A Good Year for Conservation?
Working in conservation is invariably busy. New Zealand’s natural heritage is under such consistent attack on so many fronts that there’s never time to put our feet up. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to see the wood … you know the rest of it.
So given the year is all but over, and before Forest & Bird launches into battle for the new year, I thought it would be worth considering what sort of year 2014 has been in terms of conservation gains or losses. Are there any lessons to be learnt for the New Year?
We began 2014 with a crisis that had its roots in the warm summer of 2013. All the signs were in January that there would be a particularly heavy beech seeding in autumn 2014, which in turn was going to lead to an explosion in rat and stoat numbers. The scientists said there was a serious risk of losing at least some local populations of our most endangered birds.
The Department of Conservation responded by launching the ‘Battle for Our Birds,’ which amounted to a massive step up in their usual aerial 1080 programme. At this stage it looks like it’s been a success, with some great figures coming out of the programme. For instance, rat tracking numbers in Fiordland’s Iris Burn were tracking at an extremely high 72 per cent before the 1080 drop there. Afterwards they were at zero. It can be assumed that a significant number of stoats will also have died from eating undigested baits from the rat carcasses.
Around Easter Cyclone Ita blew over a large number of trees on the West Coast. This set the stage for something the logging industry had obviously been itching to do for 30 years – since logging was banned on conservation land. They wrangled themselves a law change that was introduced and passed through parliament in an afternoon. Now logging (in the form of removing trees that have been blown over) has started. That’s despite the irrefutable evidence that rotting trees are vital to forest ecosystems.
In May we learnt that after years of campaigning to save Fiordland’s Snowdon forest from having a monorail and accompanying service road pushed through it, the then Conservation Minister Nick Smith had declined permission for the project (it would have used conservation land, which is also part of a World Heritage Area, no less).
In June the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment said in a report that it is easier to get permission to mine DOC land than use it for tourism – an unintended commentary on the times we live in if ever there was one.
In the same month we also celebrated the incredible work our branch members do all around the country in June, when Forest & Bird held its annual prize-giving for those members whose contribution went above and beyond. The Pestbuster award is a case in point.
The thousands of people (included many Forest & Birders) who put their name to the petition calling for a ban on shark finning managed to force the government to change the rules for the better in September. They’re still not perfect, but they are a lot better than they were.
The election came and went in September, during which conservation issues did not feature highly, mainly because of the focus placed on the relationship between the prime minister and a certain blogger. Forest & Bird’s activities in the run up to the election included the On the Block campaign, during which ‘for sale’ signs were put up in areas where the rights to mine, drill and frack were being sold off, and our well-attended ‘meet the candidates’ events, which branches hosted throughout the country.
On a lighter note, we had the best ever Great Kererū Count in September and November, during which flocks of up to 170 birds were seen.
As of November, Forest & Bird and several others – including Federated Farmers – are now officially working towards creating a Predator Free New Zealand. We marked the launch with a joint media release. The Predator Free goal may be ambitious, but it is just the sort of co-operative, nation-wide conservation campaign that is needed to compliment the intensive conservation work that already goes on in isolated pockets of the country.
In late November New Zealand’s first ever Seabird of the Year was found. The fairy tern took the title, perhaps on the strength – if you could call it that – of being fewer than 50 birds away from extinction.
In December the rights to drill and frack for oil and gas across even more of New Zealand’s farmland, conservation land, and deep-sea seabed, were sold off. You can view the maps of which areas are involved here. It’s a shocking to see the extent of the sell-off, especially when you consider this is just the latest batch, and that the process has been underway for several years.
Throughout the year Forest & Bird has been a part of the formation of a ‘marine spatial plan’ for the Hauraki Gulf. This will bring together all the various interests in the Gulf, with the aim of developing a management plan that works for all – including, for example, the extraordinary resident population of Bryde’s whales. We think the spatial plan approach has the potential to work all around New Zealand.
Sadly, work began on digging an open cast coal mine on the unique and precious Denniston Plateau this year. But there are serious questions around whether Bathurst will survive to see the project through.
It’s an obvious question, but would we have undertaken the huge job of trying to protect Denniston if we had known the outcome? Indeed Forest & Bird, and its branches, spent a lot of time and resources on the campaign. So the accountants might say no. And standing in for something DOC should have – and normally would have – done itself was a bruising affair. But if we hadn’t been involved, Bathurst Resources would never have had to commit as much as they did to predator control, or to protecting parts of the plateau as part of an exercise in offsetting (given the Denniston Plateau was the last remaining intact example of that particular ecosystem, this ‘offsetting’ is actually nothing of the sort).
Then last Friday we received what is undoubtedly some great news. Forest & Bird (the national organisation and our Hastings-Havelock North branch) had joined up with Fish and Game and the Environmental Defence Society to appeal the consent given to the Ruataniwha irrigation dam. We did this because the regional plan change that would have allowed the dam to be built was flawed, as it didn’t lay out the methods for ensuring the water quality standards it set could actually be achieved. The High Court agreed with us – we had won the appeal. The ruling creates an important precedent for the setting of water quality standards by regional councils across the country.
So is there anything else we would have done differently in the last year? Of course, we can always do things better. But it is clear that all the conservation issues we picked up on were vitally important ones. There are so many emerging all the time that arguably it’s impossible not to choose issues that are of real importance. But we will only ever have the resources to take on those that pose the greatest threat.
The next 12 months could well be the most important yet for the work we do. Every year we see an increased interconnectivity between the issues we campaign on; I am certain this will only continue to be the case.
On that note, I wish you and your family all the best for the summer break and the New Year. Hopefully you will be able to get out and enjoy some of what makes this country such a great place. And when you do, remember just how important those places are to what it is to be a New Zealander, and how their protection is something that must always be of the highest priority.
Chief Executive – Kaiwhakahaere Matua
Forest & Bird