About the Author

Avatar photo

Gerrard Eckhoff

The DoC Estate: the place where land goes to die

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

The DoC estate is the place where our land goes to die; proclaims a billboard north of Roxburgh.

The Lindis Pass Scenic Reserve in Central Otago contains a truly unique tussock landscape which is slowly but surely dying due to neglect. This once vibrant and productive area had long ago been turned into a “protected natural area”, administered by the Department of Conservation. The colour grey now replaces the tawny brown of the tussock grassland as this landscape slides silently into the death throes despite the “protection” of the Crown. The removal of stock (sheep and cattle) was deemed by DoC to ensure the survival of the indigenous vegetation. They were wrong…. again.

The Ahuriri River, home to the highly endangered black stilt flows nearby. The Black Stilts survival depends on the removal of cattle from the nesting area – opined the Department, so the cattle were removed. Numbers of the stilt crashed until somebody from DoC finally understood that the Black Stilt depended on the cattle dung beetles for food. Something the locals had known for years.

These two examples highlight the “we the Crown know best attitude” and the public’s entrenched belief that the survival of the species depends on production and conservation being mutually exclusive. The evidence is increasingly showing that far from being mutually exclusive the two are in fact mutually dependant. With money and expertise from the productive sector there would be opportunity to seek to preserve the many values we all share. A wonderful example would have been the selective logging (helicopter extraction) of the West Coast Beech forests of the South Island. The Government controlled Timberlands proposal was to selectively log the massive beech forests while ensuring pest control within the logged area was subsidized from the sale of the valuable timber. This concept was hailed internationally as the best way conservation values could be protected from the already destructive ravages of possums, stoats, feral cats and ferrets on the indigenous flora and fauna.

Politics always trumps common sense so the Kiwi and the Southern Rata in the West Coast forests continue to fall to the veracious appetite of the mustilids and the possum. Instead of that creative solution, DoC pours 1080 poison out the back of planes and helicopters. The use of 1080 is banned in virtually all countries except NZ.

There is no law of nature that demands the survival of any species. Indeed the decision to protect the species is simply a matter of political will through funding decisions by the Government of the day. Why the private sector is neither welcomed nor encouraged to engage in the business of conservation except on the margins is never explained by Government. Health and education unquestionably benefits from the inclusion of the private sectors in the provision of these vital functions. Indeed the most essential industry of all in sustaining human life is the food industry which is 100% provided by the private sector in NZ. So why is the conservation and protection of our threatened species by the private sector not actively encouraged, given the success of this sector in all other aspects of human endeavor?

The answer lies with the ideology of collective responsibility and the placement of conservation beyond the realms of commerce. A noble sentiment indeed. The only problem with that belief is that it doesn’t work- as witnessed by the loss of the species world wide. The Environmental Protection Agency in the USA announced the removal of 6 species recently from the endangered species list. The reason? They had become extinct – despite the resources of the richest nation on earth being available.

The blame for such losses is conveniently placed with habitat destruction yet such a reality has not impacted on the survival on domesticated animals at all.

Perhaps the real reason was exemplified by the recent budget announcement that DoC (as the sole provider) is to have its funding cut by $54 million over the next few years with the promise of more cuts to come. The $419 appropriation looks set to diminish as Government prioritizes its spending in favour of (ironically) the rapidly expanding species – homo sapiens.

The Minister of Conservation Tim Groser believes his department can reduce low priority spending but fails to identify what a low priority spend for DoC actually is; and if such spending is, well, expendable, why was it there in the first place? Perhaps the most telling comment was from an unnamed spokesman who indicated that “the priority for DoC was to retain staff”. (ODT May 30 2009) I wonder why the priority was not to retain endangered species.

It seems strange indeed that there are no clearly defined conservation goals, along with bench marking performance outcomes, being articulated by this Department especially as it exerts its monopolistic powers over all facets of the natural environment.

There are well documented occasions where DoC would refuse to breed endangered bird species due to a lack of facilities. A phone call to the private sector would have solved that problem, so the adage of “better dead than privately bred” apparently still holds true in NZ.

In 1997 a Conservation Strategy for New Zealand was written by Peter Hartley. This book offered many sensible insights and solutions to what is essentially an administrative failure of conservation, not just in NZ but also world wide. That did not stop one of NZs foremost environmentalists condemning the book outright. Still- at least he had the good grace to admit he hadn’t read it.

The single biggest problem we face in the conservation world is the failure to place real value to those things we seek to protect. Instead, the expression – inherent or intrinsic values are placed on the asset. An inherent value is essentially a meaningless phrase designed to capture an unquantifiable and often personal value system by those deeply entrenched in the conservation bureaucracy. Such a system allows DoC to operate a “drift net” approach to matters environmental and ensure all so called values are ensnared by the intrinsic /inherent term but most importantly allows Governments to ignore the need to rank or prioritize spending.

The private sector in rural NZ especially contains a myria

d of opportunity for the preservation of wildlife and flora that DoC cannot meet due to funding constraints. Some outstanding examples of what has been achieved by the private sector include a kiwi nursery on private land near Cambridge where DoC pays for the rearing of chicks to 6 months of age. Roger and Nicky Beattie at Banks Peninsular have long battled to have the right to show how well the private sector can engage in the “business” of conservation.

One can only but imagine the internal hemorrhaging at DoC when their cherished advocacy role for conservation in NZ is overruled by their political masters in favour of “cash for silence” during the resource management hearings. At least $8 million has passed to DoC in return for their ability to find no inherent or intrinsic values at sites where the Government wants commerce to take some advantage of NZs vast natural capital. Conversely it appears that any such development by the private sector is met with the full might of this Government department’s outrage at the prospect of the inherent values being compromised for commercial gain.

Such is the way of conservation in New Zealand.