activities and practices which are detrimental to biodiversity. In all, we all need to make some changes in the way we think and work.

Without a doubt, New Zealanders have the capacity to meet this challenge. To believe that good intentions alone will do the work is to fool ourselves. Equally, to believe that regulation alone will work is equally foolish. As my review of the Sustainable Land Management Strategy noted, past government interventions that have focused on single policy methods have had limited success in promoting the adoption of sustainable land management practices. We need to consider a mix of approaches that include voluntary methods, regulation and incentives.

Changes in landowner practices require public commitment to providing financial and technical resources. It is also reliant on the advice and advocacy work of land management professionals.

The Ministerial Advisory Committee will be reporting to me shortly on the specifics of how the Government can address the issues surrounding the protection of the biodiversity and habitats on private land.

But even now, we know that the Government can help support efforts of others through the programmes operating under the Sustainable Land Management Strategy. I can see for example that the provision of information, coordination of science, and initiatives such as the Landcare Trust, can help to support the efforts of land management professionals and farmers.

There is little information, for example, on the minimum areas of indigenous vegetation needed to sustain the values of different types of scarce habitats, or the range of habitat necessary to provide year-round feed for different indigenous bird species. There is also little information on the most cost-effective actions to manage particular threats, for example to aquatic ecosystems. If landowners are to be enthusiastic about fencing off remnant pieces of bush or riparian margins, then they need to know that the effort involved will be worthwhile and achieve the intended outcome.

As far as science is concerned, we do not know how far the state of biodiversity is in decline and at what rate, and the extent to which their management effort have been effective. There is limited information on the ecological condition of remaining natural areas, such as how severely they have been affected by possums, or what species are at risk of loss from predators.

So what are we doing to get the answer?

Rather than wait until we have the perfect answer, we need to set ourselves some outcomes or goals, and to measure our progress towards them by developing verifiable and time-bound performance measures. That will be essential if we are to find out "what works" and "what is needed" in management terms. Until now, Government has been hamstrung in measuring the effectiveness of its policies because it has never established, in quantifiable terms, where it wants to be at any point in future.

Just to give one example, the Government's draft Hill Country Action Plan, which I understand will be outlined later today, proposes an outcome "that all hill country land is managed within its capability to withstand erosion, by 2050", and a set of performance indicators to help measure progress towards that outcome. One of the suggested performance indicators includes "the area of indigenous forest on all classes of land in the hill country". The target for this indicator is "no net loss in overall area from 30 June 1999". This performance indicator can also act as one of a set of indicators to measure trends in the state of biodiversity. Of course, future research programmes would need to be aligned with outcomes such as these.

This is the annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Resource Managers. Most of you in this room work with landowners - as land managers for regional councils, landcare facilitators or consultants. Many of you prepare environmental farm plans, give advice on soil conservation and riparian management. You are in the front line. You are the ones to whom land owners turn for sustainable land management advice and assistance.

Sustaining biodiversity cannot be achieved by leaving it to "others" - it requires positive action and support from us all if we are to halt the decline and provide a sustainable future. In many cases, it will be your personal enthusiasm, knowledge and advocacy that will galvanise landowners behind the biodiversity crusade. If you are bored, off-hand, authoritarian, inflexible and hectoring, you can be sure that landowners will switch off and probably try to avoid you. If you are enthusiastic, well-informed, a good listener, keen to tap into local knowledge and keen to establish a good working partnership, you will win over hearts and minds.

The legacy of the past is so big that turning the tide of biodiversity loss is way beyond governments, central, regional or local, even with a big cheque book. Mobilising every landowner is the key. It's also possible, given the right attitude and a commitment to pool resources and expertise.

I wish you well.