The Government is walking back a suggestion that some councils are being asked to pause the work they are doing on designating land as significant natural areas before new government directions, which will give councils greater powers to protect flora and fauna on private land.
The Far North District Council has decided to temporarily halt its work on designating land as significant natural areas (SNAs) after a protest by local landowners, many of whom own Māori land.
It will wait until the new directions, the national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity (NPSIB) and an implementation plan, have been revealed later in the year.
Associate Environment Minister James Shaw says only the Far North District Council had paused its process. He said that in a letter to local authorities from him and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta they have not asked any other councils to follow suit. That differs from previous comments.
Shaw said last night that they had written to councils saying those that needed to pause now and reset the process once the statement and guidance were out "can and should do so."
The joint letter doesn't ask councils to do that – although some may decide to join the Far North in a pause. That is up to each council.
In clarifying comments to the Herald, Shaw said the pause that had been agreed was with the Far North District Council "so they can take steps to get the process right, including working in partnership with iwi/Māori."
He also confirmed that one element of the national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity would recognise that Māori had a vital role as kaitiaki of their whenua.
"As such, there will be exemptions in the national policy statement for new activities on Māori land whilst still allowing councils to work in partnership with tangata whenua to protect wildlife and habitats."
The reaction to the Far North District Council has been strong from Māori owners. The Northern Advocate has reported that about 17 per cent, or 115,975ha, of the Far North is Māori land. More than half of this land - 60,306ha or 52 per cent of Māori freehold land - is mapped as SNAs.
Māori landowners have described SNAs as a modern-day land grab and said there had been no consultation.
The exemption confirmed by Shaw is likely to mean that in practice, Māori land deemed to be an SNA won't need to get council permission for new activities.
The designation of significant natural areas has been in the Resource Management Act since 1991 but different councils have used different criteria and protected them in different ways, and some not at all.
The national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity has been proposed for several decades and the first draft for consultation was published in 2011 under the National Government.
The NPSIB is designed to get a consistent approach across the country as to the criteria for designating land SNA and how it will be protected.
About 60 per cent of councils already have SNAs and of the 40 per cent that don't, they are at different stages of identifications.
"Right now, biodiversity in New Zealand is in crisis," Shaw said.
"While some native species' populations are improving, most are still in decline. Reversing this decline is a priority for our Government."
The letter to local authorities from Shaw and Mahuta said they had "heard your calls for improved clarity on the progress of the national policy statement for indigenous biodiversity."
It reminded them almost 4000 of New Zealand's native plants and wildlife were threatened.
"The NPSIB will be a crucial part of our Government's plan to halt the loss of indigenous biodiversity and protect what is unique about Aotearoa New Zealand."
The letter says that after consultation closed on an original draft NPSIB in March 2020, officials have been further developing policy. The intention was to release a final exposure draft of the NPSIB by the end of the year, along with an implementation plan.
The letter doesn't mention the Far North District Council and its decision to stall the process.