Co-operative conservation

Your World

SARAH FOY
Last updated 08:33 25/09/2012
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There is a map of a shape that roughly resembles the heel of a foot. The bit sticking out - the heel - is red, like the colour of blood. In the middle an irregular yellow circle pops up. Bits of grey are dotted round the edge. As the heel radiates out, up towards the leg and down towards the sole of the foot the colour becomes splotchy yellow. Some is bright yellow, some mustard, and some cream. There's the odd streak of red like veins snaking out.

It is aesthetic as well as alarming. The red represents areas in Taranaki where less than 10 per cent of our native vegetation is left. There is a blanket of it particularly in the areas radiating out from the mountain and along the coast.

The bright yellow illustrates spots where between 10 and 20 per cent of native vegetation remains. The key to the map moves through mustard, grey and cream. Cream is the best-case scenario where more than 30 per cent remains and more than 20 per cent of native vegetation is protected. Much less of that colour is evident.

Within those areas, dozens of plants and animals struggle to survive. For many, barely anything is known about them.

The map forms part of a report titled the Taranaki Biodiversity Forum Accord.

Sixty-six animal species in Taranaki are nationally threatened or at risk of extinction, says the report. Some are currently close to local extinction.

Fifty native plants found in the region are also identified as threatened and at risk.

Other native plants and animals are classified as "regionally distinctive".

Nineteen groups trying to halt the tide of natural devastation signed the Taranaki Accord on August 27. They include DOC, district and regional councils, as well as established organisations like Forest and Bird, Federated Farmers and the QEII Trust and community groups such as the East Taranaki Environment Trust.

At its heart the accord is an attempt to work better together to preserve the region's environment and all the plants and animals within it.

Chris Spurdle, planning manager at Taranaki Regional Council, says Taranaki's issues are not unique. Other regions grapple with the same problems. "We can do things in our own silos and that has been a criticism in the past but I think there's a recognition that resources are finite and that we need to get a bigger bang for our bucks and we can do that by working together." The Taranaki Biodiversity Forum established three years ago, saw groups meeting twice a year. But there was recognition that more could be done to develop a shared vision, outcomes, priorities and actions.

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"We don't have everybody but over time we hope others will join," says Spurdle of the document. Among those groups not yet involved are iwi, educational institutes and industry and some other environmental trusts.

One of the key issues is a gap in information. "A lot of organisations might have information that's stored in their own heads or own spreadsheet that's hard for others to access.

"We know a lot of species are present in Taranaki but it may be difficult to say where they are. For example, DOC might have records on skinks or lizards but when the TRC receives a resource application regarding the draining of wetlands we might have not access to that information so a habitat important to their survival could be lost."

The challenge now is to put the talk into action. Spurdle points out that the Accord is not a TRC directed document but one the whole community needs to own. Still, it needs an independent group willing to drive it, to report on actions and liaise with agencies.

He describes the accord as a stepping stone. "It's going to be a long journey but I suppose we have established a plan and vision of where we want to be. It's now about making sure that we implement things. So while the relationships are good, we have to keep working to make sure they stay good and are able to achieve success."

Karen Schumacher of the East Taranaki Environment Trust (ETET) calls the accord "incredibly important and powerful" for its attempt to get everyone "on the same page".

She points out that it's a living document so that as new initiatives happen and new organisations emerge they can be included. "Anyone can become a signatory . . . it's not a closed shop."

Taranaki is fortunate in having so many environmental agencies and groups - but there's danger in duplication and inefficiencies.

"There's that strength in working together and being collaborative. It also identifies things that are under threat in Taranaki, identifies what we have, where we need to help, what is being done and in which areas."

Her understanding is that the document is the most comprehensive of its kind in the country. "Northland has one and Waikato, but I don't think they're as comprehensive. We're inclusive."

One new spinoff from the accord is a regional volunteers calendar currently being developed. Groups log in events such as open days or working bees so both they and the public know what's happening and where to offer help. It's due out in October. "It's a practical aspect that has come about as a result of the accord," says Schumacher.

She's optimistic about the future, saying Taranaki people and groups are proactive and farmers "especially mindful of what is out there". Undoubtedly habitats have changed "but people have to earn a living and we can learn to co-exist".

