Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Fears wilding control gains will be undone by budget cuts

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Before the programme NZ’s most vulnerable landscapes and ecosystems were being infested by wilding conifers.
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New Zealand’s efforts to control wilding conifers and the resulting economic damage will be thrown into reverse under planned funding cuts, according to advocacy group Wilding Pine Network.

In the 2020 Budget, the government committed $100 million over four years to the National Wilding Conifer Control programme established in 2016 to ensure a collaborative, co-ordinated and effective approach to national wilding management. It is now threatened with a drastic cut, down to just $10m a year.

The programme is a partnership between central and local government agencies with the farming and forestry industries, landholders and community stakeholder groups.

Before the establishment of the national control programme, NZ’s most vulnerable landscapes and ecosystems were being infested by wilding conifers at a rate of about 90,000ha a year nationally.

Control costs were increasing exponentially and the infestations and rapid spread were, and still are in some cases, beyond individual landholders’ ability to maintain control.

Now in its eighth year, the control programme is under serious threat with planned funding cuts before the work is complete.

“It will be another major biosecurity disaster if NZ does not take the current national control programme through to a timely and effective completion,” Wilding Pine Network (WPN) chair Richard Bowman said.

“We were very fortunate with the $100m in the 2020 Budget but we are now looking at a 40% decrease in our funding at a point when we are starting to make real progress.

“Without funding we are not able to maintain or make gains.”

Bowman said the money spent so far had been remarkably effective but now “we need to protect the investment we have made and protect the gains long term”.

“Hundreds of thousands of hectares of extremely vulnerable high country in Otago, Canterbury and Marlborough have had scattered trees removed and these areas are now effectively protected from further spread and infill.

“With the momentum created over the past six years the national programme should be well on the way to achieving its wilding-free landscapes goal by 2030.”

 Bowman said the fact that the 2023-2024 budget goes down to a baseline of $10m a year means that a highly successful programme that has established wilding control across much of NZ will lose momentum.

“We have got the structures and resources in place, a lot of projects over the past two to three years are making real progress but without funding will go in reverse.

“We have got to the point of nearly getting to the top of the hill but we have run out of gas.”  

In a letter to the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson the WPN highlights how the control programme will be forced to move from a proactive attacking mode into a defensive stance. 

The reduction in funding means experienced field staff and highly efficient contracting companies now operating to an effective level will have to be laid off.

“NZ’s history is littered with biosecurity mistakes and lost opportunities that have cost the country dearly. Wilding pines do not have to be another one of these,” Bowman told Robertson in the letter.   

If additional funding of $15m a year could be found for the next 10 years it is likely that the national wilding programme could be completed in an effective and orderly way, Bowman said.

“Wilding conifers on the ground will not wait for funding to catch up and without adequate spending there will be genuine risk that the gains and funding [to date] will be wasted. 

“If funding cannot be found then in a decade or more it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to claw back the lost ground.”

Bowman said recent modelling has estimated that at least $400m will be needed to remove all known wilding conifer infestations if action is taken now and costs are not deferred into the future.

“Any delays to the control programme’s 2030 target will see costs increase.”

According to a Ministry for Primary Industries 2018 cost-benefit analysis (CBA), the intergenerational benefits of control are clear and greatly outweigh the costs.

The analysis demonstrates that to do nothing or to do little are not options. 

“Not only will it fail to achieve the objective of sustainable management it will result in substantial cost for the country,” the Sapere CBA report stated in summary. 

Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor told delegates at the 2022 Wilding Pines conference it is unlikely there will be future funding at levels seen in recent years. He said he would campaign for more funding from the government “but it will take a collective effort to control these weeds”.

“You really want the minister of finance here, not me,” he said.

The WPN has not yet received any response to its letter to the finance minister, dated December 12 2022.

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