Conservation officials working in remote parts of New Zealand are increasingly reporting dangerous encounters with gangs involved in poaching, illegal fishing or timber theft, a new report says.

The sometimes-violent encounters are a symptom of the under-funding of environmental compliance and enforcement in this country, the report's authors say.

"A lot of environmental law revolves around the last of the cash jobs - unlawful native timber harvesting, the poaching of crayfish and trout and whitebait," lead author and biodiversity expert Marie Brown told the Herald.

"What it says is we've got to invest in our frontline officers and give them the tools and the support to do their job, so you don't have a ranger that's never done a course in compliance wandering around on their own in the middle of nowhere encountering the Mongrel Mob - which is the kind of stuff that a lot of officers are facing."

Advertisement

The "Last Line of Defence" report by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and the Law Foundation of New Zealand concludes that environmental laws are inadequate in New Zealand and that the rules are rarely or haphazardly enforced because of lack of funding, poor records or political interference.

Environmental laws govern everything from keeping poisons out of waterways to preventing wildlife poaching, and the report said compliance appeared to be a relatively low priority for Government agencies.

"In our view environmental compliance is an important but overlooked stage of the policy cycle," said EDS chief executive Gary Taylor.

"This means environmental laws are often broken and the public is not able to trust regulators to do their job properly and follow that up."

The report identified four key problems:

• Laws governing compliance, monitoring and enforcement are not fit for purpose. Enforcement officers don't have sufficient powers, agencies tools are limited, and penalties are relatively low.
• Government agencies do not have the resources to crack down on law-breaking.
• Enforcement decisions are overly politicised.
• There are often poor or no records on environmental compliance.

The report was critical of the Ministry for the Environment, saying it had placed "relatively little priority" on enforcement and had mostly left councils to "do the job alone".

The ministry's chief executive Vicky Robertson said her organisation was actively looking at improving its work on compliance after an internal report last year raised similar concerns.

The new report had provided a useful independent perspective on the ministry could "raise the bar", she said.

"Our role is to provide leadership to councils on the front line. We want to strike the right balance in providing effective guidance so we get the environmental improvements we are after, without imposing unnecessary cost or time pressures."

Speaking to the report's authors, council officers said they had "no money for prosecutions". There was often a reluctance to enforce the rules. And some councils had "a policy of not issuing fines" or looked the other way when environmental laws were broken.

"The compliance function of environmental agencies just seems to fly under the radar," Brown said.

Many council officers identified political interference as a barrier to them doing their job.

In 2011, half of regional councils needed elected representatives to approve prosecutions under the Resource Management Act. While that has changed, eight district councils still needed political sign-off for prosecutions.

There are considerations that are dribbling in to enforcement decision making that are not appropriate.

Dr Marie Brown, Environmental Defence Society


Political influence was often more insidious, Brown said.

"It's more likely to be under the radar. It's more likely to be political decisions made to under-resource compliance or to alter the way compliance is carried out.

"For example, in the Waikato ... the regional council said that staff could no longer do helicopter-based monitoring of dairy farms. They had to go to the ground. And they had to give three days' notice.

"And the whole drive behind it was to limit the risk of finding non-compliance from an agriculturally-biased council.

"There are considerations that are dribbling in to enforcement decision making that are not appropriate."

The report outlines possible solutions for the Government:

• Change legislation to allow enforcement officers in all areas to issue fines
• Improve resources through better cost recovery
• Reinforce separation of governance and enforcement within Government agencies
• Proper oversight of compliance and enforcement

It said some positive work was already underway - the Department of Conservation would soon be able to issue fines for low-level offending. That approach needed to be applied to all environmental areas, Brown said.

"It shouldn't be that you want to prosecute somebody for a horrendous land-clearing case and you have to ask the council, most of whom are farmers, if that's okay."