The accord document points out that while the rate of land clearance and drainage has declined in recent times, the ongoing loss and modification of existing habitats remain an issue, particularly on privately owned land. Even small losses of bush or waterways have a disproportionate impact on remaining biodiversity. Species are inter-related - if they lose their homes their habitat mates are also affected.

Today the biggest threats are invasive plants such as giant gunnera and old man's beard, and pest animals like stoats and possums.

The threats to fresh water biodiversity arise from habitat modification such as the drainage of wetlands, the channelising or piping of streams, and discharges to water.

Arguably, farmers are no longer the bad guys they might once have been. The work of Neil Phillips for the Queen Elizabeth II Trust is a partial testament to that. QEII, an independent organisation, helps private landowners protect significant natural and cultural features through open space covenants.

Fourteen years ago Phillips was working six hours a week while running a dairy farm. The QEII job got too big; he couldn't do justice to either role so he and his family sold the farm and moved to New Plymouth's Frankley Rd. These days his QEII job is a 30-hour-a-week one. Interest from private landowners in covenanting land is soaring.

Last year 160 new covenants were created throughout the country. Of those 32 were in Taranaki. The covenants encompassed about 2000 ha (5000 acres) of land ranging from ring plain land to hill country properties. "That percentage is huge", says Phillips.

Why the rise? He says QEII works closely with different agencies to promote the benefits. That's one reason. There are others: Fonterra rules set out under the clean streams accord promote better protection of wetlands and waterways. Farmers and landowners are also aware of the aesthetics of retaining vegetation as well as the benefits in sheltering stock. And - possibly more importantly - there are economic spinoffs in fencing off and thus protecting bush and waterways. Stock is far easier to manage when it can't go walkabout. Phillips gives examples: A farmer now able to muster sheep in half a day instead of the two days it used to take, a dairy farmer who'd lost 10 cows (worth $2000 each) before he realised he should be fencing off unproductive land. Work through QEII meant the fencing was subsidised as is the riparian planting. "Nothing is done for free. Landowners still have to be involved . . . they have to buy in to it otherwise there's less incentive." But the financial help and consequent rates relief is vital. Fencing costs run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Phillips says the accord and his work with QEII is exciting. He's just returned this week from a QEII conference where his colleagues hailed Taranaki's accord.

"There's nothing like it throughout the country at all. Taranaki is a frontrunner for the whole thing. It's pretty satisfying to be involved with a group of different agencies who are at the forefront of an environmental programme to get things done."

Kelly Langton, Federated Farmers' regional policy adviser, says farmers are generally proud of the biodiversity that exists on their farms.

"They rely on ensuring that the land is viable and healthy for the next generation. Your average farmer is not out there to rape and pillage the land, which is a bit of misconception."

Like Phillips she points out the benefits of retaining vegetation to shelter stock, although the flipside is that the retiring of land from production can impact on a farmer's livelihood. Federated Farmers was "pleased and proud" to be involved with the formation of the accord, seeing itself as a practical partner in the process. She talks of the organisation providing a "reality check about what is possible and palatable".

"So while you probably won't see Federated Farmers out there with a shovel doing plantings . . . it's about being able to advocate for approaches that are being taken. We can explain to DOC or district councils or trusts why things might not work.

"Into the future, having that level of understanding from everybody as to where we are going and what we are trying to achieve means we are not fighting against each other."

Tomorrow from 6pm about 10 members of the accord discuss our biodiversity, the issues and actions we can take to preserve Taranaki's natural Taonga.

WHAT THE ACCORD MEANS

It's a document signed on August 27, 2012.

19 groups have signed up.

These groups aim to raise the profile and awareness of biodiversity and provide a way to talk and share information.

The accord is non-statutory.

It allows groups to have a regional focus - to do what is best for Taranaki.

A regional volunteer calendar is already in development as a result of the accord. To list an event email crendall@doc.govt.nz

Issues and actions surrounding the accord to be debated at Puke Ariki tomorrow night from 6pm

For further information seetrc.govt.nz/taranaki-biodiversity- accord/

- Taranaki Daily News

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