Think our native forests were safe? Think again.

by frog

Agricultural intensification over the past 10 years has led to the highest rate of native vegetation loss since European colonisation.

Lake Taupo farm and forest

Lake Taupo farm and forest

So says the 2009 annual report of Landcare Research, a Crown Research Institute, in an article about ‘Post-capitalism conservation’.

Landcare argues that the market is disconnected from natural capital, a problem that has contributed to the current economic crisis. Land biodiversity in New Zealand is a good example: where natural vegetation has been cleared away for intensive farming. This results in:

increased risk to the ongoing supply of essential goods and services (such as clean water) provided by biodiversity, as well as its intrinsic aesthetic and intellectual value.

They say that the fragmentation of native forests and streamside vegetation also make us more vulnerable to invasive species and impacts of climate change, and reduce resilience on the remainder of native biodiversity such that it further fragments.

I was staggered at the fact that the last decade has seen the fastest decline in native vegetation since colonisation. I knew we were still losing more native cover than we were gaining, but the ‘worst decade’ status is quite extraordinary. It’s certainly more evidence that the Labour government’s environmental rhetoric was just that, rhetoric.

The key instrument to arrest this decline would be a National Policy Statement on Biodiversity to give some guidance for the Resource Management Act. There’s no doubt it’s a difficult policy to write, because to work it would have to restrict landowners’ clearance of native vegetation, and incentivise regeneration and replanting. Given this decade’s performance has been so bad, current voluntary schemes like covenants, guidelines and accords are not sufficient. It is New Zealand Inc. that will pay the cost, including private landowners, with degraded waterways and more pest and weed problems. The Greens finally convinced Labour to commit to the NPS on biodiversity as part of ETS negotiations (pine forests in the wrong place can be another threat to biodiversity), after Labour’s earlier false start in 2000. National committed to one before the election:  “National is committed to developing a NPS under the RMA on biodiversity. It is likely the 2011 deadline will be met”. This then slipped to unlikely, but now seem interested again. Whether the two old parties have more than a Clayton’s interest will be seen in time.

Meanwhile, Landcare’s work is aimed at assessing and valuing the public values of biodiversity, including the idea of biodiversity offsetting. The Greens can see some benefit in biodiversity offsetting, but plenty of dangers too.

Mokihinui Gorge from the air by Craig Potton

Mokihinui Gorge from the air

Take Meridian’s proposed land-swap to allow them to dam the Mokihinui River. Their proposal is to swap the 330ha of forest and river they want to inundated in the Mokihinui Gorge with 794ha of coastal forest land they have bought. This would then mean the gorge was effectively private land, and no longer conservation land, so no concession would be required from DOC to dam it. That’s a net gain of 450ha of native forest, right?

Wrong. The first problem is that currently there are 1030ha of native forest at the two sites. Doing the swap and damming the gorge will result in 800ha left – a net loss of 330ha. While the protection status of the coast forest would be higher, it is forest now and will still be forest after so little is gained. Fundamentally, neither area of forest should be cut down .

The second problem is that the nature of the two sites is very different. Damming the Mokihinui would result in one fewer wild river, obstruct a very health habitat of the already-declining long-finned eel and whio (blue duck), and destroy a unique landscape with its own intrinsic values.

DOC and the Minister of Conservation are currently considering Meridian’s proposed land-swap, so please write to Tim Groser to urge him to turn it down.

Frog will look deeper at biodiversity offsetting in future, but finally, Landcare’s article also notes the importance to pest control to ensure we don’t just have forests, but have healthy forests. The Green MPs write about the same in the latest issue of GreenTimes, which you can read here [PDF 800kb].

frog says