Nicola Vallance: Cuts to conservation staff hurt most important asset

Numbers of kiwi have declined to about 70,000 from millions. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Numbers of kiwi have declined to about 70,000 from millions. Photo / Brett Phibbs

This year's Conservation Week theme was "We love you, New Zealand". All over the country, Kiwi families joined Department of Conservation staff and took part in activities and events such as predator-control workshops, open days and tree plantings.

However, despite all of this "love", the previous week DoC announced it would be cutting 96 jobs in an effort to meet a rapidly shrinking budget allocated for protecting New Zealand's most important state asset - our natural heritage.

The Government has made sweeping cuts throughout public-service agencies. It says that cuts are necessary in order to make "efficiencies" under the current economic climate.

The problem with the DoC cuts is that not only are they unnecessary, they're also extremely short-sighted in financial terms.

Unnecessary because DoC has already been through several significant reviews in recent years, which means that any so-called "fat" was trimmed long ago.

We're now well into muscle, sinew and bone.

Short-sighted because it costs more to "clean up the mess" later if work programmes have to be stopped now. For example, if wilding pine work is stopped it will lead to an explosion of these pest trees that will cost exponentially more to manage at a later date.

It is a feat of dedication, ingenuity and perseverance that DoC continues to be recognised as a world leader in endangered-species recovery, predator control and managing recreational opportunities for visitors, while running on the smell of an oily rag. But this is no longer sustainable when in real terms DoC is faced with not only a $130 million cut over the next decade but is also having to cover the costs of staff superannuation, and contributing to another government shortfall of $300 million.

Currently, without the cuts in place, DoC can only afford to carry out pest control on one-eighth of public conservation land - which means in the vast majority of our wild places we are losing the battle to protect our unique native wildlife. Kiwi once roamed throughout New Zealand in their millions, but by 2000 the number had dropped to about 85,000 and by this year that had reduced to an estimated 70,000 national birds remaining.

Sadly the type of cuts, which the Conservation Minister first announced in June as "back-office staff", affect experts in our environment at a time when the New Zealand public needs them the most.

These 100 jobs include technical experts in pest control, species conservation, island restoration, lawyers, planners and scientists, to name but a few.

The Government assures us repeatedly that these are not "frontline" staff, which is a little disingenuous since the jobs are largely based in conservancy offices and these expert staff spend significant time in the field, in hearings and with communities, trying to protect our natural heritage.

The cuts will now mean less staff, and those who remain will likely be shifted to call centre-like structures in Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. Decades of experience and conservation knowledge will be lost and the frontline staff remaining will lose access to the benefit of this knowledge for their role in carrying out the conservation work.

The first alarming example of the kind of work that will be lost was in this year's council hearing about Australian-owned company Bathurst Resources' application to dig up 200ha of public conservation land on the beautiful Denniston Plateau on the West Coast.

DoC did not front up to the hearing, and therefore no officials were there to provide information on native wildlife such as the great spotted kiwi, the native geckos, the pygmy forests and the vast wild landscape that belongs to all of us and which is managed by DoC.

At a time when some of our most well-known business heads are calling for the Government to invest in our environment to ensure our brand advantage of being "clean and green", DoC is expected to manage and protect one-third of our land mass, our marine reserves, national parks, forests and offshore islands on about the same budget as the Hamilton City Council.

And while the Government continues to cut public services, let's not forget that this year it was happy to find the money to double the amount of staff in Crown Minerals, of the Ministry for Economic Development.

The recent Pure Advantage campaign, led by the likes of Rob Fyfe, Stephen Tindall, Jeremy Moon and other business leaders, points out that in 2006 New Zealand was ranked first in the world for environmental performance and in five years we have slid to 15th place.

They maintain that our clean environment, our precious waterways and our brand are increasingly becoming our competitive advantage in the global economy.

Despite this, the amount of investment in natural-heritage protection by the Government is about $37 (or the price of 12 litres of milk) per person annually. That's about 72c a week to protect our wildlife and wild places - the very things that give us our national identity and our competitive edge.

We love you, New Zealand - it just seems that the Government doesn't want to pay for you.

* Nicola Vallance is a conservation advocate with the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.

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