Marie Brown: Damaging our heritage is too easy

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Today, in the first of a two-part series on New Zealand’s ‘vanishing nature’, author Marie Brown explains this country’s biodiversity crisis - and why things keep getting worse. Tomorrow, she offers bold solutions.
Vanishing Nature, Marie Brown's new publication, and a morepork/ruru. Photo / Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust, www.wingspan.co.nz
Vanishing Nature, Marie Brown's new publication, and a morepork/ruru. Photo / Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust, www.wingspan.co.nz

New Zealand's rich natural heritage is globally significant and in serious decline.

Despite extraordinary efforts by many of us, species like the kiwi and ecosystems such as wetlands continue to reduce in number and extent. We now hold the dubious title of having the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and a range of other unfortunate accolades. More than 40 per cent of our birds, 74 per cent of our freshwater fish and 85 per cent of our lizards are threatened or at risk. How did we get here?

Our new publication, Vanishing Nature, facing New Zealand's biodiversity crisis contains some hard truths about the state of declining nature here in Aotearoa. The reasons for the decline are numerous, but a major factor is that our economic systems do not account for nature and what it provides, and incentives to damage are stronger and more numerous than those to protect nature. We emerge more cheerful at the end with a palette of solutions that we are pretty enthusiastic about.

But before we identify solutions it is necessary to tell the story of the decline. In this, the first of three pieces, we describe the loss and what has been done about it.

Go back several centuries in Aotearoa and things were very different. Plump kakapo were among the most numerous of birds, lumbering about the forest and nesting on the ground without concern for predators. When the magnificent (and now extinct) Haast's eagle passed near, the world's heaviest parrot stood stock still until the danger passed. But freezing in the face of a predator like a stoat or rat is not going to work. Predation and other factors mean kakapo adults number just 124 now even with intensive management like captive breeding - and their story is far from unusual.

The importance of flourishing natural systems to our long-term wellbeing, our heritage, and our international brand is unarguable. Yet New Zealand holds weakly to its famed 100% Pure status, with environmental statistics telling a very different story. Our primary industries (and hence a substantial chunk of our GDP) rely heavily on nature services - but are their activities safeguarding those services nearly enough? We think not. But that isn't where the value of nature to New Zealand ends.

New Zealand relies on the durability of that 100% Pure tagline for tourism (an industry comprising 8.7 per cent of our GDP and rising every year). Tourists flock from all over the globe to marvel at our unique wildlife, our world-class beaches and breathtaking alpine vistas. They search eagerly for the iconic kiwi scampering through the forest, and listen for the haunting call of the kokako - but they are rather hard to find and hear these days. The media often relate reprimands from disappointed visitors who note the true state of things.

Several centuries ago plump kakapo like this were among the most numerous New Zealand birds. Photo / Supplied
Several centuries ago plump kakapo like this were among the most numerous New Zealand birds. Photo / Supplied

Many of our forests are silent, owing to the destructive impacts of mammal pests and our penchant for the chainsaw and the digger. Historic land clearance and current approaches to intensive farming and urbanisation continue to dam, divert and drain our freshwater ecosystems such as wetlands. The vast sea that surrounds us is impacted by sediment run-off from poor land management, damage from fishing (for example, bottom trawling) and other impacts, as well as the broader impacts of ocean acidification and climate change. It is a most sobering tale.

Do we sit idly by? Well, of course not.

We boast an impressive array of legislation designed to protect the public interest in nature and a policy framework moving ever closer to the necessary level of rigour. A dedicated public agency, the Department of Conservation, has worked tirelessly despite a difficult history to lead some globally important innovations in nature conservation. Throughout our councils, crown research institutes, non-government organisations and the private sector, environmental champions drag together what resources they can to help steer us in a better direction every day through advocacy, landowner advice programmes, funding assistance and practical conservation activities like pest control and planting.

Community conservation has taken off in New Zealand, particularly in the past decade or so, with thousands of private landowners, volunteers and energetic grassroots organisations across the country labouring to protect what matters with on-the-ground conservation efforts and policy advocacy. And major NGOs, government agencies, collectives and philanthropic funders do their best to help them along the way.

