environment

Sweeping change to stop biodiversity crisis

Described as a “breakthrough” and a “game-changer”, a draft report aimed at halting New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis calls for sweeping measures covering conservation and private land.

If implemented the measures could be a lifeline for over 4000 threatened species in New Zealand.

Tax incentives, a national database of native species, monitoring and increased funding for pest control are among a suite of measures suggested in the report, as well as a potentially contentious focus on forcing councils to identify “significant natural areas” on public and private land.

The report from the Biodiversity Collaborative Group (BCG) was funded by the Ministry for the Environment and was created by a group of stakeholders, including Forest & Bird, Federated Farmers and the Forest Owners Association.

Within the almost 200-page document is a draft National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity. Subject to government and public input, this policy statement could be implemented under the Resource Management Act.

The group is calling the release of the report a breakthrough after unsuccessful attempts under previous governments to complete one.

It notes 80 percent of native birds, 88 percent of lizards, and 100 percent of frogs are threatened with extinction and while some habitats are on conservation land, many are also on private land.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said native wildlife had been left to fall into crisis.

“This crisis is unfolding mostly on privately-owned land, where much of our most threatened wildlife is now found. Regional and district plans are meant to protect these important values, but these are inconsistent and sometimes ineffective.”

"Landowners have been concerned that identification of an area of privately-owned land as SNA [significant natural areas] means that it is ‘locked up’ and cannot be used."

Between 1996 and 2012 alone there was a net loss of 71,000 hectares of indigenous habitat.

“This draft policy statement will provide clarity to all parties on what is required under the law, as well as recommending to the Government a range of supporting and complimentary measures for helping achieve those things," said Hague

The report recommends the currently uncoordinated approach to biodiversity should be brought under the control of the Department of Conservation (DOC) who would provide a national leadership role.

This would mean DOC would be responsible for setting priorities, ensuring the roles of different government agencies are understood and monitoring progress.

It's believed a Canterbury farmer destroyed a third of New Zealand's population of muehlenbeckia astonii shrub when he cleared land on Kaitorete Spit for grazing. Photo: supplied.

A key part of protecting biodiversity is understanding what occurs where. Part of the recommendations include the creation of a national biodiversity and ecosystem database. According to the report, current data-gathering is done in an ad hoc manner with different schema and as a result a “clear and comprehensive picture of the state of Aotearoa” is being inhibited.

“This in turn compromises the quality of policy and undermines the ability of policy-makers to counter criticism of the need for controls in order to protect and maintain indigenous biodiversity.”

Part of the identification of eco-systems would be completed via councils with a requirement for councils to identify significant natural areas (SNA) within their boundaries. These are areas with high biodiversity values.

Again, the report says this has been done in an ad hoc manner. Some councils only identify significant natural areas on public land, others only on private land and some don’t identify any at all. Making this mandatory could prove contentious, according to the report:

“Landowners have been concerned that identification of an area of privately-owned land as SNA means that it is ‘locked up’ and cannot be used, or that the public may be given access to SNAs on private land.”

Even among themselves this issue proved problematic. The collaborative group could not come to an agreement on the issue, according to the report. The Forest Owners Association want an exemption for plantation forestry to be included in any significant natural area classification regardless of indigenous fauna which might be found there.

Areas identified as significant natural areas would be subject to a high level of control including measures to prevent any reduction in the number of at-risk or threatened species present or the introduction of pest plants or animals. Measures could include blocking any attempt to subdivide or develop the land.

The cost of mapping these areas should be borne by central government for Crown land, with financial and technical help available through a contestable fund provided by DOC and the Ministry for the Environment.

The report recommends DOC’s funding be increased to allow for better control of predators. A third of New Zealand is conservation land, yet only one-eighth of that is subject to predator control. 1080 is currently seen as the most effective way to control pests for areas of this scale.

Private landowners should also get support for protecting diversity according to the report which recommends Treasury, the Tax Working Group and IRD investigate opportunities such as tax rebates, or tailored depreciation schemes. New funding mechanisms such as payments for ecosystem services, biobanking and targeted funds should be investigated as well was reviewing the resourcing of bodies already involved in supporting projects.

The next steps for the report include a cost-benefit analysis and consideration by cabinet before it would be opened for public submissions.

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