Under new management

By Geoff Cumming

As the Department of Conservation fights for survival, business and community sponsors are being asked to save our endangered species and much-loved national parks. Geoff Cumming investigates a radical shake-up

Tourism brochures promote activities such as sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park but behind the scenes, most of the conservation estate is under attack from uncontrolled pests.
Tourism brochures promote activities such as sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park but behind the scenes, most of the conservation estate is under attack from uncontrolled pests.

At Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park, thriving beech forest alive with birdsong and well-used tracks point to the kind of conservation partnership the Department of Conservation hopes can take root throughout its vast estate.

Friends of Rotoiti, a volunteer group, takes care of pest control in a buffer zone surrounding the "mainland island" restoration project that DoC is responsible for. About 50 active trappers, drawn from Blenheim and Nelson, check traps on a weekly basis over summer. They started with wasp poisons and rat traps about 15 years ago, then graduated to stoats and possums. They now check and maintain about 40km of trap lines in the forest and 900 rat traps around St Arnaud village. What they've learned about wasps has informed control programmes elsewhere by DoC and Landcare Research. The melody of tuis and bellbirds and the reappearance of native mistletoe show how such groups can complement DoC's conservation effort.

But DoC director-general Al Morrison and other architects of the agency's restructuring, believe such partnerships with community groups and the corporate sector can be taken even further - providing the solution to an otherwise impossible mission.

Morrison has conceded DoC cannot meet its statutory obligation to safeguard a conservation estate covering 30 per cent of the country, a network of marine reserves and the endangered species which depend on them.

"Despite all our best efforts, we are failing to halt the decline in ecosystem health and species," he told staff ahead of the restructuring. "We are not able to do the amount of work we need to do today, and we face a future where every year it will get worse, not better, if we don't meet the challenge."

DoC has faced budget cuts every year since 2008, when its marine unit was the casualty. The current restructuring is the fourth in six years, but by far the biggest.

Pruned to within almost an inch of its life, DoC is to re-emerge as an organisation with two distinct limbs - one engaged in service delivery and the other in "partnerships". The partnerships division will undertake everything from wooing corporate sponsors and philanthropic groups to liaising with visitor centres, schools, voluntary groups, councils and the tourism sector. It will have 300 staff, about a quarter of DoC's current operational staffing. A Wellington-based commercial business unit of 31 will include brand managers, account executives, marketing advisers, sales people, product developers and channel managers - hard to reconcile with the khaki shorts and muddy-booted image of conservation workers. But deputy director-general Sue Cosford, who has steered the reorganisation, reckons field workers can "scrub up well" for the new jobs.

She cannot say how many current staff will survive the restructure, expected to be finalised by August. Hardest hit are area managers and programme managers - "tier 4" managers whose roles are reduced from 245 to 125. Their current jobs include a mix of planning, organising, community liaison and hands-on conservation work - activities which will become more specialised under the split structure. Many managers face a step down to senior ranger positions with less responsibility if they want to carry on.

Regions are reduced from 11 to six. In most cases partnership staff will work in separate offices and separate cities to service staff. The northern region, for instance, will have partnerships directors in Hamilton and Auckland while the services director will be based in Whangarei. The West Coast region will stretch from the Marlborough Sounds to Haast with a service director based in Hokitika and partnerships director in Nelson. Priorities will be dictated more from national and regional offices than in the past.

It's the conservation equivalent of the funder/provider split tried (and soon dumped) in the health sector in the 1990s. And critics - who include current and former staff, environmentalists and volunteer groups - say it brings enormous potential for silos, turf wars, disconnects and screw-ups.

Cosgrove says systems have been built in to ensure integration and good communication. More staff will be devoted to monitoring the conservation estate and biodiversity. "The starting point has been to retain the capacity we have on the ground. Our core resourcing is to do great work to maintain the conservation estate, current resourcing is not sufficient. This is really trying to address that fundamental issue."

For critics including current and former staff and environmental groups, the biggest concern is the impact at the frontline, with the jobs of highly experienced and respected area managers and project managers disappearing, staff centralised and responsibilities narrowed.

Gerry McSweeney, a former Forest and Bird president who runs a wilderness lodge in south Westland, says frontline managers have expertise not just in delivering services but liaising with councils and community groups and commercial partners. Most work in rural areas where the respect of farmers and the wider community is hard-won, says McSweeney. "Separating these functions is a formula for chaos."

Cosgrove says senior ranger positions have been created to ensure affected area and programme managers have roles specifically aligned to their skills. She concedes however that the loss of technical and leadership responsibilities will discourage some. "These are really capable people."

In a submission on the changes, Forest and Bird warned that DoC seemed to be returning to its pre-Cave Creek structure "where staff are expected to work across a range of programmes they may not be trained for, with greater reliance on volunteers". 14 people died in Paparua National Park when a viewing platform collapsed in 1994. Advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell: "We're worried that it could lead to another Cave Creek scenario, not necessarily involving people but a species' extinction. Under this new system, if a stoat turned up on Kapiti Island I would be really fearful we would [not] be able to mount the kind of response we did a couple of years ago."

But Cosford says responsibilities and accountabilities will be clearer under the new regime.

Morrison has been seeding the ground for directional change virtually since he became director general in 2006, arguing that DoC can never expect enough from the Government purse and that all New Zealanders need to take responsibility for safeguarding the estate. In last year's annual report, he wrote that undertaking sufficient pest control to halt species decline would cost more than the national health budget, only slightly exaggerating the task at hand. DoC currently spends only enough on pest control to cover about 12 per cent of the estate - about $30 million a year.

The agency has never loomed large in state spending priorities and since the financial crisis has been squeezed even harder - forced to find savings of $54 million over four years from 2009; a further cut of $34 million over four years signalled last year.

