Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Let DoC do conservation not tourism

Plastic moa won't enhance the untouched Oparara Basin. Photo / Supplied
Plastic moa won't enhance the untouched Oparara Basin. Photo / Supplied

The Department of Conservation was recently given $76 million in extra funding. Were conservationists grateful? Did trees get an extra special hug that night?

Not so you'd notice.

The money was ringbarked - sorry, earmarked - for tourism, specifically giving signs a lick of paint and inventing two new Great Walks: locations and routes to be confirmed.

According to those pesky Greens, in a study released a year ago, DoC's funding has fallen in real terms by $336m over eight years of National Government. Maggie Barry, Minister of Conservation and Shouting Down Anyone Who Disagrees with You, disputes that figure, it should be noted.

DoC, whose work is being made harder by increased tourism, will find $76m handy. But if their funding has fallen by anything like the amount claimed, getting 20 per cent back can't really be described as a boost, especially when you don't get to decide how to spend it.

DoC, as I've been telling anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen for some years now, is the unsung hero of tourism. It's arguable that no other body does as much to maintain the sites that attract visitors from overseas.

From Great Walks to historic sites, prettying up parks to preserving native birdlife, DoC is there with paths, signs and other paraphernalia.

It's responsible for so much of what brings visitors here and gives us pride in our country. In that respect, it's a nice little earner.

You wonder it can find time for anything else - like conservation.

But by funding the bit of DoC that can be easily shown to make money, the Government has made it as clear as possible that environmental principles are values only to the extent that they can turn a buck. This thinking is typical of those who put profit first. It's why we have environmental degradation and man-made climate change.

Make money now and pay for it with the future.

It's just possible DoC was making a point when it chose last week to release its strategy for dealing with native species extinction. About 800 native species are classed as threatened.

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, DoC has also helped float a plan for a tourist development at the West Coast's Oparara Caves, which have been largely undisturbed for 35 million years and would probably like to stay that way but, sorry, we need the money.

In a marriage made in bureaucracy hell, DoC had been working with the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment to develop plans for the area.

It's home to native bats, snails, ducks and kiwi but even those living taonga aren't enough for some, who have suggested that what's really needed to give the whole thing a bit of zip are life-size model moa.

Abandoning any pretence of dignity, one enthusiast even described the development as a potential "tourism and selfie hot spot". What has been overlooked is that the reason tourists like it here is the other aspect of DoC's work - conserving stuff.

The great majority of our flora and fauna are found only here and they are what those big-spending visitors want to see. They want to get up close to our rivers and waterfalls, lakes and mountains, bush and birdlife, not giant plastic models. Giant plastic models can be built anywhere.

Hectare for hectare, New Zealand is still the most beautiful country on Earth and despite the best efforts of one environment-abusing administration after another, there is still enough left to justify that claim.

But with ideas like the Oparara plan, how much longer will that be the case?

- Herald on Sunday

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