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The Truth About SNAs

The trouble all stems from the government's new National Policy Statements on indigenous biodiversity and freshwater management.

Councils will have to give effect to these by listing significant natural areas and wetlands in district and regional plans, and protecting them.

Some West Coast property owners including iwi and council leaders are calling the process an insidious attack on property rights.

However, conservation advocates say landowners with wetlands and native forest are already restricted by council rules about vegetation clearance, and the issue's being hyped by councillors with political agendas, and possibly doomed hopes of compensation.

When the Greymouth Star ran a feature last month on 86-year-old Tony Barrett, and his objection to the prospect of large chunks of his land being defined as SNA, and wetland, the reaction came thick and fast.

Most calls were in sympathy with the elderly farmer's desire to do as he liked on his land.

But one call came from Forest and Bird's Jen Miller - annoyed and puzzled by the piece.

Property rights had never been unfettered; there were already rules in the Grey District Plan telling Mr Barrett what he could and couldn't do on his land when it came to indigenous vegetation, she said.

And an SNA designation would probably not add an extra layer of difficulty around that.

"It's part of the cultural identity of the Coast that everyone wants Coasters to protect nature because everyone else has munted theirs. But that sort of lowland podocarp forest (found on Mr Barrett's land) is now a rarity in the region. It's those lowland areas where the losses have been the greatest. "

While Mr Barrett had no intention of developing his land, an SNA would protect it under future owners, Ms Miller said.

So does an SNA or wetland designation simply put a framework around existing rules and change nothing in practical terms?

The long-serving chairman and chief executive of the Environmental Defence Society, Gary Taylor, says that's not quite true.

"What it adds is specificity. Once you map these special areas, and an SNA comes up on an overlay on the council property map, then everyone knows. So it adds specificity and certainty."

Councils had been required to protect biodiversity and wetlands under the RMA since 1991, but what has been lacking was national direction, Mr Taylor said.

"What is happening is that councils are finally doing what they should have been doing for the last 20 years, and that is because of the new National Policy Statements coming down the line."

West Coast Regional Council Chief, Mike Meehan says Mr Tayor is right, about specificity.

"It's true you've never been able to do exactly as you please on these areas, but what the label does do is put more specific and onerous regulation on the property. You will need to jump through more hoops.

"For instance, at the moment we don't require people to fence a wetland but potentially under the new NPS you will have to fence it off and do pest control."

The regional council spent nearly a decade in the Environment Court, identifying wetlands, and another eight years validating their status after appeals by Forest and Bird and DOC added more wetlands to the schedules.

But the Grey District Council is the only territorial authority on the West Coast to have mapped their SNAs.

Buller began the process but paused it and South Westland has yet to begin.

But all three councils will have to do the exercise under the new One Plan for the West Coast, that's now a work in progress.

Grey chief executive Paul Pretorius also believes SNA designations will tighten restrictions to what a landowner can do with such areas.

"We have 74 SNAs on our books. In our district plan if your land is not an SNA you can pretty much clear fell as of right. But under the new One Plan now being developed for the coast, it talks about 'potential' SNAs as well.

"Anyone who wants to remove more than 200 square metres of vegetation will need a resource consent, and an ecologist's report and that can cost anything up to $30,000 from what I am hearing."

The National Policy Statement had also added a fourth criterion to existing criteria for SNAs, Mr Pretorius said.

"In the past we've had to evaluate land against three RMA criteria: significant natural areas, landscapes or features - and now they've added 'significant natural character' to the list."

The council would likely end up having to review its SNA register, and add more properties to the list, he said.

"So overall yes, we do see the new regime as more onerous for landowners than our current rules."

The Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, makes no apology for changes that will give a higher level of protection to New Zealand's fast-dwindling biodiversity.

"We have a global biodiversity crisis - a million species threatened or at risk of extinction and 4000 of those are in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have lost 90% of our wetlands, and the SNA process is an effort to make sure we don't lose any more."

Many farmers want to protect these areas because they saw the amenity value, the importance of habitat for birds, and wanted clean streams, Ms Sage says.

"When you protect wetlands you protect the sponges of the landscape that slow the flow of water; they are the kidneys that filter it. This issue has been around for decades and what the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity ensures is a stronger national approach..."

Up and down the Coast, on the narrow lowland strip that's capable of development, farmers run cattle on pakihi blocks; cut-over land that was once kahikatea forest.

Some of it has been converted to dairy farms over the past 20 years - in some cases by the government itself, through its State-owned enterprise Landcorp.

But many of those blocks are now classed as schedule 2 wetland - land that would need an ecologist's report and resource consents if the owner wanted to develop it.

One such block in south Westland belongs to Whataroa farmer Francis Graham.

"I can still run cattle on it - but it's got swamp birds and some nice trees on it - it's valued at $80,000 but I couldn't sell it now. It's basically worthless now because you can't do anything with it."