Only last month - after the restructuring drew 1700 submissions and vigorous lobbying from conservation groups - did the Government ease up, reducing the savings target by $20 million. This has allowed DoC to retain more positions than planned - the reduction in jobs halved from 140 to 72.

Still, DoC will need to find savings of $3.5 million a year for the next four years. At the same time, the Government has found $158 million over four years to promote New Zealand as a tourism destination - a campaign that will draw heavily on the conservation estate. What the posters won't show is the damage to biodiversity caused by stoats, rats and possums in the 88 per cent of the estate not covered by pest control.

"This Government hasn't really understood how important conservation is to the economy," says Hackwell. "Biodiversity and special places are the core infrastructure of one of our largest export-earners. But in areas where we don't have pest control, 95 per cent of kiwis that hatch don't make it to 1 year of age."

The restructuring is intended to better align the organisation with Morrison's thinking that DoC needs to engage more with the business and community sectors. DoC has progressively increased its corporate sponsorships under Morrison: Air New Zealand (great walks), Dulux (huts), Fonterra (waterways) and Genesis Energy (blue duck) joining long-established partners such as programmes such as Rio Tinto (kakapo recovery) and BNZ (kiwi). Regional partnerships have expanded, many involving schools or funding specific species and habitats. Hundreds of volunteer groups are involved in projects ranging from small-scale habitat restoration to kiwi sanctuaries and pest and weed eradication on islands. Concessions granted for commercial activities in DoC estate have also grown, though not dramatically.

Many doubt there is much untapped capacity remaining, in the business or volunteer world. And just as corporates like to be linked to high-profile or feel-good projects, volunteers tend to focus on work close to where they live.

If tourism can gain $158 million in these tough times and campaigns by foreign affairs staff can force the Government to blink, shouldn't DoC be defending its patch harder?

"The idea that we have to rip the guts out of this department because it is never going to get funding is too pessimistic," says Hackwell.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeill sees the restructuring as "a cry for help from Al Morrison".

"When does DoC stop being a department of state and become just another pub charity?"

David McDowell, a director general in DoC's formative years, believes the tourism sector should be doing more to support conservation efforts.

"It is the conservation estate that laid the golden [tourism] egg," says McDowell, who is also a former head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

He is so concerned about the new direction he is stretching public service convention about departmental heads not commenting publicly on developments in their former agencies. He says the split structure lacks clear lines of responsibility and is a recipe for turf wars.

"Conflating 11 regions down to six makes no sense in ecosystem or any other terms."

McDowell shares the belief that DoC should not rely on the corporate sector, especially in straitened times. Seeking a wider range of business sponsors increases the potential for conflicts of interest if sectors such as timber, fishing, prospecting and real estate become involved. "DOC risks being inhibited in carrying out its fundamental advocacy and regulation roles."

"It's all too drastic in structural and people terms. And the timing is bad. This is the worst time to be trying to raise money from the private sector, communities or NGOs."

Murray Hosking, a former deputy director general, says he understands the motivation: the conservation budget has been going backwards and even in its heyday DoC had to prioritise. But he sees huge potential for crossed-wires and cross-purposes because of the gaps between frontline staff and decision makers.

"It's a hell of a gamble - the key is going to be integration. But I can't understand how you facilitate integration by having the two [functions] in separate centres."

A trustee of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve on Wellington's south coast, Hosking says volunteers are hard to find. "People work longer hours; they tend to be either young people or grey-hairs like me."

He also worries that corporate funding could affect priorities. "It's all very well for business to build a new hut on the Routeburn - as long as that hut is the priority."

Cosgrove says integrated national planning will ensure prospective partnerships are matched with planned work in ecosystems and biodiversity.

She is confident there is untapped support for conservation in the community. "We've been overwhelmed by the number of people who put up their hands to paint huts," she says. "Everything we are seeing - there's support and passion and capability there but DoC hasn't been that easy to work with. We need to get better at organising and enabling that capability."

She is equally confident there is plenty of spare largesse in the commercial sector. "We are looking for partners where there's a value exchange." Cosgrove points to the two-way relationship with Air New Zealand, which treats passengers to a cheesy inflight safety video featuring Bear Grylls on the Routeburn Track and gains good promotion for flying rare birds to new sanctuaries.

But Forest and Bird says the fickle nature of corporate sponsorship will leave projects at risk of being dropped or downgraded. Already, Rio Tinto is seeking to end its long running sponsorship of the kakapo recovery programme, while Solid Energy is doubtful about renewing funding for a whio (blue duck) recovery project on the West Coast.

Similarly, grassroots groups doubt there are many volunteers who are not already engaged.

Heather Rogan chairs the Fairy Tern Trust, which works to safeguard nesting and breeding sites near Mangawhai for one of our most endangered birds. She says community groups depend on DoC for science input and management plans but are being expected to take up more of the slack. "The protection of this bird deserves the highest level of support from the department including overall coordination of recovery efforts, a commitment to adequate funding and the backing of scientific expertise. We feel it is unreasonable to expect community groups to take on the care of threatened species without adequate support."

Back at Nelson Lakes, Friends of Rotoiti fears the future health of the mainland island could be compromised, with the St Arnaud area manager's post going and at least one biodiversity manager expected to go. "That would be really serious for the mainland island if they both go," says Friends stalwart Bryce Buckland. "These are very experienced fantastic workers with a wealth of knowledge of plants and animals and how to control pests. It's knowledge built up over years and years."

Buckland says the group depends for funding on DoC's community projects fund but has been told it will need to do more fundraising itself. "If things get too hard and we are expected to do our own fundraising we will just pull out. We go up there to do work, not to run cake stalls to buy traps for what's really a public resource."

- NZ Herald

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