Before I begin, I want to explain my role briefly and what it is that I do.
Like the Auditor-General and the Ombudsmen I am what is known as an Officer of Parliament.
This means that while I am a public servant, I do not work for the Government, but for Parliament as a whole, and am not bound to follow the policies of any party.
This means that I am politically independent.
In my role I provide advice to MPs through investigations that result in written reports.
And through other mechanisms such as submissions to select committees.
A report will generally contain recommendations to specific Ministers.
And I aim to make those recommendations well reasoned and pragmatic.
I have no power beyond the ability to persuade and it is up to the Government of the day as to whether or not those recommendations are taken up.
But I do follow up and keep track of on whether progress is being made or not.
What I am talking about today is based on three completed investigations – there are copies here if you would like them.
One investigation underway in my office is on the commercial use of the DOC estate.
It’s about a year since I announced at the AGM of the Federated Mountain Clubs that I had decided to begin such an investigation.
A large part of New Zealand is in the conservation estate -- about a third.
There is a clear intent for it to be used to play a much greater role in the economy.
You need look no further than DOC’s new brand -- “Conservation for prosperity”.
Conservation for prosperity is fine, but we need conservation for posterity – for our children and grandchildren - as well.
The commercial use investigation is taking some time as all our investigations do – and sometimes some need to be slowed down because investigating other matters must take priority.
Other matters such as fracking.
But I have just released a report which raises some important issues about commercial use of our conservation lands.
That report is called:
Hydroelectricity or wild rivers: Climate change versus natural heritage.
It had its genesis in letters of complaint written into the office about the Mokihinui.
The Mokihinui caught my interest because it was a classic case of two things that are good for the environment.
Hydroelectricity because it helps in the fight against climate change.
The protection of a river because it is wild and scenic – and indeed beautiful.
This report uses the Mokihinui case to illustrate some of the problems that are wrong with the system within which such choices are made.
The system of laws, policies and institutions.
Hydroelectricity is valuable and will continue to be so because climate change is the most important environmental issue we face.
So these are not simple choices.
But I’m not going to talk about hydroelectricity today.
My main conclusion was that our wild and scenic rivers deserve more and better protection than they currently have.
What does this mean for commercial use?
In the case of the Mokihinui, the commercial use of the river for a hydroelectric dam was a step too far.
Meridian’s proposal for pest control over a large portion of the Mokihinui catchment in exchange for the loss of this beautiful wild river was not a good deal for conservation.
The damming of this particular wild and scenic river that runs from its headwaters to the sea for some pest control would have been too great a loss.
Last year I was fortunate enough to walk some distance up the Mokihinui gorge.
As I left I pondered what if anything I would trade away for keeping that river as it is.
And if, as I realized, there might be something so valuable as to make the trade worthwhile, then you have to ask – what could it be?
So a question for you to ponder:
Would you trade the Mokihinui for long term pest control over the whole of New Zealand?
What about if it was just all of the South Island?
It’s a difficult question to confront.
But where such deals are to be made, I want them to be good ones – good for conservation and that have a lasting result in the long term.
I hope my upcoming report on commercial use on conservation land will be able to make a contribution here.
Aside from this big question, the wild rivers investigation threw up some big problems with how commercial use on conservation land is managed.
Wild and scenic rivers can be protected in two ways.
First, by virtue of flowing through conservation land.
Second, with water conservation orders.
I’m just going to talk about the first – the wild rivers that flow through conservation land.
Because we learned things from this that are informing the current more general investigation into commercial use.
So what did we learn from the Wild Rivers investigation that is relevant to our speaking topic today of Whose business is conservation?
First -- stewardship land.
When DOC was created much of the land owned by the Crown was split two ways.
Land for production and land for conservation.
But there was a lot of land that for whatever reason was left with DOC although its conservation value had not been assessed.
It is called stewardship land.
There are many areas of stewardship land – some tiny, some really big.
The plan was to assess the conservation value of these many areas.
Some might go into National Parks, some into conservation parks, and so on.
DOC has many categories of conservation land.
And that with low conservation value would be sold.
The plan was to be completed within 20 years, but only a little stewardship land has been dealt with.
The remainder languishes in what Phillip Woollaston has called a statutory holding pen.
The conservation estate is 30% of the area of NZ.
Stewardship land is 30% of the conservation estate.
So 9% of the entire area of NZ is stewardship land – that’s an enormous holding pen.
And since so little has been done about it, stewardship land can be taken to be of little value for conservation.
For example this is a quote from the Meridian Project Manager talking about the Mokihinui.
