DOC spends $6k on photo opportunity

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 15:09 26/06/2014
MPs at Blue Duck Stream
Marion van Dijk

STORM DAMAGE: National Party candidate for West Coast-Tasman Maureen Pugh, left, Minister of Conservation Nick Smith, Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell and United Future party leader Peter Dunne at a site near Blue Duck Stream near Little Wanganui, Karamea

Nick Smith
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ
NICK SMITH: Environment Minister.

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The cash-strapped Department of Conservation paid $6000 to fly three ministers, two TV crew and a photographer to the West Coast for a photo opportunity.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith announced last week that the Government would pass special legislation to allow the recovery of high-value native timber blown over in April's Cyclone Ita.

Parliament would this afternoon debate the emergency legislation.

To make the announcement last week, DOC chartered two helicopters for ministers Smith and Peter Dunne, and Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell to fly from Nelson to Blue Duck Creek, in Karamea, and back.

They were accompanied by one reporter and two camera operators from TV3 and TVNZ, a photographer from the Nelson Mail and a handful of advisers.

Smith this afternoon defended the $6344 cost of the trip. It was ''absolutely'' worth it because he was taking the opportunity to explain the damage to the public.

''In my view it was a responsible use of public money taking major media organisations to see first hand the scale of the damage, to be able to see that damage first hand myself and with the Maori and United Future parties that are clearly having to make a decision in Parliament.''

Both parties went public with their support minutes after Smith made the announcement.

"They had not firmed up their support,'' he said. ''I invited them to come onto the trip. Following the trip they confirmed they were available to do that...we arrived on the site at 10am.

"We were able to communicate back to our media staff that yes they were OK. It is true that the media statements were prepared before...but it was clearly done on the understanding that they wanted to see for themselves the damage.''

He denied DOC was cash-strapped and said there will be "many millions of dollars" in royalties from the recovery of timber for the department.

Smith said DOC would be ''very pleased'' if TVNZ, TV3 and Fairfax Media, which owned the Nelson Mail, wanted to contribute to costs.

He said the "bulk" of economic benefits will flow to the West Coast and is ''quite confident'' DOC staff would ensure only Cyclone Ita windfall would be removed.

The trip was a "part of our public duty," a DOC spokesman said.

"We've got the minister making an announcement about special legislation which we had advised him on . . . we have a responsibility to show both our ministers and the MPs who are going to support that legislation the scale of the damage.

"I guess we have a responsibility to show the media, or the public of New Zealand through the media."

He said the trip was coordinated with Smith's office.

Since 2012, about $67 million has been slashed from DOC's budget, leading to the loss of more than 70 jobs.

Green MP Eugenie Sage said the trip was "an expensive PR stunt by a minister trying to cover up the damage that wind-throw logging will cause".

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"The minister spends up large on public relations yet DOC has to scrimp and save to fund vital conservation work," she said.

"The Department's funding is precarious. It is having to fund its flagship Battle for Our Birds programme, which ramps up pest control, out of savings from not making as many staff redundant as it expected in last year's restructuring."

Conservation groups were opposed to the windfall recovery. Forest and Bird said there was no need for urgent legislation because rimu was harvestable for up to five years.

They argued that there was nothing to stop live trees, or those which could regenerate, from being logged.

Labour said the Government was "playing politics" and wanted more time for a select committee to consider the bill.

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said the economics behind the operation didn't make sense.

He said any additional harvest of native timber might collapse timber prices and undermine existing sawmills.

Smith argued revenue from royalties from the recovery of timber would be returned to DOC, and there was no sense in leaving it to rot.

The Government hadn't put a value on the timber likely to be extracted, but said several million cubic metres of beech, rimu, matai, totara and miro trees had been felled.

The legislation would be repealed after five years.

- Stuff

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