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Protecting New Zealand's Landscapes

25 July 2003 Speech

Protecting New Zealand's Landscapes

Speech by Conservation Minister Chris Carter
Landscape Conference
Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland
25 July 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the invitation to talk to you today.

As we all know, New Zealand has some of the most remarkable landscapes in the world.

Our mountains, our beaches, our grasslands and our forests shape and influence our culture, our beliefs and our vision as a society.

What we do to them speaks volumes about who we are as a nation.

For this reason, I think it is important that conferences like yours periodically take place to assess the state of the landscape and our efforts to control the way we alter it.

This is particularly so because humans are good at recognising and responding to radical change but less attuned to gradual change, and it is my view that gradual change can often have the biggest impact on the landscape.

I know the premise of your conference is whether we need another legal mechanism to ensure the protection of important landscapes, in addition to the Resource Management Act and the Conservation Act.

I know that many of you have been looking at the landscape protection systems that exist in Europe and Canada as possible models.

I'll touch on these matters a little later on but first I'd like to spend some time today laying out for you what I see as the successes and limitations in New Zealand's system of landscape protection from my perspective as Conservation Minister.

I'm not going to pretend to you that my view of the system is exhaustive because it is not, it is heavily biased towards two broad areas:
„h the acquisition and care of conservation land,
„h and DoC's advocacy role for the environment under the Resource Management Act.

Conservation Estate

As many of you will know, right now about one third of New Zealand's total land area is under some form of legal protection.

Much of this land is publicly owned and it is easy to underestimate the significance of this.

Throughout many countries in Europe, a public-owned network of protected landscapes would be impossible because of population pressure and a long history of private ownership of land. In New Zealand it is not.

True, the first purpose of the conservation estate is to protect our native biodiversity but this frequently overlaps with the protection of landscapes.

As a result, iconic landforms such as Mount Cook, Mount Taranaki, Tongariro, Able Tasman and Fiordland are all on public conservation land.

Thanks to the efforts of the Nature Heritage Fund, QE II and Nga Whenua Rahui new landscapes rich in biodiversity are being regularly added to the conservation estate or protected.

Since I have become Minister, I have had the privilege of deciding to purchase on behalf of the public the outstanding coastal landscapes of Knuckle Point, near Karikari, and Waikawau Bay in the Coromandel.

I think everyone here would agree that the permanent protection of these beautiful and evocative coastal habitats is not something to be dismissed lightly.

I know the Environmental Defence Society certainly think so because they provided strong support for the purchase of these areas.

However, Knuckle Point and Waikawau Bay also illustrate the limitations of acquisition for landscape protection.

Knuckle Point cost $2.7m for 378 hectares. Waikawau Bay cost $3.5m for 150 hectares.

Coastal and high country property in New Zealand is soaring in value, significantly eroding what DoC and other conservation agencies are able to do with the funding they get.

I am proud to say that the Government has recognised this problem and significantly increased the resources available to the Nature Heritage Fund, QE II and Nga Whenua Rahui.

Even so, there is no doubt property prices are restricting land purchases by the taxpayer.

If we are to achieve greater protection of our biodiversity and our landscapes we have to look at methods over and above acquisition to do so.

High Country

A one off opportunity for significant landscape protection lies in the high country of the South Island.

There the Government has for some years been involved in a process of reviewing the tenure of crown pastoral leases governing millions of hectares of some of the most vast, stark and striking land in New Zealand.

Through a process of tenure review, high country farmers holding crown leases are able to freehold a portion of their land if they and the government reach agreement to do so.

Those agreements often include the return of areas that have significant biodiversity and recreational value to the taxpayer.

The farmers get to own the remaining land outright and gain the freedom to diversify the way they use it, a right they do not have under a pastoral lease.

The Government gets to develop a network of conservation areas protecting iconic landscapes that contain a remarkable array of endemic species.

A fine example is Te Papanui Grassland Conservation Park in Otago, which I opened earlier this year.

Constructed from land purchases and tenure review, the park is a vast, sprawling tussock grassland, a habitat and landscape that is increasingly rare in New Zealand because it has traditionally been cleared for farming.

Unfortunately though, tenure review as a method of landscape protection does not have an application beyond the high country.

It is not a relevant mechanism in the North Island or in coastal areas, where landscape protection is strongly required.

So what other tools do we have in the box?

Resource Management Act

Outside of publicly owned or covenanted conservation areas, the Resource Management Act reigns supreme in landscape protection, and DoC has a significant advocacy role in it.

As many of you will know, DoC is required to advocate for the environment and biodiversity under the Conservation Act. It is charged with being the nation's repository of knowledge and expertise on these issues.

The department regularly comments on resource consent applications in the interests of biodiversity, the wider ecosystem and the natural character of the landscape.

It is a vitally important part of our system of landscape protection that such a voice is always there with such a clear function.

