When the 2009 ‘streamlining and simplifying’ amendment to the RMA was rushed through parliament last year, many concerns were raised about new abilities for the Minister for the Environment to use National Environmental Standards (NES) to override local government regulations, and how these could be abused to pave the way for political interest groups.
We’re now one step closer to that becoming a reality. The Minister is consulting on his pet project, a NES for Forestry. Seems a pretty benign topic at first, and logical that the forestry industry is subject to the same standards throughout the country. However, a quick read of the proposed NES raises a number of big concerns for those of us who enjoy clean waterways, rural landscapes, and biodiversity.
The proposed NES for Forestry could more aptly be called the ‘let the farmers do what they want’ standard. Not only does it enable just about anything to do with harvesting plantation forest, it also makes any earthworks or quarrying within the rural environment a permitted activity (not subject to the resource consent process), except when it is in an area prone to erosion. This would mean all farmers can use the NES to bypass earthworks controls aimed at protecting landscapes and water quality, regardless of whether or not the earthworks or quarrying is for forestry purposes. There are a heap of other issues as well, just read the part of the standard called ‘permitted baseline’ to get an idea of the licence the NES gives to farmers and foresters to do what they like.
And it gets worse. The NES also proposes that local government will have no ability to monitor these activities. Instead, it requires the industry to audit its own performance, and to provide this audit information to local government (and the community it represents) after the fact. This pretty much removes any ability for Councils and communities to hold foresters to account for the large impacts they can potentially have on water quality, etc.
Obviously, Nick Smith knew that this wouldn’t go down well with Councils who regulate forestry activities with the aim of protecting water quality, biodiversity, and landscape values. So guess what, the consultation period for the new NES is during the local government elections recess period, i.e. the NES was proposed after Councils could formally consider it, and submissions close in mid October, before any new Councils have had their first meeting of the new triennium.
So what’s the reason for all this? According to the cost benefit analysis, the forestry sector would save $4million a year in compliance costs, and the Ministry for the Environment wouldn’t have to listen to forestry lobby groups anymore (this is actually listed as a benefit!!). The cost is a complete loss of control over earthworks, quarrying and forestry activities in all of New Zealand’s rural areas.