Forest & Bird leaves Land and Water Forum after 'deeply disappointing' policy
Forest & Bird has pulled out of the Government's Land and Water Forum, citing "mounting frustration" over its handling of freshwater management.
The Government's much-maligned "swimmable" freshwater policy was the final straw, the group said in a letter to Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith.
The forum is a Government-led body bringing together dozens of environmental, industry and recreational groups to improve freshwater management.
Forest & Bird was one of its earliest members and one of its largest environmental voices.
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The proposed freshwater standards were "deeply disappointing" as they "largely ignored" the forum's advice, Forest & Bird president Mark Hanger said.
"The forum provided the Government with consensus recommendations that had buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders, incorporating the best scientific advice, yet they've come up with something very different," he said in a statement.
"In putting the forum's recommendations to one side, the Government has undermined the good faith and trust that we put in the forum to help address the freshwater crisis facing all New Zealanders."
Smith said he was "disappointed but not surprised" at the development.
"Forest & Bird has become a lot more political since a former Green MP [Kevin Hague] has taken up the chief executive role," he said.
"The Government and Forest & Bird both agree that water quality needs to improve.
"Our Government is doing more than any Government in history – the difference is our Government wants to ensure its policy is practical and achievable."
He said the Government had accepted the "vast bulk" of the forum's recommendations, including upgrading the wadeable bottom-line to a proportion of time that water bodies are swimmable.
He did not believe it affected the forum's credibility, as several environmental groups remained.
"Things inevitably get a bit political in the lead-up to the election. My hope is that if National is in Government post-election Forest & Bird will reconsider and re-engage with the forum."
Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said the Government's policy announcement had fallen far short of what was acceptable.
The group was primarily concerned about the ecological health of rivers, but the swimmability standards showed a lack of commitment to improving water quality.
"We have this massive problem with the ecological health of our rivers. They're going downhill very rapidly. Nothing in the Government's proposed plan will reverse that, so we can expect to see declining ecological health under this plan."
He said there had been no issue with the process of working with other members.
"The process around the table has been great. Our board simply reached the point where they said enough is enough, and to stay in might give New Zealanders the tacit signal we somehow thought the Government's proposed NPS was somehow acceptable, when really we think it's completely unacceptable."
He challenged Smith's claim that the group had become more extreme since he became chief executive in September last year.
"From 2015 we were raising grave concerns and indicating we were on the verge of withdrawal. The decision to withdraw was not my decision, it was by the board of Forest & Bird."
In the letter to Smith, Forest & Bird said there had been both internal and external criticism of its continued involvement in the forum.
The group had told Government of its concerns around the "cherry-picking" of its recommendations, but nothing had changed.
It would consider re-joining the forum, but only if there was a commitment towards implementing the decisions it made.
"Without this the process is not collaborative governance, but rather structured networking," the letter said.
Fish and Game withdrew from the forum in 2015, citing frustration over the sidelining of environmental voices.