By Marie Brown 19/02/2016

Conservation on private land is a story of the good and the bad.  Of the remaining privately-owned natural habitat, at least 350,000 hectares are legally protected by covenant of one sort or another. 

The Queen Elizabeth II National Trust recently registered their four thousandth covenant making a total of 180,000 hectares protected for open space values. Nga Whenua Rahui covenants protect some 171,000 hectares and multiple other covenanting schemes through the Department of Conservation, Fish and Game, councils and the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust protect thousands more hectares under various management regimes.

The bad news is that the remaining unprotected majority is being cleared, and quickly.

But there is no definitive source for the rate of habitat loss because monitoring has been uncoordinated and irregular. We do know that some 10,518 hectares of native forest were lost between 1996 and 2012 and in the same period, 30,049 hectares of indigenous tussock grassland was lost.

No doubt very much more wetland, grassland and shrubland has since been converted to intensive agriculture than those numbers indicate.

It is difficult to protect biodiversity on private land because conservation is hard and costly, and damage is easy and profitable.

Conservation is expensive, and from the perspective of any one individual, the benefits are limited. The cost of setting up covenants, pest and weed control, revegetation, species management and other conservation tasks may not be possible for low-income landowners. Conversely, destroying biodiversity to make way for development and intensification, yields profits that go into individuals’ pockets.

A landowner carefully maintaining a wetland bears most or all the costs of doing so, while a neighbour draining another one pays no reparation for the lost public interest in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the new pasture or subdivision in its place is likely very lucrative. The economics here are pretty hostile to nature.

Regulatory failure – which dissipates the purpose of laws – is yet another driver of loss. Despite clear mandate to create mechanisms to protect nature on private land, we have largely failed to hold the line on loss and degradation because private and corporate development interests have been able to persuade governments and agencies not to use the regulatory powers available to them.

Conservation on private land has and can contribute to addressing our biodiversity crisis. Some land in private ownership is in fact under more sustained and reliable management than most of our public conservation land. Unfortunately, there is no monitoring of private conservation management so we don’t have a clear idea of what proportion of natural areas on private land are actively managed and, hence, how big that contribution is.

And there’s no question that the incentives for conservation on private land are bleak. The costs of doing the work through to the opportunity costs of giving up potential economic development can really add up, and the benefit to the individual means more to some than to others. But this fact is actually only half of the issue…

Incentives for the good stuff are thin on the ground, but so are penalties for damaging nature. Clearing indigenous vegetation, draining wetlands, polluting streams and the like are wrongly perceived to be property rights, a myth that some cling to in lieu of taking responsibility for the cost to the public of their actions and the actual value derived from that damage.

It’s a classic case of socialise the costs and privatise the benefits.

The public interest in nature conservation picks up the tab for the damage and the cumulative effect is starting to have some wide-ranging impacts on our international brand and future prosperity. While tools like biodiversity offsetting provide some means of mitigating this harm, their implementation is far from perfect and often serve to justify loss of nature in practice.

To address this imbalance, I think three things need to happen:

  1. A sustained programme of national biodiversity monitoring on private land, that collects information on what is being done and where, and enables the contribution of private land conservation to be factored into national and regional conservation planning.
  2. Stronger incentives for conservation on private land, particularly where the activities are of important strategic value and contribute to wider conservation goals. For this we need to go beyond the usual rates relief and examine novel models of non-agency conservation that are flexible, adaptive and achieve improved and sustained environmental gains.
  3. An emphasis on the polluter pays concept, whereby landowners pay for environmentally harmful activities through taxes and levies, commensurate with their impact. This could generate large sums of money for both conservation and general purposes.  But most importantly, it would drive internalisation of ecological costs of development and alter the economic drivers of harm pretty substantially.

In the absence of changing the game pretty significantly – particularly in respect of point 3 – private land conservation will be a discretionary activity, providing little certainty for the suite of threatened species and ecosystems that call it home.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Waiau Trust, a QEII covenant.