To a first approximation the protection of the environment in this country is managed by two distinct entities; inside the Conservation estate it falls to DoC and outside of that it falls onto the Regional Councils. Under this government both are being slowly dismantled.
Over the last month I’ve had the opportunity to talk extensively with DoC staff on various topics. Some literally trackside, some in their offices and one a very trusted source I’ve known most of my life. All of them related the same story, constant budget cuts and pressure, valued and capable colleagues resigning in disillusionment, and senior staff stretched to manage multiple conservancies. The primary focus is on the tourist dollars, expanding and extracting maximum cash from”The Great Walks” and corporate funding.
When I put it to them that a Department of Conservation is slowly but surely being transformed into a “Department of Tourism” … they all emphatically agree.
Now this does not mean that DoC has yet abandoned all of it’s science goals, high profile species recovery or biodiversity programs. But the long-standing tension in the organisation between the frontline ‘huts and tracks’ recreation oriented people and it’s science people is now a rank capitulation. The science has lost. It’s always the last cab off the rank and everyone in the department knows this. If it’s your career then you can see no future in staying so you leave; and when this calibre of person departs they take decades of specialised, irreplaceable knowledge with them.
This is not to denigrate in any fashion the excellent work being done on the tourism/recreation side. Sure there’s always controversial stuff to pick over, but overall I’m pretty supportive of the work that is being done in this area. But however worthwhile this work is, much of it is not conservation, it’s tourism oriented. And in the end it’s not too hard to envisage the day when the right wing starts asking “why does the government need to own a tourism business?”…. and then demand that it all be sold.
Outside of the Conservation estate we have another story slowly unfolding under the radar. Originally the Regional Councils were created to manage a range of environmental and public service tasks that were naturally regional and catchment based. Here is typical list of environmental services they provide. Within a regional council the environmental division, while it may not always be the largest in terms of budget, is nonetheless central to the purpose and character of the organisation.
The other reason why the Regional Councils were created was to provide a check and balance against the other Territorial Authorities whose focus is often on the development of the areas they share. This structure is especially useful in areas of regulatory compliance and RMA approvals that allows local government to keep these monitoring and approval functions at arms-length from each other. Of course this has meant that many TA’s have come to see their Regional Council as an interfering, over-bearing big-brother and typically hold pretty jaundiced views around the relationship.
Unfortunately we currently already have a somewhat incoherent local government structure in this country. While there are 11 Regional Councils, there are also 6 Unitary Councils with the strong probability that at least 3 or 4 of these Regional Councils will be lost in the next year or two. Not to mention the on-going ECAN debacle. With both a government clearly happy to see Regional Councils role minimised and the TA’s keen to cheer the process on, the near-term trend is clearly towards another round of local government amalgamation resulting perhaps in perhaps some 20 Unitary Authorities across the whole country and all the Regional Councils vanishing.
At the same time it is vital to bear in mind that the 2012 Local Government Amendment Act has dramatically narrowed the scope of Local Government to “to meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses”. No specific mention of environmental management in there at all. Now while any new Unitary Authority’s will most likely incorporate most staff and functions from their various predecessors, it is also clear that Environment will no longer be central to the purpose and character of the new organisations. Inevitably there will be the same loss of focus and priority and a huge question arises when conflicting goals arise between development and protection within the same authority. Which principal trumps?
And certainly no more pesky One Plans that will require our rivers to be cleaned up.
There’s an emerging pattern here, both within DoC and Local Government that is marginalising conservation science and environmental management in this country. The full effects of this will not be seen or felt for some time yet, but the loss of skilled people and institutional capacity is happening already as people clearly read the writing on the wall.