NEW DIRECTIONS FOR CONSERVATION

  • Nick Smith
Conservation

STATE OF THE NATION ANNUAL ADDRESS
NELSON WEST ROTARY CLUB

Thank you for the invitation and welcome. It is a great pleasure to be with you this evening. The saying "wild horses would not have stopped me" - even Kaimanawa ones is an apt way of expressing my enthusiasm to address you.

On December the fifteenth, I got a phone call from the Prime Minister saying he had a little job for me. He had previously asked me to drop him a note on areas I had an interest in. Being the well behaved and dutiful backbencher that I have always been, I did as told. I outlined my passion for conservation and some of the directions I would want to take. Tonight I want to expand on these. But I also included in my note, my interest in Social Welfare and Education. An error that could prove fatal was that I forgot to put some "ors" in the note and have been entrusted with three portfolios, all of which have huge workloads. Combine these with my responsibilities to the community of Nelson, I have a busy year ahead of me.

I pick up the portfolio after six years of careful stewardship by my colleague Denis Marshall. In the proceeding three years the department had three ministers. Denis provided stability and leadership and I want to put on the public record my thanks for his contribution. As a green to this job in more ways than one, I will be valuing Denis' counsel as I come to grips with this portfolio.

As I indicated earlier, tonight I want to talk conservation. It is my major portfolio and I want to use this opportunity to give a clear steer of my future ambitions for the Department. Some people look at DOC and think I've got a mug's job - the baggage of Ca ve Creek, the Kaimanawa Horses, the huge estate, a thin budget, the hot-bed of interest groups. All of these don't make for an easy ride but I relish the challenge.

The Department's function goes to the heart of what it is to be a New Zealander. Whether you sit on a rock in Anapai Bay; whether you watch the stars from the veranda of the Angelus Hut; and when you feel the warmth of the sun rising over the Mt Arthur Tablelands, the experience is New Zealand at its best. Our landscape, our bush, our wildlife is unique, and perhaps what is even more special is that you can enjoy it in solitude. What other country on earth can you enjoy such privileges without a six figure bank account or having to share it with thousands of others. We are blessed with a priceless heritage. My job is to protect that heritage, so you can continue to enjoy it, your children can do likewise and so can their children and their children's children.

Tonight I want to set out my plans for giving the conservation a new sense of direction. I have ten key goals to achieving this end. I want to use tonight as an opportunity to expand and explore these.

The first is addressing the deficiencies identified in the Department from Cave Creek. We must be damn sure we get it right. We must front up to the hard decisions and then put it behind us.

My second challenge is to achieve a fundamental rethink of conservation as an investment in our heritage and not just a spending drain on the public purse.

The third area of focus must be the marine environment. Protecting land based ecosystems is mainstream politics today, but our attitude and approach to the ocean environment is miles behind the pace.

The fourth priority key area is pest control. Possums, rats and even the dear pussy cat pose the greatest threat to our native flora and fauna. We need to get better at killing them. The direction I want to give DOC is increasing our research effort in finding better methods of control.

A fifth priority is improving relationships with key sector groups, most notably farmers and Maori. DOC staff are often perceived as bunch of bungling bureaucrats by these sectors yet if we are to make progress on some of the key conservation challenges, their respect and co-operation is essential.

A sixth point is the need for the Department to resort less often to red tape and complex statutes. We have a far better chance of delivering a nation of conservationists by persuasion and education than by rules and regulation.

A seventh and under-rated challenge relates to our historic buildings and places. Ensuring DOC delivers on its responsibilities to both our building as well as natural heritage is a policy challenge high on my agenda.

My eighth goal is getting progress on a comprehensive biodiversity strategy for New Zealand. Biodiversity was a key theme of the Earth Summit I attended in Rio five years ago and poses one of the most difficult scientific and public policy questions of our generation. It is not a particularly sexy issue but it is a very real one.

My ninth objective is to extend the horizons of the conservation debate beyond just trees and birds. My goal is to be a proactive voice for conservation that interacts with the big picture policy debates about the future social and economic direction of our country.