“An important fact of this project is that the area affected by the scheme is stewardship land … [it’s not in a national park, it’s not in an ecological reserve or specially protected area. The river doesn’t have a water conservation order on it. Given all the hoo-ha about national parks recently, I think it’s quite an important point.”
Usually getting permission from DOC to run a business on the conservation estate is through a concession.
But stewardship land is different.
There’s another option for how it’s treated and that’s a land swap.
That is, trading a piece of publicly owned stewardship land for a piece of privately owned land.
Meridian tried to do this with the Mokihinui.
And here’s the important thing to understand, that isn’t widely understood.
A land swap is easier to get than a concession.
The test is lower.
This is what makes stewardship land vulnerable to commercial development even when the land is highly valuable for conservation.
So in the case of the Mokihinui we had:
On the one hand:
DOC appealing the resource consents granted to Meridian because they regarded the river and the land it flows through to be of high conservation value.
On the other hand:
The land being left as stewardship land signalling that it was of low conservation value.
But wait there’s more.
Meridian proposed a land swap.
This meant the conservation value of what they were offering had to be compared with the conservation value of what they wanted.
But the river itself was left out of that comparison.
Because of a legal relic involving the Coal Mines Act and navigable rivers, the riverbed of the Mokihinui is administered by Land Information New Zealand – LINZ.
And LINZ has no conservation mandate.
So the conservation value of the Mokihinui is only that on the land on either side of the river.
Really? I don’t think so.
I apologise if some of this seems a bit tedious.
But this kind of obscure rather dry stuff really matters when it comes to what actually happens on the ground.
So in thinking about commercial use you have to take land status into account.
And you have to think about what is the gain that DoC can get out of it.
A year ago I produced a report on 1080 – subtitled Predators, poisons and silent forests.
What did we learn from this investigation?
First, how good 1080 actually is.
Not just for killing possums, but for killing possums and rats and stoats.
Most of you are probably aware that I ended up saying that not only should we continue to use 1080, but that we should use more of it.
It does not do 1080 justice to describe it as a necessary evil.
But what haunts me from that investigation is the discovery that only on 1/8th of the conservation estate is there any control of these pests which I came to think of as the evil triumverate.
On huge tracts of native forests, there is no rearguard battle underway – the invasion of pests has been met with only very limited resistance.
And the result is that those pests are largely winning.
We assume too easily that when land is put into the conservation estate, it is looked after.
My current thinking for an ideal use of revenue gained from commercial use of the conservation estate is to use it for pest control.
It’s got to be a lot easier to motivate staff to be hard-headed negotiators if they are fighting for plants and animals than if they are fighting for the Crown accounts.
I’d want to put revenue from commercial users into a trust fund so that the pest control can go on into the future -- in perpetuity.
I’m hoping that Gareth might have some ideas about keeping it out of Treasury’s hands.
And I’d want to spend most of the money for pest control on 1080 drops.
You’ll see why if you read the 1080 report.
But companies that wish to undertake commercial activities on the conservation estate would probably much rather put money toward ground control of pests to save particular iconic species.
Much better for PR, but not necessarily for ecosystems.
But a word of praise for Meridian.
As part of the Mokihinui proposal Meridian first offered to protect whio -- blue duck – along some of the streams in the area.
After the 1080 report came out, I was very pleased to see that offer changed to controlling pests on a much larger area -- 35,000 ha of the river catchment – presumably using 1080 drops.
Good on Meridian for offering to go beyond safe PR to pest control that would have a much bigger impact.
Even if I’d hazard that it was nowhere near enough.
At this point I’d like to quickly reflect about mining on conservation land.
I doubt I need to remind anyone here of the proposal to remove some conservation land out of Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act – and the public outcry that followed.
When conducting our investigation into mining on conservation land in the wake of that public concern, it surprised us how little money appeared to be paid by companies that were digging up gold and coal and other minerals on conservation land.
Miners with access to many hectares of land are paying access fees in the low thousands.
My staff had a look at some of the access agreements for mines and found a confusing mish mash of different kinds of payments.
So this needs sorting.
But we should always think about what matters most.
It is my view that the greatest threat to the conservation estate is not mining but the onslaught of introduced pests – both plants and animals.
So in conclusion:
The challenge I hope to address with my investigation is this.
If we are to continue to undertake and expand commercial use on conservation land, how can we do it wisely and well?
I expect my findings will generate debate as this area of tradeoffs is difficult stuff.
Hopefully by this time next year that conversation will be underway.
And by the way I’m really happy about the Mokihinui decision.