When is a cypress tree indigenous to New Zealand?
That's the question a Rotorua farmer has for the Government, now parts of his farm are a Significant Natural Area aimed at protecting indigenous biodiversity.
SNAs are identified and implemented by district councils under the Resource Management Act.
Kaharoa dairy farmer Lachlan McKenzie planted the trees on his property about 27 years ago with a view to having the timber to hand if he needed it.
The trees are on parts of land unsuitable for farming and border some native trees as well as pine.
McKenzie said of his 390ha property, about 175ha was now designated Significant Natural Areas, (SNAs) and 50ha of that included cypress trees.
"They looked at an aerial map and said it was a native.''
He said while the areas might now be protected from development due to the designation, he was still expected to maintain the land, which he expected to be at a cost of about $26 per hectare annually.
"I still have to spray weeds, kill possums, shoot goats."
He preferred the QEII Trust voluntary system as it instilled "pride in the farmer" and was a partnership approach, but Significant Natural Areas provided "no choice, no discussion".
The QEII National Trust was an independent charitable trust that partners with private landowners to protect sites on their land with covenants.
"We have to empower the farmer to do the right thing. You cannot control the people with a big sledgehammer."
He wanted the Government to come and talk to him and other farmers about their land, provide help to control pests and weeds or "come and buy it off me".
He also wanted Rotorua Lakes Council to advocate for farmers to central government, conveying their feelings about Significant Natural Areas and the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity.
Federated Farmers Rotorua-Taupō regional president Colin Guyton said "a lot of Significant Natural Areas were done from a map in an office."
"There are potentially areas that should be SNAs that have been missed."
He said incoming rules and regulations had a chilling effect on environmental work some farmers were already doing due to concerns about additional cost.
Some had "put their head in the sand" about SNAs because they were overwhelmed by it.
Guyton said a council rates remission for SNAs 20 hectares and over – approved by Rotorua Lakes Council on June 28 - should apply to all properties no matter how big the SNA.
"If you can't make any money off that land but you're still getting rated on it, it's a bit unfair."
He said farmers didn't necessarily disagree with moves to protect the environment but felt they had been shut out of the conversation.
Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White said Māori understood the pain of land being taken, either through legislation or confiscation.
He said Te Arawa agreed the protection of indigenous biodiversity was important, but it caused concern if the protection of it meant "extra loss of land" for mana whenua.
"They don't want to lose one acre more."
He said compensation for SNAs needed to be considered, but that didn't necessarily need to be monetary, it could be allowances for development on other parts of land.
Rotorua deputy mayor Dave Donaldson said the council was doing its job to give effect to legislation and policy statements by implementing SNAs.
He supported Significant Natural Areas, calling them "entirely appropriate".
"The last thing I would be doing is advocating against environmental protection, be it through the use of SNAs or otherwise.
"I believe there's a diversity of views [among farmers] and I believe we need to work with the farming community."
A council spokeswoman said records showed McKenzie's property was one of those where SNA boundaries were to be reviewed as part of District Plan Change 3 – Significant Natural Areas, which the council voted on in December.
"This followed a request by the landowner in 2015 for ground-truthing to be undertaken. Access to the site was subsequently denied so the review with respect to this property was not progressed."
When this was put to McKenzie, he said he vaguely recalled being contacted by the council for access to his land, but would have denied it for a "legitimate" reason because it was an inconvenient time.
The council spokeswoman said Plan Change 3 followed significant consultation.
It involved adding more than 50 new SNAs, and removing some or part of others.
Advice was sought from ecologists, and many site visits were undertaken to address concerns raised during consultation, she said.
"Sites with alternative legal protection were excluded from consideration, consistent with the current approach of the District Plan."
A spokesman for Associate Minister for the Environment James Shaw said the requirement to identify, classify and protect areas of indigenous biodiversity was not new, existing as part of the Resource Management Act since 1991.
"However, the extent of protection is not consistent across the country. This is in large part because councils have not been provided with guidance on how to identify and protect significant natural areas.
The Government had worked with Māori, landowners, farmers, environmental non-government organisations and other groups "for some time" to address this.
The National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity was a result of that collaboration and it would provide national, standardised criteria and therefore better consistency, the spokesman said.
The Government had "listened carefully" to feedback, which included more than 7000 submissions.
"As a result of this, a number of changes have been made, which people will be able to see when the next draft is released for targeted consultation."
An implementation plan would be published alongside the national policy statement which would set out what support would be available to farmers.
Forest and Bird regional conservation manager Tom Kay said Rotorua already had 31,000ha of SNAs and the process had "appeared to go smoothly".
He said if there was an issue with a particular parcel of land "it's probably pretty easily resolved".
"Aotearoa is in a biodiversity crisis. Many of our native species are close to extinction, but we are still losing their habitat year on year.
"If we want to save our native plants and animals from extinction, we need to do a better job of protecting the environment than we have in the last 200 years.
A Forest and Bird guide stated existing practices in or near SNAs would usually be able to continue, such as grazing, tourism or honey production. Those activities would not be allowed to intensify, and new activities wouldn't be allowed which would negatively affect SNAs.
"The sorts of activities that might harm an SNA are felling trees for subdivision, or clearing bush to convert into pasture."
What are Significant Natural Areas?
Significant Natural Areas are used to mark out areas where important remnants of native habitat or rare and threatened flora or fauna can be found.
They were brought in by the Resource Management Act in 1991 but the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity aims to provide clarity around their implementation.
Associate Minister for the Environment (Biodiversity) James Shaw is expected to make a decision on the national policy statement this month.