Mangrove bill sidesteps RMA

A local bill currently open for public submissions would give Thames-Coromandel and Hauraki districts the ability to remove mangroves without resource consent.

The proposed Mangrove Management Bill, brought before Parliament by National’s MP for Coromandel, Scott Simpson, would allow the two councils to develop and implement a mangrove management plan.

There have been past cases where exemptions to the Resource Management Act (RMA) processes have been made. These have been for disaster recovery efforts, such as the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act. Unlike the proposed Bill, these acts have had a narrow purpose.

At the Bill’s first reading Simpson said the topic of mangroves had created angst and heartache within the community.

Some residents see mangroves as impeding the recreational use of the harbour, while others see mangroves as important for ecology.

Simpson said residents had paid a separate rate to the Waikato Regional Council for the removal of mangroves totalling $1.5 million, of which only 10 percent had been spent on eradication. The rest had been spent on consultants, reports, lawyers and appeals, he said.

“The process taken so far under the Resource Management Act so far has been costly, time-consuming and has simply not delivered outcomes.

“The councils are merely seeking the ability to create their own plans because the Waikato Regional Council has spectacularly failed over a long number of years to manage effectively or efficiently the vast proliferation of mangroves within the two councils’ coastal boundaries.”

The Bill would prevent the chance of objections to removal being ruled on by the Environment Court, and the councils would “have regard” to public views expressed during a consultative stage.

Labour and New Zealand First supported the Bill at its first reading. The Greens opposed it.

Empowering Communities

Waikato Regional Council’s science and strategy director, Tracey May, said the issue of mangrove removal had been challenging for the regional council and “not because of any failure on Waikato Regional Council’s part but rather because of the legal complexities, differing community expectations, and the ecological processes in the area”.

She said the council's submission to the Bill takes a neutral position. Notes from a strategy and policy meeting held Tuesday say the Bill would potentially set a challenging legal precedent for other activities usually subject to RMA provisions.

May said removal efforts to date “had resulted in a lot of time, money and frustration” for the community.

Thames-Coromandel Mayor, Sandra Goudie, has been a vocal supporter of mangrove removal. In 2005, as an elected National MP, she took part in an illegal chainsaw attack on mangroves in Whangamata Harbour.

Goudie said there were no mangroves in Whangamata before the 1960s.

“For a number of years Whangamata has been battling to get a specific area of mangroves removed and the process has been incredibly time-consuming, cost over $1.5 million and only just managed to get the area they wanted to get removed done, finally. It’s been absolutely years in the making.”

She said at regional council level removing mangroves becomes “bogged down in process and obstruction”.

“Where you’ve got quite clearly a community that in the majority wants to do something, then they should be empowered to do that.”

Goudie said if the Bill passes, the community would drive the management plan.

“This is about community empowerment and then we guide them through the process and whatever management plan they produce will have to be acceptable to council.”

If the Bill is approved she said it would make the process of removing mangroves more efficient and economical, although there might be some people who would disagree.

“For environmental purists, you would have to be wondering why they wouldn’t want all mangroves removed back to the original habitat.”

She said has no idea how far the bill will get: “It’s a wonderful political football for some of them”.

Forest & Bird

Forest & Bird’s central North Island regional manager, Dr Rebecca Stirnemann, is concerned by the Bill.

“This Bill is a real departure from good process. The Resource Management Act exists for a reason – to manage activities in a way that protects the environment, including our coastal environment. To allow two small councils to bypass the RMA and carry out their own mangrove removal with no independent oversight is very risky.”

Stirnemann said mangroves provide a buffer for coastal properties.

“Recent flooding in the Firth of Thames would have been much worse were it not for mangroves.”

She is concerned the two councils lack the technical expertise needed to identify environmental values and protect mangroves where necessary.

“Mangroves trap sediment and nutrients running off land and play an important role in cleansing our coastal waters. They provide an important habitat for threatened birds and native fish, and also reduce marine acidification caused by increasing carbon dioxide – a process that impacts a range of marine species including shellfish.”

Forest & Bird are hoping the public make submissions on the Bill and have a guide on their website to aid the public in making submissions.

Their own submission has been delayed due to delays in receiving information from the Thames-Coromandel District Council.

An Official Information Act request submitted in October by Forest & Bird requesting correspondence on the Bill from both councils has been partly unfilled.

The Hauraki District Council provided the requested information; however, the Thames-Coromandel District Council initially requested a payment of $608 for information.

“We asked the councils for their correspondence on the mangroves bill because we wanted to understand why and how the Bill was being developed, and also whether they’d carried out ecological assessments and what sort of legal advice they’d received.”

Mediation from the Ombudsman resulted in Forest & Bird narrowing the scope of the request. With less than 10 days before public submissions close, the Thames-Coromandel District Council is still asking for $608 and Forest & Bird are still waiting for their request to be filled.

“The information we are seeking is needed for compiling Forest & Bird’s submission on the Bill. With just over a week until submissions close, the situation is getting very frustrating.”

Public submissions to the Bill close February 23.

“If this bill becomes law, it will be difficult to resist moves from local councils seeking exemption from the RMA for district specific goals,” said Stirnemann.

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