I’m going to give this government just 5 out of 10 on the conservation front.
I’m not going to cover the RMA, since the legislation hasn’t taken shape yet. Nor am I broadening this out to water quality and farm practices.
But let’s have a look at the efforts that have gone into stopping nature getting worse.
I’ll start with the bad stuff. There’s a bit of it unfortunately.
Despite 40 years of activists and volunteers and donors working their guts out, most of our bird species continue to decline.
Each week through the email and mail I get updates from Forest and Bird telling me of the astonishing wins they are having in the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court stopping outrages from miners. And updates about expanding this and that from Predator Free. I just love them.
But they aren’t the government, and they know the tide continues to turn against our native species.
Eight million years of our endemic bird diversity has been lost, and it’s just gone.
Only 14% of our birds have improved their survivability over the last 40 years.
And then there’s our native dolphins. Our Hector’s Dolphins have declined from around 30,000 individuals in 1970 to fewer than 8,000 today. Maui Dolphins have about 50 left and of that about 20 breeding females from the latest estimate. That means probable extinction within the next 2 parliamentary terms.
This year the Minister of Conservation and Minister of Fisheries have made some useful responses to try and limit the damage.
The government has also responded though the New Zealand biodiversity strategy.
Then there’s Tahr.
Following their backdown to control the explosion of Tahr deer in conservation areas including National Parks in 2018, plans for more Tahr control excited the commercial hunter fraternity to get 500 four-wheel-drive utes and their assorted grunts together to moan in unison, and then took DoC to the High Court and won, so the Department of Conservation has again scaled back controlling Tahr. There’s no one else responsible for this except the Minister of Conservation. There wasn’t the corresponding counter-protest that enabled the Minister to stand against the pressure either.
The carve-outs for Wapiti Deer in Fiordland National Park does, I am sure, keep some tourists happy; there are special arrangements in place for those gun-rack guys in Te Anau. But this one is just worse.
So that’s some pretty bad performance marks on the actual task of conservation.
But there’s two big things the Minister has done well.
The first is institutional support.
She got the money.
Budget 2018 got DoC the largest budget increase since 2002: $181.6 million over four years.
Out of that came volumes of cash for a whole squad of Predator Free projects, from Banks Peninsula, to Wellington’s Miramar Peninsula, to northland, and budget for getting on top of Wilding Pines through the Green Growth fund.
This last one was very important. In many areas like the Queenstown and Mackenzie basin, they’ll be removing longstanding infestations that have become a familiar part of the landscape. People are inclined to think any tree has a value. But the recent fires near Lake Pukaki only a few years after the devastating fires in Flock Hill have shown that wilding pines threaten the ecosystem, the economy, and society.
Like all the big expenditure increases from this term of government, it takes a year or two for the funding to really roll out there in the community, and even longer for its effects to be felt in measurable results. That’s especially the case where little furry animals have to have enough mustelids and possums shot and poisoned around them for them to feel safe enough to breed again with a fair survival rate. It takes time to get the mood on, even for a Kakapo that doesn’t see a mate more than once a season.
The second is in conservation estate control and expansion.
Rakitu island in the Hauraki Gulf is the latest predator-free triumph.
They are well underway to eradicate all predator pests from the Auckland Islands.
They’re preparing to eradicate the big pests across the whole of Stewart Island – the biggest project in New Zealand – because they now have the funding and will to do it.
This is bold ambition made manifest to protect whole islands – and there are so many more parts of the conservation estate that have electrified activist groups and mana whenua right across the country. Go all you rat killers!
On expanding the estate, while there has been no new national park formed for nearly 20 years, what this Minister has done is expand Kahurangi National Park by over 158,000 acres last year. This included the whole of the Mokikinui River catchment that had previously been threatened by a Meridian Energy proposal back in 2008. The Minister’s move increased the size of that national park by 14%.
This is on top of getting a corridor of land to connect the Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks together.
We will be well aware of the longstanding proposal by the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand for a Remarkables National Park, and honestly I really want that one to happen.
But in the meantime, that Kahurangi expansion is as big as a reasonable-sized national park all by itself. Win.
The conservation stories in New Zealand are strong. I’m aware I get a false impression of our successes because I tend to go on highly trapped medium difficulty tracks with lots of tourists and millions in sponsorship. But it’s still damn cool to see the results there.
So, overall, Sage has been an impressive beltway mover who has delivered the money, strengthened DoC, strengthened our entire family of ecological activist institutions, and expanded and strengthened lots of the conservation estate.
But on the broad front of halting the decline of our endangered species, no show on the critical results area.
5 out of 10.