A decision by environmental advocates Forest and Bird to quit the Land and Water Forum was dismissed by Environment Minister Nick Smith last week as a stunt orchestrated by a former Green MP, Kevin Hague, who left politics to head Forest and Bird.
Its withdrawal from the forum - along with three other organisations - has also been used by some environmental groups to claim that the Government's policy on freshwater is falling apart.
The reality is more complex, as political reporter Isaac Davison outlines in this analysis.

Why was the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) set up?

To find middle ground on the divisive issue of managing New Zealand's rivers, lakes and streams. It brings together a broad spectrum of interested parties - business, farmers, iwi, environmentalists, iwis, power companies and recreational groups.

It uses a governance style borrowed from Scandinavia, in which groups work collectively alongside Government to come up with solutions.

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It was established in 2008 initially as the Sustainable Land Use Forum, but expanded in 2009 to bring together a wider group to advise Environment and Agriculture ministers on freshwater management, with Government funding.

What has it achieved?

One of its biggest successes has been getting all sectors, including sworn enemies, around the same table to work together on water issues - something that was considered unthinkable given the emotion surrounding water quality and so-called "dirty dairying".

The group can take credit for getting acceptance across all water users that they need to work within limits. It also played a key role in the development of a legally binding National Policy Statement for freshwater.

In terms of tangible gains, its recommendation to fence off all waterways to prevent livestock getting into rivers has been accepted by the Government, albeit with different timeframes.

The Government's freshwater policy announced two weeks ago was strongly influenced by the forum's recommendations. While it does not follow all of the recommendations, it is not as weak as Forest and Bird and others have said.

The forum as a whole described the policy as an important step forward because it includes requirements for councils to monitor macroinvertebrates - considered a key indicator of water quality - as well as nitrogen and phosphorus levels. Councils will have to act if any of these measures fall below yet-to-be-finalised levels.

Similarly, the Government's new standard for "swimmable" rivers is not as weak as first thought. It was criticised for allowing water quality in rivers and streams to be categorised as "excellent" if they did not exceed 540 parts E.Coli per 100ml. But for a river to meet that standard, it must also have a median reading of 130 parts E.Coli per 100ml.

Was Forest and Bird's withdrawal from the forum a Green Party stunt?

Nick Smith said Forest and Bird left the forum because its chief executive and former Green MP Kevin Hague was using the organisation as "an extension of the Opposition".

But Forest and Bird have long considered calling it quits. It was discussing the matter before Hague became the organisation's chief executive in October. In June last year, a move to quit the forum was narrowly defeated in the board.

The last straw was the Government's freshwater announcement two weeks ago, which Forest and Bird believed had ignored recommendations by the Land and Water Forum.

Forest and Bird's concerns about the Government's new freshwater standards are detailed and comprehensive - seen here in a letter to Smith - which strengthens its case that it quit on principle, not political attention as Smith claimed.

Formed in 1923, Forest and Bird has had a long and loud voice in environmental issues. Its decision to withdraw is a big loss for the forum, because it also played a major role in LAWF's research, policy and governance. It was part of the forum's core team, known as the "Small Group", which was tasked with most of the heavy lifting.

But it is not the sole environmental voice on the forum. Its departure is likely to give other groups such as Environmental Defence Society more influence inside the forum, while Forest and Bird sits on the outside.

Who is left?

Four groups have quit - Fish and Game and Environmental and Conservation Organisations (ECO) last year, then Forest and Bird and Federated Mountains Clubs last week.

Fish and Game and Forest and Bird were part of the Small Group which does most of the forum's work.

Fish and Game left because it felt muzzled and said it could not lobby ministers directly if it was part of the forum. That concern was not shared by other environmental groups in the forum, who have continued to be outspoken on freshwater issues. ECO felt Government had been selective about adopting the forum's recommendations and was not acting with urgency to prevent freshwater degradation.

Federated Mountain Clubs said that if it remained a member it could be seen as an endorsement of what it felt was a poor policy on freshwater. It was not a major player in the forum so it will not be a big loss. However, its departure last week added to the impression of an exodus by members.

The forum still has 52 members, including environmental groups like the Environmental Defence Society and Ecologic Foundation.

It also has 13 Government or council "observers", such as the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment.

The remaining members are:

Aqualinc Research Ltd
Ballance Agri-Nutrients
Beef + Lamb New Zealand
Business NZ
Contact Energy
DairyNZ
Ecologic
Environmental Defence Society
Federated Farmers
Fertiliser Association
Fonterra
Foundation for Arable Research
Genesis Energy
Horticulture New Zealand
Ihutai Trust
Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia
Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand
Irrigation New Zealand
King Country Energy
Landcare Trust
Lincoln University
Massey University
Mercury
Meridian Energy
MWH
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research
Ngati Kahungunu
NZ Farm Forestry Association
NZ Forest Owners Association
NZ Institute of Forestry
NZ Winegrowers
Oceana Waihi Gold
Oji Fibre Solutions
Opus International Consultants Ltd
Our Land and Water National Science Challenge
Pioneer Generation
Rural Women New Zealand
Spiire
Straterra Inc
Sustainable Business Council
Te Arawa Lakes Trust
Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu
Tourism Industry Association
TrustPower
Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board
Waikato River Authority
Waikato-Tainui
Water New Zealand
Watercare Services Limited
Whitewater New Zealand
Wood Processors and Manufacturers Association of New Zealand
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