Finally the last of my ten goals for conservation is an attitudinal shift. I want the land administered by DOC to be known as public land - not DOC land. There is an important difference.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of some of these issues, I want to share with you a few lighter tidbit's from the Perigo Glossary on understanding Ministerial papers.

I'm sure you will agree with the advice that I found pinned on my wall when I occupied my new office in the beehive.

Sustainable resource management:
ban on painting your woolshed.
A government decision:
Government capitulation to bureaucrats.
A coalition decision:
Government capitulation to Winston Peters.
Consensus government decision:
Government capitulation to Jim Anderton.
Local bodies:
small-time petty fascists.
Statutory bodies:
big-time petty fascists.
Civil servant:
An otherwise unemployable person who is neither civil nor disposed to serve.

Royal Commission:
The first refuge of politicians confronted with an issue that might lose them votes.

Task force:
The second refuge of politicians confronted with an issue that might lose them votes.

Long-term, hard-core unemployed:
Politicians and bureaucrats.
Criminal:
someone who does without a mandate what politicians do with one.
Hardened criminal:
veteran politician.
Recidivist criminal:
Defeated MP who goes back at the next election.
On a more serious note, I want to point out what I am not planning to do. There has been all sorts of speculation about what the direction I want to give conservation, little of it accurate. I need to make it clear I do not want the Department broken up into autonomous business units. The core services DOC offers in the management of public land are visitor services, land management, species protection and conservation advocacy. I'm a pragmatist and for all the theoretical analysis of the Business Round Table or Treasury, it would be practically impossible to have four different services running under separate management for the same area of land. The founders of the department had an integrated approach to conservation at its core. I am a strong believer in this approach.

Good staff are pivotal for the Department to be able to deliver. We are very fortunate to have a group of incredibly dedicated people who go well beyond their paid duties to assist the work of conservation. What I want to see from the present restructuring of the Department is the harnessing of this energy into a more effective Department.

1. ADDRESSING DEFICIENCIES ARISING FROM CAVE CREEK
I have a responsibility as Minister of Conservation to correct the damning deficiencies identified in the Department in the wake of Cave Creek.

Searching for who should take the blame for the tragedy is not part of my agenda. Instead my focus is putting right the department to ensure that the gross breaches of public responsibility are not repeated.

Four issues need to be addressed

The first is creating proper quality systems to ensure that the work of the Department is up to scratch. This work involves reviewing all of the fourteen and a half thousand structures within the conservation estate and putting in place the sort of systems that will ensure that all future work is defined in terms of quality and then checked to make sure it meets that standard. These quality assurance systems go way beyond structures. Proper quality systems are just as essential in 1080 poison programmes, resource consent submissions and recovery programmes for endangered species. This work, initiated by my predecessor Denis Marshall, is well advanced.

The second has been to boost the department's funding. This was addressed with an injection of an extra 60 million dollars over three years in the '96 Budget green package. This funding is providing the sort of resources to enable the Department to lift its act in visitor services and in new conservation initiatives.

The third point is the internal management and organisational structure changes that were announced just over a week ago. These changes will strengthen management accountability and allow for new leadership and a clear sense of direction.

The final issue for me to address is the skill balance within the Department. It is my view that when the DOC was formed from the old Forest Service and Department of Lands and Survey too many of the people with hands on practical skills were lost in favour of people with purely ecological skills. We need to get that balance right. The other consequential issues arriving from Cave Creek are outside my portfolio. First is resolving compensation issues with families and the second is changing the law to ensure that departments are as accountable as anybody else for breaches of the Building Act or the Occupational Health and Safety regulations. State agencies should not in future be treated any differently than any private sector organisation when their is such a clear breach of public duty.

2. CONSERVATION AS INVESTMENT
The cost accounting bean counters tend to see conservation expenditure merely as a cost item. They tend to discount the benefit of expenditure, while costs accumulate over time, benefits disperse and diminish. I want to see conservation expenditure as a public investment; an investment which accumulates and does not diminish. An investment which shows increasing and multiplying public benefits. My objective is to ensure that you get a return on your investment. But a return on investment may not be measured just in terms of money.

