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Howard's End: Habitat Of Hope, Not Hype

Environmental law often punishes bad things but rarely does it promote the good with clamour and conflict often accompanying environmental news. Shouldn't we all be concentrating on a habitat of hope, not hype? John Howard writes.

We've all been sold the idea that the world is screwed up, so we need to be looking for solutions on how to make it better which includes the corporate sector, the farmer, the merchant, the environmentalist and the grass-roots New Zealander.

Realistically, you can't turn the clock back to what it was in 1840 so whatever we do, we have to manage with people in mind. Haphazard conservation is worse than haphazard development, it seems to me.

Together, we all have to focus on restoring and protecting endangered species so our priority must change to developing a conservation blueprint: a map showing all the sites nationwide that need to be protected in order to accomplish our mission.

On that map, a handful of areas will glow red or orange - colour codes used for extreme biological danger. Then, the nation will know where we are headed and what we are trying to accomplish.

I know that are large numbers of groups in all communities spread throughout New Zealand doing some wonderful things.

But it seems to me that we'll get a lot further doing things together than by butting heads, making threats and telling people they can't do things.

I've heard it so many times before " What's so important which stops me clearing this creek of weeds?" When it is explained that those native weeds are little filters to clean the water, the farmer looks at it a whole different way.

One farmer recently said to me "I've got a 3-year-old girl. You know my favourite thing to do in the world is to get my fishing rod and my kid and play in that creek. Everybody loves that creek and I can't find many people who want to see it hurt."

And that was the answer. The weeds were personally important to his lifestyle and his recreation with his little girl.

So just as consumer taste and education shapes the corporate landscape, so, too, is hunger for a new kind of environmentalism changing the conservation world.

People throughout New Zealand now realise that they can organise themselves and band together in their community to restore a river, a field, a mountain or whatever.

And no longer do many of those people say no to economic development. Today, a few are learning how to make commerce and conservation walk side by side.

Some groups overseas are no longer focusing on advocacy and activism but are actually buying and protecting land.

Like experimentation on the dot-com frontier this activity, without resorting to costly junk mail or telemarketing campaigns soliciting donations, is spawning a burst of creativity to the conservation community which bear little resemblance to conventional environmental groups.

Corporates are also involved from farm supply companies, to Ford Motors, to commercial fishing fleet owners.

No longer is it enough to simply point out a problem.

Today, some people inside the environmental movement are picking up shovels instead of loudspeakers and are focusing on such things as the restoration of worked-over public land, taking conservation to the inner city by creating parks and even cleaning up toxic sites in neighbourhoods often overlooked by mainstream groups.

In the fishing community, previously strident environmentalists are now getting alongside fisherman who are also very interested about trying to find solutions to trawling destruction. It's hope over hype, in action.

The idea is make sure everyone understands that conservation is in their self-interest.

Environmental groups are also looking for more accountability for donations. Some groups have not been accountable and failed to file proper returns which has brought scrutiny to all groups.

If someone gives $25 nobody has the leverage to say "OK, I gave $25 how did you spend my money?" It's just $25.

But when somebody gives $1,000 they have a right to know and there is an obligation to inform them how that money is spent.

Many overseas environmentalist groups are therefore abandoning junk-mail fund raising in favour of personal solicitations to major donors. The result: more accountability.

The other problem with direct mail is that it can require exaggeration of a problem and you don't build effective long-term conservation programmes based on exaggeration.

Cost is another factor where too much money is spent to get your money.

There is even a fresh look being taken at the environmentalists most potent weapon: the law.

The law prohibits bad things: it doesn't encourage good things and in the process it gets a lot of people off-side. That does nobody any good so it will be very interesting to observe how the Government's provision of legal aid for environmental cases is used - or abused.

Developers well-know that they can be tied up and have to fight an issue for years. But they want certainty so even though an environmental group may not win, they can jam the process. That's power, but it's also frightening power.

Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

Isn't it far better to work alongside developers to create ribbons of open space that will provide habitat, restore surface and groundwater flows or perhaps link neighbourhoods with bicycle or pedestrian paths.

There must also be a recognition that not all farmers or all corporates are bad. Many of them are quietly doing things in their communities which are good for conservation. People who do good deeds should not be punished for doing them so, like in the U.S., we need to introduce safe harbour agreements.

Some environmental groups encourage corporate sponsorships for their programs while others are entirely distrustful seeing sponsorships as a public relations ploy.

But like it or not, the private sector drives much of what happens in the world. For instance, there are 14 different minerals which go to make up computers which are then used to network across the world via the Internet.

Question - Which minerals in those computers do you want to stop mining?

Somebody once said to an environmental group " Would you accept tainted money?" The response was "The only thing wrong with tainted money is there t'aint enough of it."

It seems to me that we simply can't keep pointing fingers at people.

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