Monday, March 4, 2024

An area of significant natural concern

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I do not want a 20-something with a degree in conservation telling me what I can’t do on my property, says Alan Emerson
Many farmers have voluntarily fenced native bush without the interference of either central or local government, says Alan Emerson.
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The proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity is expected by the end of the year. I’m not looking forward to it.

We’re told that we have many native plants, birds and animals that are unique to our country and that some of these, along with their ecosystems, are under threat of extinction.

What I would like to see is a robust scientific research paper that tells me exactly what native plants, birds and animals are actually under threat and where they are located. Without that I strongly believe that we’re flying blind while giving local government unlimited rights to effectively confiscate private land under the guise of Significant Natural Areas (SNAs)

My position is that I am not in favour of SNAs as the law currently stands.

I hold the old-fashioned belief that if I own a parcel of land I own it to do what I will within the law.

I do not want some twenty-something person with a degree in conservation, a missionary zeal to save the planet and who believes they have a lifetime experience of ecological issues telling me what I can and can’t do on my property.

That person has tremendous powers over my land as the word “significant” is not defined by the Resource Management Act. Councils are responsible for identifying SNAs and they can and do apply different standards to assessing them.

That does not fill me with any degree of confidence, especially when councils say they will need “mini-Department of Conservation departments” to handle SNAs.

That in itself creates a problem as there aren’t enough suitably qualified people to do the job. In addition, the burden of those extra staff on ratepayers will be excessive.

It is actually worse than that. Allan Birchfield, chair of the West Coast Regional Council, told me that councils are identifying SNAs “off aerial photos”. There’s no science or even a scientific requirement.

“If I don’t like it I have to appeal and that costs me,” Allan said.

“On the West Coast only 15% of the total land area is privately owned. It should be left alone.

“If this keeps going we won’t be able to maintain viable communities as we won’t have enough land to function. On top of SNAs, we’ve got Outstanding Natural Landscapes where the landowner gets another hammering. 

“It is all an attack on democracy,” he said.

On top of that there are SNAs that are of significance to Māori. The burden of proof is light and if a farmer wants to do anything with that land he or she must get permission from Māori.

Masterton councillor and mayoral hopeful Tina Nixon is also worried about the impact of SNAs as they will be “hard and expensive for the council to administer”.

“It’s just another stupid policy that is not thought out. It will have massive consequences that haven’t been thought through,” she said.

“I don’t believe it will do anything for the environment. Local government just doesn’t have the resources to administer it.

“It is fraught because of compliance issues and the imposition on property rights.”

Speaking to other affected farmers, there are some worrying trends coming from councils.

“The hearings with council were a waste of time.”

“They’re trying to confiscate 200ha of second-growth native. There’s no compensation and I still have to pay rates, control pests and fix fences.”

“It’s just a land grab by councils on behalf of government.”

“We went to a hearing and the council told us a decision had [already] been made.”

All of that is of some considerable concern.

As it stands councils and/or Māori can declare SNAs basically at whim. As has happened, a team of ecologists did a desktop evaluation using computerised topographical maps. That’s not a remotely credible way of effectively confiscating private land.

There’s no compensation for the farmer concerned who will have to go through a council-run resource consent process if they want to do anything with their land.

I know of many farmers, ourselves included, who have fenced native bush. I am also aware of many who have put land into QE11 covenants. They have been voluntary and completed without the interference of either central or local government.

It would be good if the government could then remove its jackboots and talk to farmers instead of promoting confiscation without compensation.

Further, as is the case on the West Coast, 85% of the land is government owned and covered by native. Why would you want to confiscate any of the remaining 15%?

What’s worse is the entire confiscation is done with no scientific rigour.

When Climate Change Minister James Shaw was questioned on the opposition to SNAs he said the grievance was from “a few pākehā farmers down south”. What a stupid, arrogant statement to make. He should get out of his office more often.

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