environment

A long road to protecting biodiversity

A policy which will force councils to consistently identify significant natural areas in their boundaries is hoped to improve the outlook for New Zealand’s 4000 threatened species

By the time the National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity is implemented by councils it will be 2028. 

“Material improvements” to the state of indigenous biodiversity are expected to take another two years to occur, a total of 23 years after the process began.

Work on the policy started in 2007 but was derailed in 2011 because stakeholders couldn’t agree on the content of the document.

A fresh attempt made in 2016 with the formation of a Biodiversity Collaborative Group which consisted of industry representatives, environmental groups, and an iwi advisor to the Iwi Chairs’ Forum, has been more successful. 

On Tuesday, a discussion document on a proposed statement was released publicly, with Forest & Bird and Federated Farmers issuing a rare joint statement saying the document is a "genuine environmental breakthrough".

Once in place, this policy will provide the legal teeth for protecting biodiversity on private and public land. It will clarify the murkier parts of the Resource Management Act, according to Associate Minister for the Environment Nanaia Mahuta and will 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."

Below are some of the key points from the 100 page discussion document which asks for for public feedback on 62 questions. The deadline for public submission is 14 March 2020.

Much of New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity is threatened with or at risk of extinction. Image: Proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity discussion document

Figuring out what needs protecting

If no one identifies what needs to be protected, then nothing will be protected. 

The proposed policy will require territorial authorities to identify what are known as Significant Natural Areas within their bounds. These are areas with significant flora or fauna.

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 which are considered comprehensive. There's no set criteria commonly used by councils across the country.

The proposed policy suggests a criteria be set nationally and all councils must map significant areas in their boundaries and rank them as high or medium within five years.

This is probably the most contentious part of the plan as it could involve identifying private land as a significant area. If a landowner does not give the territorial authority permission to access the land to assess its significance, a desktop assessment will first be completed by an ecological expert. Powers of entry under the RMA would be used as a last resort.

Monitoring of the condition and state of indigenous biodiversity in significant areas would need to be completed and reported on regularly by councils.

Protecting significant areas

It's all very well and good to identify a significant area, but how is it then going to be protected?

Currently the RMA requires that significant areas are protected but doesn't say how this should happen. The proposed policy document summarises the current situation: "The lack of clear standards for protecting SNAs has led to a lack of certainty for councils and resource management users and, in some cases, to inadequate protection for significant indigenous biodiversity. This is contributing to a continued decline of indigenous biodiversity."

To fix the situation it suggests local authorities will be responsible for ensuring four things don't happen in the areas. This includes a loss of ecosystem representation and extent, disruptions to ecology, fragmentation between ecosystems or 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.

Activities which could get a free pass

Nationally significant infrastructure will trump a significant natural area of medium value 

This means things like renewable electricity generation, such as hydro dams would be allowed in significant areas. Mineral and aggregate extraction is also listed and the proposed policy is seeking public views on this.

Māori land is also listed as being exempt in areas of medium value "where this could significantly contribute to enhancing the social, cultural or economic wellbeing of tangata whenua."

What about plantation forests?

Plantation forests provide homes to threatened and at risk species. In a draft version of the policy this was a point of contention. If species such as kiwi, bats, or the Eyrewell beetle made a home in plantation forests this would mean forests could not be felled. 

A work-around has been suggested of creating biodiversity areas within a forest where vegetation is established which might provide a home for species. These would not be classed as a significant area but would need to be managed to maintain long-term populations of species.

When farming and indigenous biodiversity collide

Existing rights under the RMA can't be overridden by the proposed policy even if an area is classed as significant.

The proposed policy suggests a balancing act between managing exisiting rights with indigenous biodiversity. Management is a key term used in relation to existing activities.

Local authorities would need to "ensure that continuing the activity would not lead to the loss of extent or degradation of the SNA’s ecological integrity, or the cumulative loss of any ecosystem."

An example given relates to pasture. A farmer who wishes to clear regenerating native shrubs in existing pasture would be free to do so.

Protecting the sometimes homes

Migratory or mobile species such as bats will also have their habitats protected. The proposed policy will require regional councils and  territorial authorities to proactively survey movement patterns of threatened fauna and take steps to ensure viable populations are maintained. The proposed policy gives an example of requiring a farmer to adjust farming activity during the breeding season of birds. In urban areas this could mean creating wildlife corridors. 

Considering climate change

Councils will need to consider the impact of climate change in indigenous biodiversity when making plans. This means rising sea levels would be considered, or likely temperature or rainfall changes. The proposed policy says this is to give indigenous biodiversity the best chance to survive future conditions.

How long will this take?

Public consultation is open until March 2020 with a view to having the policy finalised by the end of the year. By 2026 councils will be required to map significant areas and by 2028 the policy would need to be implemented. A review of the policy will take place in 2030. 

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