We will never see some birds our parents or grandparents knew - like the Huia, the Piopio, the laughing owl or the bushwren. What price do you put on their permanent loss? Will our children's children ever see the kakapo, the kokako or the kiwi? Extinction is real. Extinction is forever. It is the key task of conservation to prevent these and protect the natural habitats and communities of the plants and animals that give New Zealand its own distinctive character and identity.

We must invest in preserving and protecting endangered species of flora and fauna. The problem is huge on a global scale. In New Zealand there are currently four hundred and three species or subspecies recognised as being threatened with extinction - a list that is likely to grow as we learn more. To put this is into international terms each is of the same threatened status as the Californian Condor in America - and they spent twenty two million dollars trying to save that one species of bird. In New Zealand half a million dollars would achieve a combined rat and cat eradication programme from the Kermadec Islands that would remove at least 15 species from the threatened species list.

3. MARINE PROTECTION - A NEW FOCUS
The conservation ethic on land is today part of the mainstream. We have set aside for conservation purposes nine million hectares, or a third of the land mass of New Zealand. Leadership is now required to take that conservation ethic beyond the coast. Less than one percent of our marine environment has been set aside for conservation purposes. The challenge is to convince both the recreational and commercial fishers of the merits of setting aside parts of the marine environment for protection.

There are specific marine reserve proposals in Akaroa, Kaikoura and Stewart Island that I want to progress. The Coalition Government policy has an ambitious plan for the establishment of a Hauraki Gulf Marine Park on the doorstep of our major metropolitan city.

On the home front I find it a strange anomaly that the Abel Tasman National Park ends at high water mark. The beauty of Abel Tasman is as much its coastline as the native bush. I will be pursuing an extension of the park to include the foreshore during my term as minister.

4. KILLING FOR SURVIVAL
Pests are the greatest threat to the survival of our natural heritage. Expenditure on pest and weed control has increased dramatically and one of the biggest single budget item in conservation. We are doing better, but we are still not winning.

Possums are our number one problem. Literally the sixty million little beasties are eating our heritage. They eat twenty thousand tonnes of it each night. They alone are responsible for canopy collapse and species loss over huge areas of our native forests.

The extent of the damage and problem is becoming clearer by the day. I am to receive new research data within the next week that indicates the possums are doing far more damage than first thought to our beech forests.

It is ironic that a century ago politicians were arguing with the then Premier, Dick Seddon over whose electorate would next be allowed to have the possum introduced. He took great pride in the fact that some of the first possums were released in his home electorate on the West Coast. In a strange turn of events MP's now argue over who is to get funding for possum control.

Talking of possums have you heard the joke about how you can spot the difference between a squashed possum and a squashed politician on the highway to Wellington. It's easy. The possum is preceded by skidmarks.

The story of the possum is a harsh reminder of how cautious we need to be about introducing new species to our fragile environment. I spent the best part of the last parliamentary term chairing a select committee re-writing our statutes to provide a far more robust process for considering species introductions.

You no doubt will be aware of the level of controversy our 1080 poisoning of possums is causing. I am no fan of 1080 and indeed its use does carry some risks. The harsh reality is that it is the best tool currently available to control the possum plague.

The challenge for our scientists is to find new better methods of control. I want to see our research effort in this regard beefed up while we try to hold the line with 1080. It is like trying to build a new dyke with one hand while the other plugs the hole in the old sea wall.

But possums aren't the only threat. Our native species are under attack from goats, deer, thar, wasps, stoats, ferrets, weasels, cats, dogs and even horses. (But we won't talk about them today).

A measure of the complexity is that the Department's weed strategy has to prioritise expenditure on 270 problem plants. A stronger emphasis on researching new technologies for control is the direction I want to give this particularly important work of the Department.

5. IMPROVING COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS
Currently, many farmers perceive Doc as a bunch of bungling bureaucrats telling them what to do with their land. DOC needs to get alongside the rural community and develop a rapport as a good neighbour. Conservationist and farmers actually have far more issues in common than issues on which they conflict. Water quality, pest control, weed control and erosion - to name but a few.

