The New Plymouth District Council recently decided that any likely new significant natural areas (SNA) need not have Resource Management Act (RMA) rules to control how landowners manage them. These rules could have impacted up to 1650 properties.
Federated Farmers has long advocated a non-regulatory approach to SNA management, as it believes it is the best way to get landowner buy-in for biodiversity protection. The council's decision was a major vote in confidence for farmers and supports the Federation's argument that landowners are the best guardians of their land. It also recognises that to achieve real SNA protection, farmers need support, education and incentives - not rules.
Allan Barrett owns one of New Plymouth's existing SNAs. He understands the RMA requires SNAs to be protected, but feels rules are a disincentive. On his property, Mr Barrett has voluntarily fenced off, replanted and managed the pests on large areas of indigenous vegetation but like many landowners, resents regulation as a land-grab.
"It's a matter of principle. I don't want to clear the bush, but I do want to have the right to manage the vegetation in a way that best suits me and my property. I want to leave a legacy of clean water and a pristine environment. Surely that would meet the intention of the Act?" he said.
Even though rules can stop the vegetation being cleared, they don't address more serious risks to biodiversity, such as possum damage and landowners' existing use rights to graze SNAs, despite the damage it does to ecological values.
The council cannot force a landowner to undertake pest management or fencing and imposing other rules only lessens the goodwill of landowners to voluntarily undertake these activities.
Taranaki landowners care about biodiversity and invest substantial time, effort and money to protect their patch. It can be seen with the regional council's riparian planting programme, which shows Taranaki has New Zealand's highest uptake of QEII covenants through landowners continually exhausting any biodiversity protection funding.
The most telling statistic is that in the 12 years to 2008, Taranaki's indigenous land cover only reduced by 0.02 per cent (or 1 per cent every 600 years), all while the New Plymouth district had no rules prohibiting clearance. This doesn't include any gains from planting and regeneration that has occurred more recently.
There is no doubt that New Zealand has some seriously threatened land environments. Up till the 1980s, land clearance was encouraged and Government-subsidised.
Since then, there has been a mind-shift in most landowners, but if we want to continue regaining lost biodiversity we must encourage the behaviour of protection and enhancement. Recognising this, the New Plymouth district is now investigating doubling their Natural Heritage Fund.
The council will also write to central Government concerning compensation for landowners affected by SNA regulation. This has been a concern since the Act was introduced. Federated Farmers supports any calls for the Government to address this.
SNAs have expenses associated with them, such as mortgage payments, fencing and pest management. Helping cover these costs could address property rights' concerns and recognise that landowners are faced with costs associated with protecting biodiversity.
Vegetation clearance will still be monitored and council will continue reviewing SNA management. If farmers are not taking their biodiversity responsibilities seriously, then the council may be forced to regulate.