Owners who do pursue resource consents to develop blocks like Mr Graham's run the risk that the land will be confirmed as having high ecological value, and moved onto schedule one in the Regional Land and Water Plan.

Mike Meehan says that would make it highly unlikely that consent would be granted.

"We have granted consents to develop schedule 2 land that hadn't been ground-truthed and turned out not to be significant wetland, but my advice would be for a landowner to get an ecologist's opinion before applying. You have to weigh up the cost and your chances of success."

Ms Sage says elsewhere in New Zealand, properties with wetland or native forest are worth more, not less.

"The QEII Trust is reporting that land with covenants on it attracts a premium when it's sold because people are interested in amenity values and landscape."

But Federated Farmers president Katie Milne says on the coast, the SNA process is causing uncertainty over land values and affecting sales.

"In Canterbury or other places a block with an SNA or wetland on it might actually fetch more because it would be a rarity. But here on the West Coast, it's not rare. We have so much biodiversity - 87% of the region is in the DOC estate; even more in South Westland.

"People looking for land here need to make a living off it. So a block you can't develop is going to be worth less. "

That was having an impact on borrowing and sales, Ms Milne said.

"No-one knows quite where it's all going to land and people are holding back. It also affects equity - if your succession plan was to sell a bit of undeveloped land and now its an SNA or wetland it might not be worth what you thought it was. "

In the past week calls have grown more strident for the government to compensate West Coast landowners who can't use part of their land because it is designated an SNA or wetland.

Regional council chairman Allan Birchfield advised landowners to dig up their land while they could still legally do so.

"There is a very basic injustice here: if the nation wants the land taken out of potential production and protected, the government should buy it. Otherwise it's theft."

Deputy chair Peter Ewen has railed against what he calls a government land grab, warning that landowners in South Westland were threatening to poison native trees if the government failed to address the compensation issue.

The council's Poutini Ngai Tahu reps whose Maori reserve land around Lake Kini has been classed as wetland, have also described the process as theft.

And in an unheard-of move last week, the regional council voted to reject its own plan change - a proposal that's cost ratepayers millions of dollars and been thrashed out for eight years in the Environment Court.

The change would have removed wetland status from 500ha of private land that had proved not to meet the criteria, and made sphagnum moss picking a permitted activity on schedule 2 land, ending years of anxiety for the industry.

But in Mr Birchfield's opinion, the plan change left all the other owners of Schedule 2 wetlands in the lurch, and the Coast needs to show a united front to government to secure justice for all of them.

"There's still 5000 hectares of private land on the schedule - we want it all out."

Forest and Bird and others have described the council's move as an own goal.

Gary Taylor - veteran of many a planning and conservation battle since the 1970s - is bemused.

"It seems a perverse decision. I have some sympathy for the landowners, and the council really needs to come in with some incentives for them, such as fencing and pest management."

Ms Sage has previously ruled out direct government compensation for landholders with large SNAs on their properties.

But there is another option for those who want to sell their wetland or native forest, she says.

"The Native Heritage Fund exists to purchase land on a willing seller/willing buyer basis and there have been a number of instances where farmers around the country including on the West Coast, have sold land to the fund."

The fund, administered by an independent panel, comes out of Vote Conservation, and has a small budget of $6 million, Ms Sage says.

"But it has been very successful and we are seeking more money for it. "

A common complaint from West Coast farmers with SNAs is that they still have to pay rates on land they can't use.

Ms Sage says she is hoping to change that, by ensuring councils around the country have a consistent approach to rates and SNAs.

And what does she make of Cr Birchfield's advice to landowners to dig up their wetlands while they still can?

"I am very disappointed to hear that. The SNA process is an effort to provide certainty to landowners and many farmers do want to protect their wetlands and these areas with high biodiversity. "

Gary Taylor is less diplomatic.

"West Coasters would elicit more support from New Zealand if they abandoned the belligerent stereotype, shouting 'Don't tell me what to do on my own land'," Mr Taylor says.

"If you had more sensible people on the council you would be able to ... lift people out of these old angst-ridden states."

"The West Coast has been all about coalmining, wetland drainage, rip-it-up and grow some cows - but this is 2020 and they are still talking like people of the 1850s. They are not showing true leadership."

Mr Meehan is not overly optimistic about the chances of compensation for affected landowners: no government since the 1990s, National or Labour has been willing to entertain the idea, he says.

"But it's a complex argument and I don't think we've packaged this up in a way we can have a proper conversation with the government about it. We need to do that, especially for the high-value land."

An example was one landowner with 300ha designated as wetland, Mr Meehan said.

"That's a lot of land and you can understand why conservationists would want it protected. But you can also understand why an owner might feel aggrieved that someone's drawn a line on a map and cast shade on their property."

"We need to find a fair solution, and there's no point going up to Wellington kicking and screaming about it. "We need to be rational and coherent to get it over the line. "

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