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Shirley Speech: Conservation: There Has To A Better Way

Conservation: There Has To A Better Way

Speech Notes For Forest & Bird Conference; Silverstream, Upper Hutt; Friday November 12, 2004.

ACT's vision for New Zealand is:

• A strong, internationally competitive economy;

• A secure, confident and tolerant society founded on personal responsibility;

• An environment in which our natural heritage is protected and conserved.

Most political parties would ascribe to that vision but disagree strongly on how it is best attained.

Environmental amenity contributes significantly to the standard of living of New Zealanders. It is therefore in the interest of us all that resources allocated to conservation services are used to their best effect.

It is sometimes argued that environmental problems arise because markets fail and that greater market activity comes at the expense of environmental amenity.

In reality most conservation and environmental cost of commercial activity arise from the absence of suitable markets. The absence of markets in clean air, water, endangered species and valued habitats results in their demise - the tragedy of the commons.

The politicisation of resource allocation as a substitute for market mechanisms results in poor incentives to properly evaluate costs and benefits inevitably resulting in waste.

Political resource allocation mechanisms also encourage people to transfer the costs onto others. There is a strong incentive to exaggerate the demand for and the benefit of politically provided goods and services.

A good example would be the claim that the environment is sacred and somehow incommensurate with commercial services. We see various groups in society contrasting environmental altruism with commercial profit seeking selfishness. In fact, both environmental and commercially produced goods and services ultimately are valued by society only because people value them.

An extraordinary aspect of the Conservation Act is that it charges DoC with preserving the intrinsic value of conservation assets, a concept that the Act leaves undefined.

Such concepts are close to meaningless and an undefined and meaningless objective represents an insuperable barrier to accountability. It effectively allows DoC to choose its own purposes within the general ambit of conservation.

Current statements by DoC of its purposes and activities:

• Do not provide clear information allowing an accurate assessment of its effectiveness;

• Do not show an appropriate focus on the full costs and benefits obtained from the use of resources placed in the Department's care;

• Show a distinct tendency to show visitors to conservation areas as threats rather than opportunities to provide valued services to customers.

The extent of the resources that are being placed under DoC management means the fundamental defect of the legislation governing DoC is a very serious matter.

The Foreshore and Seabed legislation currently before Parliament greatly expands the domain of DoC, further compounding this problem.

Conservation is far from a costless activity. Effective use of resources for conservation purposes requires a lot more than locking areas away. Active management is needed to eradicate feral animals, control weeds and fires, mitigate the environmental impact of tourism, study the biological and physical resources needed to ensure the survival of endangered species etc.

New Zealand has enjoyed considerable conservation benefits arising from volunteer activity. ACT favours granting voluntary groups title to areas of public land that they have restored thereby encouraging substantial voluntary labour that would, in most cases, produce superior social outcomes to public ownership.

With greater private involvement in delivering conservation services Government could focus more effectively on its regulatory and oversight role. This would eliminate the confusions of purpose and conflicts of interest that plague the simultaneous pursuit of service delivery and service regulation.

The greater legal liability of private organisations would also do much to foster more appropriate levels of due care in the provision of services to tourists and other users of conservation areas.

Doc in its current form has little respect for property rights and tends to abuse its powers by using its advocacy role under the RMA to impinge and restrict private property rights. In most cases this behaviour is counter-productive to the conservation goal that is sought.

The intelligent and creative use of property rights has a great potential to aid the conservation of habitats and species and encourage sustainable resource use. My colleague Gerry Eckhoff has pointed out that species with enforceable property rights such as farm animals are far less endangered than species that no-one owns and no-one has an incentive to preserve.

If such unowned species have a black market value poaching of an unowned resource can become a serious problem.

A great virtue of market-based structures is that they create incentives to participate, to experiment, to invest and more generally to use resources in ways that provide greater benefits to others.

By contrast, the central planning and political mechanisms tend to discourage such activity.

The imposition of heritage orders on private owners restricting the use of their property without compensation creates an incentive to hide or even destroy features with potential heritage value. Imposing heritage orders without adequate compensation is another example of political mechanisms transferring costs to others.

Achieving optimum value from the available resources requires institutional structures that permit and encourage net conservation value trades. I have been greatly disappointed by DoC's refusal to embrace the net conservation value approach.

Rather than use this tradable market mechanism, DoC tends to say "we will hold on to what we have got and endlessly expand our domain by using the RMA regulatory weapon."

DoC has been largely immune from the reforms that have swept through the New Zealand public sector over the last 20 years. Its performance suggests that that immunity has not been beneficial to the public interest.

To reduce conflicts of role and increase clarity of purpose, and therefore accountability, the advocacy, policy and operational functions of DoC should be placed in separate organisations.

ACT has long proposed the establishment of a conservation foundation, which would operate along similar principles to the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Its role would be to:

• Set priorities and allocate funds for conservation programmes, and

• Specify conservation outcomes and monitor performance.

The Foundation's brief would include historic and cultural heritage, which form an integral part of New Zealand's conservation and environmental management systems. All public conservation, historic and cultural heritage spending would be funded through the Conservation Foundation.

For example, it would set priorities for:

• New conservation initiatives e.g., extension to marine reserves and national parks,

• Pest control and eradication based on ecological principles, and

• New historic and cultural heritage initiatives.

Through such a conservation foundation public funding of conservation would be based on the merits of each proposed activity and would not be channelled exclusively through government departments and agencies. Conservation organisations with a national focus such as Forest and Bird would be eligible for funds on a contestable basis.

Similarly the Conservation Foundation would enhance community initiatives undertaken by bodies such as the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust, Landcare Trusts, Karori Reservoir Trust, Te Tiri Matanga and Kereru Restoration.

ACT also proposes an amendment of the Conservation Act to require a net conservation benefit approach to the management of a public conservation estate. This would encourage innovative and flexible management leading to continuous enhancement of our natural heritage.

We cannot continue the way we have been. There has to be a better way.

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