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Govt Signals Pause On Significant Natural Areas – Expert Reaction

Published: Fri 15 Mar 2024 10:56 AM
The government is signalling councils don't need to comply with their legal obligations around Significant Natural Areas, i.e., mapping out areas with threatened native plants or wildlife for protection.
While SNAs were first introduced in 1991, last year's National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity meant that all councils had to identify land for protection by 2028, including on private land. However the Environmental Defence Society claims the government's press release is unlawful, as no laws have actually been changed yet around SNAs.
The SMC asked independent experts to comment.
Dr Duane Peltzer, Principal Scientist, Ecosystem Ecology, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research; and Chief Scientist, New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, comments:
"Good decisions are based on robust evidence. There is abundant evidence that we are in a biodiversity crisis, exacerbated by other drivers of global change like climate extremes and increasing harm from invasive weeds, pests and diseases. Biodiversity and biosecurity are linked, requiring major efforts by linking national policy, co-ordinated action and local scale management, highlighted by issues ranging from controlling wilding pines to stopping M bovis.
"The National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity (NPS-IB) gazetted in 2023 set a simple goal: ensure no further declines nationally of biodiversity. Significant natural areas (SNAs) are a major mechanism under the NPS-IB for stopping, or ideally, reversing the decline in biodiversity. A three-year suspension on new SNAs could undermine national efforts to protect and restore our biodiversity, our ability to meet international obligations to the Convention for Biological Diversity, and emerging opportunities like biodiversity credits or premiums.
"No evidence is provided for this decision to suspend SNAs, but the justification includes time for a review of the RMA, repeated statements that SNAs undermine property rights and 'conservation efforts by the people who care most about the environment'. Although critical review of national policy and implementation are appropriate, it is crucial that this review and future decisions about our biodiversity and lands are based on sound evidence to the benefit of landowners and indigenous species alike."
No conflict of interest.Professor Andrew Geddis, Faculty of Law, University of Otago, comments:
"Associate Environment Minister Andrew Hoggard's press release announcing that "the Government has agreed to suspend the obligation for councils to impose [Significant Natural Areas] under the [National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity], and we’re sending a clear message that it would be unwise to bother" is misleading at best, and borderline unlawful at worst. Obligations imposed by National Policy Statements are legally binding on local authorities under the Resource Management Act 1991. They can only be "suspended" by amending the National Policy Statement, which requires following a prescribed set of consultative mechanisms in the Resource Management Act 1991. This amendment process does not appear to have occurred. As such, the legal obligations have not been suspended - local authorities are still required to comply with them under an Act of Parliament.
"While the Coalition Government may intend making this change in the future, no minister can by mere announcement remove an existing legal obligation imposed by a parliamentary enactment. If the Minister intends his advice to cause local authorities to stop following what is, for now, the law of the land then he would appear to be purporting to "suspend ... the execution of laws". That is unlawful under the Bill of Rights 1688. If he purports to be merely offering helpful advice to local authorities oh how they may choose to act, they should be aware that this involves them ignoring their legal obligations and so risking litigation designed to require them to comply."
No conflict of interest declared.Dr Jo Monks, Vice-President, New Zealand Ecological Society, comments:
"The National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity is the result of a long process of stakeholder engagement and compromise. Farming and other industry bodies, NGOs, mana whenua, and private landowners agreed that safeguarding indigenous biodiversity on private land is critical for our well-being, our markets, for halting biodiversity decline, and to meet our international obligations. Voluntary actions, while many and admirable, had not prevented a decline in indigenous biodiversity. All parties agreed that protecting Significant Natural Areas on private land is an important way to halt that decline.
"Aotearoa’s indigenous biodiversity is renowned internationally for its distinctive and unusual character, high levels of endemism, vulnerability to extinction, and the extreme loss that has followed human settlement. Much indigenous biodiversity is found only or mainly on private land. Private land and Crown leases contain most of our 45 endangered or vulnerable naturally uncommon ecosystems, and thousands of our threatened or at-risk plant, reptile, bat and freshwater fish species. If these ecosystems and species are lost here, they are lost to the world.
"It has been councils’ responsibility since 1991 to identify and protect SNAs (areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna) as a matter of national importance. This responsibility has been met in many districts, where most landowners quietly, but solidly, supported identification and protection of SNAs.
"Unlawfully removing councils’ responsibility to identify and protect SNAs favours those few landowners and developers who wish to continue clearing indigenous vegetation and species’ habitats. The result will be accelerated loss of indigenous biodiversity through land use intensification and urban development, as has been seen in other jurisdictions, such as in Queensland, following the loosening of protections against land clearing.
"Getting rid of the agreed SNA process is not supported by most landowners or the general public. It reneges on our international obligations to conserve indigenous biodiversity and will reflect poorly with our key consumers and trading partners."
Note: The New Zealand Ecological Society is a signatory of an open letter to the government from scientific societies on changes to environmental legislation, sent this week.
No conflict of interest declared.
Dr Susan Walker, Senior Researcher, Research Programme Leader, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, comments:
"Much of Aotearoa’s unique indigenous biodiversity is found only or mainly on private land. There has been ongoing fragmentation and loss of remaining natural ecosystems, and declines in many species populations are continuing, despite the voluntary actions and dedication of many private landowners, community groups and citizens.
"The NPS-IB resulted from a thorough, evidence-based collaborative process, including with farming, mana whenua, other industry and private landowner interests. Manaaki Whenua was among many organisations asked to contribute our ecological understanding to that process. Many hundreds of public submissions were considered before the Policy Statement was finally gazetted last year.
"Identifying and protecting SNAs on private land was agreed on as an important mechanism to assist New Zealanders’ many voluntary actions. It is a tried and tested approach that enabled councils’ ecologists to visit and engage with landowners one-on-one over the natural values on their land and how to protect them. The backstop of SNAs meant that landowners and developers would know which places to protect and avoid. Gains made through voluntary efforts were less likely to be undermined by continuing clearance of important indigenous vegetation and habitat.
"If this backstop is removed, the pace of indigenous biodiversity loss is likely to accelerate through more poorly-sited land use intensification and development."
No conflict of interest.
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