The private sector is waking to the opportunities for innovation and leadership and shifting its business focus not just to impact management, but to acknowledging ecological dependencies. This helpfully shows that the present trend of continued environmental degradation and biodiversity loss need not continue forever.

So, it's not for lack of effort, is it? But the numbers keep going backwards.

Conservation is hard, damage is easyOur natural heritage is at risk because we are addressing only some of the reasons for loss, and because conservation is difficult and not enough people actively participate in it or insist that it happens.

Most people are aware of habitat loss and the destructive impacts of pests such as stoats and rats - but the reasons we are losing our natural heritage go much deeper than that.

A newly hatched white kiwi which was found at Pukaha Mount Bruce earlier this year. Photo / Mike Heydon
A newly hatched white kiwi which was found at Pukaha Mount Bruce earlier this year. Photo / Mike Heydon

Damage to nature from human activities is usually left out of decision-making in economies. This is partly because natural values are pretty difficult to account for. For example, most homeowners know roughly what a new garage would cost them. But the loss of, say, a mature kauri to make space for that garage can generally occur without the value of that tree to society being fully accounted or paid for. We call this "market failure" and it means that the loss of much nature is ignored - those who harm natural systems do so with little requirement for compensation. Fixing the damage becomes a task for society as a whole. How do "they" get away with it?

The truth is that powerful private interests that wish to degrade commonly owned goods like freshwater, air, biodiversity or landscapes for private gain are usually pretty effective at securing and defending that right. While lots of New Zealanders are passionate about their environment and are deeply concerned about the wider impacts of development, they are usually no match for the driven few who want to protect their access to nature for private gain.

The inevitable outcome of a contest between powerful private interests and usually weaker groups trying to protect the environment is that lots of damage occurs and it's a real struggle to reduce or prevent it. It's not impossible, just not very likely or easy.

Mediating the contest and balancing the public interest in protecting nature and the desire of private interests for economic outcomes is usually the job of regulation and agencies. But is that balance struck by agencies and the laws they implement? It's an awkward question and the answer is not simple.

Industries such as farming, forestry and fishing can strongly influence agencies that administer common resources such as air, water and nature and reduce their ability to act in the public interest. Sometimes this influence is overt (legal challenge of regional planning documents) and sometimes much more subtle (disproportionately high farmer representation on regional councils in some areas of the country is an example).

Agencies "captured" in this way are less likely to take action that might disrupt industry interests to protect the resource on behalf of the public. They will usually shy away from clear, strong and meaningful regulation, carrying out enforcement and investing in robust environmental monitoring.

Enter conservation efforts - the cost of which is usually picked up by society, such as the Department of Conservation's budget, philanthropy, environmental budgets of councils and the efforts of NGOs, community groups, private landowners and other individuals.

DoC is critical to the future of the species and ecosystems that call New Zealand home. But DoC has a budget that is about the same as the average city council, and can do just a fraction of what is needed to protect our natural heritage (just 12.5 per cent of our public conservation lands receive sufficient management).

Councils vary considerably in their efforts, with expertise and expenditure distributed unevenly. Some regional councils spend millions on restoration, environmental education and community advocacy while others do precious little, and councils managing large and important natural areas are rarely funded to do so.

NGOs like Forest & Bird, WWF and EDS work tirelessly in an increasingly hostile funding environment, more and more dependent on voluntary support. The rest of the community sector is also scrambling for ways to fund its crucial work, sometimes beaten to the philanthropic pot by government agencies themselves.

Incentives for private conservation are few and paltry, but that doesn't dissuade many hard-working land owners and managers. While some councils offer rates relief, and funding for some costs (for example, plants) is available from a range of sources, it rarely offsets the costs of proper management, and certainly not the opportunity cost of not using the land for its "productive" capacity.

As negative as all this seems, the good news is it really does not have to be this way. The loss of nature, on which we all depend, is a choice - and we can choose to maintain and protect it instead of diminishing what little remains.

The next column focuses on solutions and where we might go from here.

• Dr Marie Brown is the senior policy analyst at the EDS.

Vanishing Nature: facing NZ's biodiversity crisis, by Marie A Brown, R T Theo Stephens, Raewyn Peart & Bevis Fedder, Environmental Defence Society, 2015.

- NZ Herald

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