COMMENT

What if all our towns and lowlands were buzzing with native birdsong, filled with the woosh of kererū, tūī, and kākā throughout the year?

What if native lizards, wētā and bellbirds lived in our backyards, instead of rats, possums and hedgehogs? What if dolphins and whales were common sights near our beaches and harbours, and children could discover the marvels beneath the waves in their choice of
local marine reserve?

What if we had fresh, sparkling local rivers for swimming in, and healthy wetlands where we could see wading birds and eels coming back to their ancestral waters?

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Today, the state of New Zealand's natural environment will be revealed in the first full, independent report of its type.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague says successive government policies and funding decisions have failed to reverse the crisis facing nature. Photo / Supplied
Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague says successive government policies and funding decisions have failed to reverse the crisis facing nature. Photo / Supplied

I expect Environment Aotearoa 2019 will confirm we are a long way off Forest & Bird's vision of a thriving, cared for, natural world.

I expect it will show our natural environment continues to be degraded, that thousands of unique animal and plant species are only just holding on, that rampant animal and plant pests go uncontrolled for lack of funding, and that our oceans have next to no protection and continue to be pillaged by poorly regulated extractive industries.

The truth is hard to read, but we have to understand it if we are to fix it.

New Zealand's recent report to the United Nations on our progress protecting nature owned up to some of these critical problems, stating clearly that nearly 4000 native species are in trouble and only a miniscule 0.4 per cent of the sea is protected in marine reserves.

We know native plants and animals on land are continuing to decline across the country, with 83 per cent of our land-based birds, bats, reptiles and frogs in trouble. In our oceans, 90 per cent of our seabirds and shorebirds are threatened with extinction, 28 per cent of our resident marine mammal species are threatened with extinction, and five marine mammal species are critically endangered.

Fresh water is no better – 74 per cent of our native freshwater fish are threatened. We've drained 90 per cent of our wetlands and we're still draining them. Our rivers, lakes, and streams are polluted and too much water is being taken from them. Report after report has shown the major driver of our freshwater crisis is intensive agriculture.

Climate change is making these problems worse. More intense weather events increase the pressures on nature through erosion, wildfires, and predator plagues in our forests. Our shorebirds are running out of habitat due to sea level rise and storm surges, and as oceans warm, penguins are struggling to find food where they used to.

This is the actual cost of the way things are done in New Zealand. But what if our economy nurtured and supported the environment, instead of harming it? What if our legislation always upheld the value of our natural world, instead of compromising it? What if all political parties committed to properly funding the agencies whose job it is to understand and protect our unique natural world?

We know a healthy environment can protect us from the worst impacts of climate change.

Forests with on-going pest control retain moisture, reduce fire risk and lock up carbon. Healthy rivers with forested margins deliver water to downstream towns in times of drought, and moderate floods during heavy rainfall.

Healthy dunes, estuaries, and mangrove forests protect coastal settlements and infrastructure against storm surges, erosion, and rising sea levels.

Environment Aotearoa 2019 will tell us the state of our environment, but not what should be done about it. The next part is up to the Government.

This report should stand as a call to action. Successive government policies and funding decisions have failed to reverse the crisis facing nature, and if we truly want a healthy environment, and for future generations to experience our unique wildlife, clean rivers and a safe climate, we need a game-changer.

We need a transformative plan for nature.

What will it take? A strong new Biodiversity Strategy. A bold Zero Carbon Act which safeguards nature and people. More funding for the Department of Conservation to allow them to move beyond triaging our most vulnerable species, and look after our forgotten places and forgotten species too.

Strong rules that restore our fresh water, and protect the remaining nature on private land. In our oceans – a zero bycatch pledge from government and industry, and a real plan to protect 30 per cent of our ocean in no-take reserves. A commitment to restore nature from all political parties ahead of next year's election.

We can do this, and we must, because the alternative is bleak. It will take political will, and that will require public pressure. Now is the time.

• Kevin Hague is the chief executive of Forest & Bird