A key way this role manifests itself is in the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, which DoC is responsible for.

The statement guides the decisions local government make when administering the RMA on the coast.

I am well aware that there are grave concerns in coastal communities all over New Zealand about the way some coastal areas are being developed, particularly here in the North.

I can understand those concerns because despite the acquisition of places like Knuckle Point and Waikawau Bay, coastal areas and habitats are under-represented in the conservation estate around the entire North Island and down the eastern side of the South Island.

As I have already outlined, our ability to purchase coastal areas is becoming increasingly constrained.

I see a real need for us to ensure that if development and subdivision is to take place in coastal areas, it must be carefully managed.

This is one of the issues that will be looked at by the independent reviewer, Dr Jo Rossier, I have appointed to examine the NZ Coastal Policy Statement.

I have asked her to consider the continued demand for coastal subdivision and waterside development, and the cumulative effects of structures and shoreline modifications on the natural character of the coast.

She is due to report back to me in November and I will be looking very closely at what she recommends.

Local Government Act

As Local Government Minister I have recently overseen the passing of the new Local Government Act.

This piece of legislation will give local communities greater influence on local government's role in landscape protection.

Under the Act, district, city and regional councils are charged with promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of their communities now and in the future.

In return for more flexibility in what they can and cannot do, councils must spend time shepherding together their community¡¦s values, priorities and goals.

If we haven't yet fully explored what landscape means to people in New Zealand then I believe this process embedded in the Local Government Act will assist enormously in ensuring our communities do so in the future.

I fully expect the process will communicate clearly to councils the landscapes local people treasure.

If you look around the country you can already see signs of the impact the Local Government Act is likely to have.

For instance, I am aware that DoC and the Whangarei District Council are discussing ways in which they can restore 1500 hectares of Pukenui Forest with a view to one day reintroducing the North Island robin and the kauri snail to the area.

The forest is significant for local people and discussions are examining whether it can become a priority for the Whangarei District.

I am not going to prejudge those discussions but it is reassuring to know they are taking place.

For all our concerns about protecting landscape, there is very definitely a national trend of communities seeking to do just that. I see it daily as conservation minister.

The Environmental Defence Society played a helpful role in promoting the protection of Knuckle Point and Waikawau Bay. I know the Forest Restoration Trust is warming up to try and preserve Kaikoura Island, which DoC could never do on its own.

These are high profile organisations with high profile projects but there are numerous other smaller but significant community groups at work on their own projects to protect landscapes and environments that are important to them.

Just last week Environment Minister Marian Hobbs and I announced $3m of funding to these kinds of groups and individuals to help preserve biodiversity on private land.

The funding went to projects like saving kiwi, fencing lake margins and weed control. Stuff that takes time and commitment.

We cannot underestimate this kind of community support for the environment, and the Local Government Act will communicate it to councils in a way that in many areas has not been occurring.

New Mechanism?

So where does all this leave us. Do I think we need a new legal mechanism for landscape protection?

Well, I was in Italy recently and I took the opportunity to visit Bellunesi National Park in the Dolomites.

Italy has the largest area of protected land of any country in the European Union ¡V about 12 % of its land area.

Its national parks encompass private land, and some times whole cities. They appear to resemble a strata of regulations and planning restrictions which attempt to integrate what to us would be big populations into important natural environments.

I have sought the establishment of a staff exchange programme between the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, and that in Italy.

It may be that their system has some relevance to the protection of landscapes in high population areas, such as the Waitakere Ranges in my stomping ground of West Auckland.

Then again, the Italian system may not.

It may be that we already have sufficient legislative tools in place but they are just not being used properly.

Afterall, Section 6 of the Resource Management Act requires any one managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources to recognise many of the matters that are close to the hearts of many of you.

This includes the need to preserve and protect the natural character of the coastal environment, and outstanding natural landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use and development.

Economic Value

As a final comment, I would like to make this point - a safe landscape is a valued landscape.

It has become increasingly obvious to me over the past year that the best way to enshrine the protection of conservation land in the public consciousness is to emphasis its value not just socially and recreationally, but economically.

There is a pervasive perception among business quarters in New Zealand that protected land is dead land, locked up and economically useless.

In fact, the opposite is true. The value of our conserved landscapes and environments to the economy is just now being realised. That contribution is occurring in a plethora of ways, from its use in tourism and film-making right through to the provision of eco-system services, such as water distribution.

If we are to truly protect our landscapes then we must make people recognise this economic benefit and see protected landscapes as an economic asset, not just a lost opportunity for development.

The first step is to research and publish information on the scale of the economic contribution derived from protected landscapes.

The second step is to look for ways in which protected areas can be better integrated in to local, regional and national economies without the integrity of the areas being compromised.

I hope your conference is fruitful. I look forward to the ideas you come up with.

Thank you for your time.


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