Endangered rangers

Last updated 13:54 12/10/2012

Today's blog is for all of you business-savvy people out there. If you had an asset that delivered you significant returns, would you invest strategically in that asset to ensure a sustainable long-term income, or would you whittle it down to nothing, cross your fingers and hope for the best?

Tourism NZ front page image

This image (with links to 'National Parks' 'hiking' and 'scenic highlights' is on the front page of the Tourism New Zealand website. (Credit: Tourism NZ)

When it comes to the Government's treatment of the Department of Conservation, sadly they have chosen the latter path. It's sad because DOC does a fine job, looks after our precious native wildlife and wild places and is internationally recognised for its groundbreaking conservation work.

It's also a really dumb economic strategy, because DOC protects the very thing that people come from all over the world to see. They are not only the guardians of our amazing flora and fauna, but the kaitiaki of our greatest national financial asset - our great outdoors and our "clean green" brand.

Most tourists come to New Zealand for the landscape, the views, the vista and the wildlife. The cornerstone of our tourism industry is our "100% Pure" image, which has been carefully cultivated for the past decade by tourism promoters. The Department of Conservation protects that image, and in doing so helps to protect our $21 billion tourism industry.

This week survey results were released which showed that two-thirds of New Zealanders thought that spending money on the Department of Conservation was a good use of taxpayer money and that half of all people surveyed thought the Government should spend more.

So it really grinds my gears when DOC's budget (which is already comparatively the smell of an oily rag) is cut again and again by the Government. To put it in perspective, the Department of Conservation is charged with protecting a third of our country, our more than 2000 threatened native species, our national parks, reserves and marine protected areas, our pest control (from possums to pest-fish) on around the same budget of the Hamilton City Council.

Now I may be a little biased, having spent the better part of the last decade working for DOC, and also having had the privilege of spending three years travelling the country and meeting rangers from all over New Zealand including Northland, Stewart Island and the Chathams (and everywhere in between!) while filming Meet the Locals for TVNZ. However, it turns out I'm not the only one who loves the work of our conservation department. The survey results also showed that 85 per cent of people found the work of DOC inspiring and relevant and 79 per cent thought that DOC staff were hardworking. This is great to hear. If you don't know too many DOC staff - here's a few thoughts from me...Ranger

Facts about rangers:

  • They do it for the love. (You don't become a ranger for the pay packet!).
  • It's not a 9-5 job. Rangers often spend weekends helping at community events, or are on call for rural fires, whale strandings and search and rescue callouts.
  • Ranger jobs are not for the faint-hearted or wussy.  I've "helped" rangers in activities such as wilding pine control (which involved stepping off the skids of a hovering helicopter on a steep cliff in the Remarkables), crawling through gorse to find giant weta in the Waikato, rope-climbing beech trees to look for orange-fronted kakariki nests, to assisting alpine search and rescue training in iffy weather on the mountains in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.
  • They know their stuff. Our rangers are experts in everything from goat control, to gecko behaviour, mudfish, weed control, kiwi, dolphins, seals... you name it.
  • They're generally pretty fit. While my "shiny trousers" head office job had me walking to the photocopier and back, I've gone away with rangers who thought nothing of walking 25km to survey a river valley in Wanaka for birds, or who hike to the tops of steep terrain every day to monitor black petrels (Little Barrier) or kakapo (Codfish Island).
  • They love their jobs and their communities. In many small communities, the local DOC office will provide activities for local children and families (e.g. Ranger for a day in Franz Josef).

Last year, DOC was forced to shed 96 jobs in yet another review. These jobs were crucial - despite the minister of conservation promising no scientists would lose their jobs, the scientists working under the handle of "technical support officers" were targeted. Planners and other crucial advocacy jobs were lost too. 

When it gets down to this level of detail, I like to return to my law school roots and head for the legislation. The Conservation Act 1987 in fact says that DOC will "advocate for conservation". So when the resource consent hearing for the proposed Bathurst Mine on the Denniston Plateau was held, commissioners were frustrated when DOC did not appear to advocate for the unique wildlife of the plateau. They are the experts, they should have been there to inform the commissioners about the wildlife that could be found there. Do the cuts to these kinds of people mean that there will be more occasions where nature won't get a voice now?

So last year's cuts in experts were tough. Next year we're looking at a whole new level - those khaki-wearing rangers.  According to DOC, the 1200 operational roles will now be reviewed. These are the people who set the stoat traps, cut the tracks, clean the toilets, put out the fires, liaise with their community, pick up the injured wildlife, organise the whale stranding assistance, cut down wilding pine trees, patrol marine reserves, go out in the middle of the night to retrieve kiwi eggs, check for avalanches, look after historic huts and buildings, translocate kokako, monitor a huge range our beautiful wildlife and generally keep our wild places looking like those images you see on the front of the Tourism NZ website.

Over the years I've heard some neat feedback about rangers. One I can remember was an Auckland businessman who had gone to do the Routeburn track and his colleague had injured his knee. A ranger from the hut (hut warden) had come across the pair halfway down the track, bandaged up the knee, picked up the injured man's pack (in addition to his own) and walked it up to the hut for them. These rangers are the essence of our "good keen man/woman" ideal that we hold so dear and I reckon DOC staff are some of the hardest working, most passionate and dedicated public servants we have in this country. It's a shame we don't invest more in them.

Have you met DOC rangers out and about? Do you think we should invest more in the Department of Conservation?

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