Biodiversity is increasingly a hot topic. And, from checking the fine print in district plans to showing up in court, Federated Farmers is in the frontline.
The RMA requires councils to protect significant indigenous vegetation and maintain biological diversity. Farmers generally agree that protection of biodiversity is a good thing and work hard to look after their own patch.
But biodiversity management can produce frustrating, confusing and downright impractical rules. Some areas of tension include how sites of significance are identified, regulation of ordinary farming activities and a lack of recognition of landowners' role in environmental stewardship.
This can produce flashpoints which were recently seen in New Plymouth, Southland and Queenstown Lakes Districts.
In New Plymouth, environmental group Forest & Bird sought Environment Court action against the district council to impose rules on hundreds of properties that have native vegetation, and have therefore been identified as likely Significant Natural Areas. Properties with existing QEII covenants were also involved, which had national implications.
Federated Farmers opposed Forest & Birds' application in defence of farmers' interests.
Forest & Bird subsequently dropped the parts of their application involving covenanted land, as well as an application to have parts of both the council and Federation's cases struck out. We're now waiting for the court's ruling on remaining issues.
Biodiversity has also featured in a number of local council plan reviews. In Southland, most decisions of the district council relating to biodiversity have been appealed and there's more consultation coming on the biodiversity chapter of the regional policy statement. We're noticing a trend in district plans to include wording about damage to indigenous vegetation caused by 'uncontrolled stock grazing' or similar.
Grazing can certainly be a risk to biodiversity and we support non-regulatory methods to encourage landowners to fence off areas of bush. The problem is when plans could be interpreted to force farmers to fence.
As we pointed out in one recent submission, rules that make landowners fence off vegetation are not supported by the RMA and would be impractical to implement, due to the costs involved: one farmer worked out that fencing their mostly hill bush block would cost $483,000.
But Queenstown Lakes District Council takes the cake, proposing that the definition of vegetation clearance be changed to include 'the deliberate application of water where it would change the ecological conditions such that the resident indigenous plant(s) are killed by competitive exclusion'. In other words, irrigation of farmland is treated like clearing native bush.
We pointed out that while irrigation may change the ecological balance, it's not exactly vegetation clearance. And in a rural area you wouldn't expect irrigation to see farmers falling foul of vegetation clearance rules.
With this kind of thing happening all the time now, watching the fine print is as important as ever.
Often biodiversity is fairly complicated but lately we've even had to argue the obvious - that irrigation isn't a form of vegetation clearance.
-Lisa Harper is a Federated Farmers Regional Policy Advisor