environment

DOC’s Budget payoff: more staff

A big budget boost is set to swell staff numbers at the Department of Conservation. David Williams reports.

The Department of Conservation will likely employ 100 new people this year, as it bounces back from years of demoralising restructurings and financial restraint. There’s also good news for the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin.

Last May, in what Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage called a career highlight, the beleaguered department was earmarked an extra $181.6 million in operational funding over four years.

The money comes as the department is predicting an additional one million visitors to New Zealand by 2024.

Millions of dollars are being spent in obvious places. That includes $30.5 million for poison drops to protect native species during this year’s so-called “mega mast” of seed production in forests. (Adding that funding to existing budgets replaces the one-off top-ups favoured by the previous National Party-led coalition.)

Last month, the department announced it was spending an extra $3.6 million over summer to maintain facilities on public conservation land. And $1 million is expected to be spent this year towards making the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island predator-free.

Director-general Lou Sanson confirms to Newsroom that there are likely to be 100 new jobs – a mix of operational and support roles, depending on their nature and location – over the course of this year. There’ll be more regional jobs, and more rangers working on issues such as resource management, recreational tourism, species recovery and threatened species programmes.

DOC’s Wellington policy unit will increase by 10 people, taking it from 24 staff to 34, Sanson says.

The department’s scientific capability will increase, but that comes with a caveat. Sanson says it’ll be employing “principal science investment advisers”, who will be senior scientists. Part of their job will be to chase roughly $380 million of taxpayers’ money spent on environmental science outside of DOC – in Crown research institutes, universities and national science challenges.

“DOC doesn’t have to do all the science,” Sanson says. “There are numerous agencies working on science that if we influence can do some remarkable science for DOC.

“We’re in the market for a number of science positions but we are really going to focus on being able to influence the science system.”

DOC’s website is advertising 27 jobs, a mix of existing and new roles, including 11 ranger positions and five desk jobs in Wellington. A new deputy director-general role has been created, taking the total to eight.

(According to DOC’s annual reports, the department’s personnel costs rose from $149 million in 2014 to $172 million last year.)

Getting the basics right

An increase in DOC staff will mollify some critics of the last Government’s conservation policies. But those who have spoken out about an internal culture war and object to the department’s corporatisation will be watching for any change in tone from management.

Sanson says quite a lot of money will go into back-office functions like human resources, organisational development, training and leadership. Training involving Australian firm Taribon, which has strong links to the mining industry, has been criticised by some as excruciatingly awkward.

But Sanson counters that it’s “highly successful and liked by thousands of staff”.

“There’s quite a lot of money there about keeping the team process training that I’ve put in place going, leadership training, Māori skills. Just getting the basic structure of the department right.”

DOC has come under fire, along with other agencies and councils, for decisions made in the Mackenzie Basin.

The aim now, Sanson says, is to have a dryland park in place “within a year”. “That’s the target set by the minister that we’re trying to deliver on.”

In last May’s Budget, Minister Sage announced $2.6 million had been set aside “to fund better protection of the unique landscapes and biodiversity of the Mackenzie Basin”. That money will employ a planner to engage with parties in the Mackenzie, such as local government, iwi and landowners, Sanson says.

How can a park be achieved? “We’re looking at a number of options. Tenure review, whether there could be some purchase, we haven’t made any decisions on any of it.”

His feeling is it will not involve a single, continuous area. “But we’re leaving that to that group of people to work through with local government, iwi and landowners. It’s a key priority for the minister and it wouldn’t be my job to announce what she wants to do at the moment. That work is being done to look at what is possible.”

Eyes on tourist operators, dollars for infrastructure

Increasing compliance checks, particularly regarding concessions, is another priority, Sanson says.

“There were a large number of operators operating in Fiordland last year without concessions. We’re intending to keep [compliance checks] going to ensure that everybody is playing within the policy regime that we operate for tourism on public conservation land.”

How did that happen? Were there not enough people to check concessions? Sanson: “Yeah, we weren’t doing enough compliance work.”

(An issue reported by Newsroom was companies advertising heli-hiking at Mt Titiroa, something expressly forbidden in the Fiordland National Park management plan.)

The Government’s proposed $35 tax on most international tourists, raising up to $80 million a year, is expected to be spent on tourism infrastructure and conservation. The provincial growth fund is another source of dollars for cash-strapped councils in high-tourist areas.

DOC’s response – as Sanson puts it, “getting NZ ready for another million visitors by 2024” – is to employ what he calls “rec-tourism planners” in every region.

“How does Mt Cook/Aoraki cope with another million? Those staff are critical to working out how to manage the increase in tourism and visitors in landscapes, coming to the heart of what people come to New Zealand to see.”

The places most under pressure, Sanson says, are Mt Cook/Aoraki, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Tongariro National Park, Kaikoura, and, to a certain extent, Punakaiki and the Bay of Islands. He admits there are already significant roading issues at Fox Glacier, on the South Island’s West Coast, major car parking issues up the highway at Punakaiki, plus major issues coping with visitors at Milford Sound.

Sounding more like a tourism boss, Sanson says: “Congestion is not OK. Our aim is to give the best possible visitor experience for people coming to see some of the most famous natural assets in the world.”

The torrent of tourists can’t be turned off, he says – “they’re coming”. “We have to manage it through car parking and having high-quality facilities and still give people a unique experience in these environments.”

Given increased discussions about over-tourism in certain areas, DOC might also have a job selling the strategy of ‘they’re coming anyway’ to the public.

Asked if DOC is doing the best job it can to protect public conservation land from too many tourists, Sanson changes tack. “I think our biggest challenge is old sewerage schemes – old infrastructure that was built when these national parks were built in the 1960s. The infrastructure issues are really big challenges that we have to get on top of.”

And how can that be done? “You convince the Government that tourism’s our number one business, these are assets that need investing in for the future of conservation and the future of New Zealand.”

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