One of the first steps I want to take to improve relationships with farmers is to ensure the Department makes a fair contribution to regional councils for pest and weed control, rather than the full burden being on the private land owner.

IWI
A key priority for me is improving the DOC relationship with Maori. Obviously the relationship is complex and multifaceted and we should not expect to agree on everything. However, there is a "green-pakeha" intellectual arrogance towards Maori from some environmentalists that is patronising and dismissive. Maori have much to contribute to the conservation debate and their cultural heritage offers some unique ways of managing difficult problems. The relationship is about land and resources. Because DOC now manages nearly all the Crown lands not specifically allocated to community uses such as schools, it is the agency that has the greatest interaction with Iwi about land-based taonga. Some lands are subject to Treaty claims and real grievances exist. Care is needed on both sides in the management of this important relationship.

The challenge is to build a bridge between the Department and Maori. Our coalition partner, New Zealand First offers a unique opportunity is this regard. This is not just an issue for politicians. Conservation groups have got to get their heads around the Maori issue and stop saying this is just a government problem. It is an issue for all New Zealanders.

6. REWARDING LANDOWNER INITIATIVES
The trickiest part of the department's work is the clash between the community conservation values and private property rights. There is a very fine balance point. People are protective of their land and particularly dislike being told what to do.

Too often we resort to red tape and complex statutes and under estimate the value of persuasion and education.

There can be no greater contrast than the various approaches chosen by councils in implementing the Resource Management Act. Some have chosen a rules and regulations approach and in many cases without proper consultation. This has generated a huge amount of community distrust for the conservation cause. Next door in Tasman is a classic example. Although I acknowledge that they are getting back on the right path.

In contrast many councils have taken a more adventurous approach to conservation on private land. They have used the processes in the Resource Management Act to protect natural features with the use of incentives, rewards and voluntary protection. I think this approach has a far better chance of success.

On a national level, I am also a fan of the voluntary approach to protecting conservation values on private land. The success and value for money we achieve from the Forest Heritage Fund and Nga Whenua Rahui is some of the best value for money that we receive from the public investment through vote conservation. Since 1990 these two funds have seen the protection of almost a quarter of a million hectares covering 750 projects. There are outstanding examples in areas like the Clarence Reserve and Seaward Valley in Marlborough. The Waitakere ranges in Auckland and most recently the very significant Waitutu block in Southland. It averages out that we are paying about a dollar for the conserving of each beech tree and $2.50 for each podocarp. This represents incredible value for money.

The Queen Elizabeth the second trust is equally successful. In the past 16 years we have protected over forty thousand hectares of private land with more than a thousand registered QEII covenants. We are making progress at a further two covenants per week and at the same time we are building landowner goodwill with nature conservation. These are success stories I want to acknowledge and in my term see grow and develop.

I want to widen the focus of this approach beyond just Forest protection. The same concept can be applied in terms of wetlands, tussock lands and in our approach to historic building management.

7. HISTORIC MANAGEMENT REFORM
This brings me to the next key issue of managing historic resources. Too few people recognise that DOC has a responsibility under statute to our building heritage as well as our natural heritage.

In times before DOC existed and when historic heritage was less trendy we saw the loss of many historic buildings. There is no better tale of failure in this area than in our own city of Nelson. Some of you would have been fortunate to have seen the Nelson Provincial Chambers in Bridge Street. The elaborate towers and gables once stood as a fine example of the Jacobean style of architecture and were a real statement about the early history of this region. In the 1960's there was a protracted wrangle between city and central government as to who would possibly foot the bill for maintenance and restoration of the buildings. The end result was that the building was demolished and was replaced by the monstrosity of the Munro Buildings. This building is living proof of the architectural vacuum within the Ministry of Works in the 1970's. It is ironic that it now houses the Department of Conservation.

