DoC workers left in the dark

By Laurel Stowell

It's unclear whether the Taranaki/Whanganui/Tongariro Conservancy will still exist after the government's most recent proposed changes to the Department of Conservation.

Staff at the department's Whanganui Area office did not make themselves available for interview yesterday, and even national media adviser Reuben Williams had no details on how regions like Whanganui, Ruapehu and Rangitikei would be affected.

He was unable to say how many jobs would be lost or changed, how the proposed new structure would work or where the new groups and field support hubs would be based.

Those details would be available in the next few days.

A media release said the main changes were:

- six regions instead of the previous 11 conservancies

- a new Conservation Services Group to work in the field

- a new Conservation Partnerships Group to obtain voluntary help and money

- loss of 118 regional management and administration jobs

- loss of 22 frontline jobs in areas like asset management, planning and inspection

- the creation of new field support hubs to do that work across bigger regions

The department (DoC) is to keep the same number of offices throughout New Zealand, and "more than 1200 operational staff".

Staff who do know what's going on now have two weeks to make submissions, and final decisions will not be made until after that.

Any changes may take months to take effect, DoC Director-General Al Morrison said. Those whose jobs were affected would be offered redeployment or relocation, where possible.

The structural changes would set DoC up to work better with "external partners", he said.

They aimed to save $8.7 million while allowing DoC to deliver its current work. Mr Morrison said the changes would position the department better for the future, and would still have been proposed even if its budget had been doubled.

Wanganui Forest & Bird chairwoman Esther Williams said the restructure was horrible.

"The government has a heavy expectation that volunteers are going to maintain tracks, weeds and pests and the upkeep of huts. In this country, volunteers are older people. Have we got those people with that expertise, the fitness, the gnarly good health and the love of the environment to go out and do those things?"

Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, in his weekly Chronicle column, also pins his hope on those volunteers.

"In the end the conservation movement will rely, as it always has relied, on the energy and true belief of volunteers in the protection of our threatened species," he said.

The PSA believes this restructure will affect frontline operations across almost every DoC office, with the disestablishment of mainly regional programme manager positions.

"These are not solely desk-bound, paper-pushing jobs," national secretary Brenda Pilott said.

"These people are hands-on managers who spend time in the field organising and planning resources and running frontline activities and programmes such as species recovery or track building. They might have the word manager in their title but they do frontline work and are central to the delivery of DoC's operations."

Forest & Bird national advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell agreed.

"Make no mistake, these cuts will mean fewer people checking traps, measuring fresh water quality, monitoring endangered native birds and picking up rubbish in our national parks."

Labour's conservation spokesperson, Ruth Dyson, said the cuts would hit provincial New Zealand hard, as well as hurting biosecurity and biodiversity.

"Last year the Auditor General released a damning report on the Government's underfunding of the Department, saying cuts posed a significant threat to our conservation values and prevented the department from fulfilling its statutory responsibility for environmental protection."

There was also evidence the slimmed-down department was spending less time in conservation advocacy than it did in the past.

Prime Minister John Key told Fairfax Media yesterday that DoC was overstaffed with managers and government departments now needed to be leaner and more efficient.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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