When DOC was established a decade ago it was given a role to preserve historic buildings. It has not been particularly successful at this. The parliamentary commissioner for the environment last year delivered a wide ranging report that blasts the current structure and approach to heritage protection. One of my challenges is to get my mind around that report and steer a future direction for management of historic heritage. I am open minded about what DOC's future role may be in historic heritage. But I am determined to ensure that the government's overall performance in this area improves.

8. THE BIODIVERSITY CHALLENGE
The very complex issue of biodiversity is a difficult scientific and public policy question that goes to the heart of the Department's work. In short it is about ensuring what has happened to some Royal Families doesn't happen within the Natural kingdom.

What is unique about planet earth is the huge diversity of biological organisms. A key focus of the earth summit in Rio was in getting Nation States to accept their responsibilities in maintaining that diversity. The United Nations Convention on Biological diversity that we signed at the Earth Summit commits us to a work programme of species protection and ecosystem management. That will cost money to implement and spark some hot debates between competing interests.

This is not just an issue about protecting our native species. It has huge implications for our long term security of our key primary industries like fishing, forestry, agriculture and horticulture.

The modern techniques of plant propagation and artificial breeding are narrowing the genetic base of those animals and plants which we are dependent on for our economic prosperity.

A local example would be the pipfruit industry where millions of cultivars of Braeburn are being planted both in New Zealand and overseas. If we allow the genetic base of our pipfruit stock to become too narrow we limit the potential of the apple industry in the future. For this reason we need to protect the genetic stock of apple trees.

A key project for the Department is in developing a comprehensive biodiversity strategy for New Zealand.

9. EXTENDING THE HORIZONS OF THE CONSERVATION DEBATE
The conservation portfolio is not an island. To make progress on the big issues we need to engage with the big public policy debates that go way beyond the bounds of just the traditional realm of protecting trees and birds.

Take the immigration debate as an example. This year the government is to hold a population conference to try and develop a consensus on the level of immigration to New Zealand.

This debate should be of key concern to conservationists. Earlier in my speech I made reference to that unique dimension of New Zealand life that enables us to enjoy our wild landscape in relative solitude; free of the rules and regulations of modern society. A large increase in population will put this at risk

Already increasing pressure from tourism and population growth is changing how New Zealanders can use our conservation estate. Booking systems have had to been introduced for the facilities on the Milford and Routeburn tracks. The time is fast approaching when we will have to confront the same issue on the Abel Tasman track.

On their own, these changes may seem no big deal, but over the course of a generation these amount to quite radical changes in how we interact with our parks and reserves. Think how congested the Abel Tasman Park is today compared to even twenty years ago. The increased pressure on conservation lands in places like Great Barrier Island in the Auckland region is even more noticeable. I don't want our parks and the New Zealand outdoors experience to deteriorate into a Mt Fuji type scenario where a continuous line of walkers orderly march up and down the mountain.

This is not to say that their should be no migration to New Zealand nor that their are legitimate economic, social and cultural benefits. However, the full implications of population and tourism policy must be debated openly and honestly so we know what we are compromising in the process.

Conservation needs to have a strong voice in policy areas as diverse as Finance and Immigration, Education and Foreign Affairs, and Fishing and Agriculture if we are to meet our national goals.

10. PUBLIC LAND NOT DOC LAND
I am sure you will have heard the term ‘DOC estate'. The unintended meaning is that somehow DOC owns a third of New Zealand, when in fact it is public land for which the Department has a guardianship role. The term DOC land encourages an arrogance from officials about the use of such lands but also sends the public all the wrong signals about conservation. It is important that all New Zealanders embrace both the ownership and conservation of the lands entrusted to the Department and do not feel excluded. I want people talking about conservation land and not DOC land.

SUMMARY
The big picture of what I want to achieve with this new direction I have outlined is a new sense of purpose within the Department.

I want politicians to have confidence DOC is worth investing in - that it is worth providing the funding for a Department that is doing its job well and effectively. I want staff to have confidence in themselves and know that they are valued and their work is making a difference to the long term ecological future of New Zealand. And most importantly I want to see New Zealanders have confidence that the Department will protect our natural and historic heritage for future generations.

Ends