Balancing Act

‘Conservation net losses’, ‘net gains’ and ‘biodiversity offsetting’ are being bandied about in a new era in which the economic value of nature is being measured. But are we trading away our natural heritage? Jolene Williams investigates.

Like it or not, biodiversity offsetting is part of our future. With a growing population and finite resources, conservation is increasingly being squeezed as energy companies, developers and governments look to make a quick buck.

Biodiversity offsetting is a measure that essentially permits developments that sacrifice the conservation values of one area – by damming a river or developing a commercial ski field, for example – in return for improved conservation values of another. The primary aim is to carry out developments while achieving no net loss or preferably a net gain for biodiversity.

Put another way, a developer will take your apple and give you an orange for your trouble.
All well and good if you treasure oranges, but what if your apple was indigenous and critically endangered? What if your apple was actually a little spotted kiwi – would you swap?

Biodiversity offsetting is not a new concept. Internationally, it’s been around for decades under various names. But only in the last 10 years or so has the term come into popular use and the concept gained currency.

Offsetting in New Zealand is still in the early stages but rapidly developing, according to Forest & Bird solicitor Peter Anderson. We don’t yet have formal legislation, but the Environment Court has for some time accepted biodiversity offsets within certain parameters. The parameters are continually evolving as more cases go through the court.

The courts are using the Ministry for the Environment’s draft National Policy Statement (NPS) on Indigenous Biodiversity. Though the NPS is yet to be finalised, it will eventually provide the legal framework for biodiversity offsetting – by describing when and how offsetting can be applied, and if it can be applied at all.

The NPS makes clear that offsetting is to be the last option for developers, who must first attempt to avoid, remedy then mitigate adverse environmental impacts.

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says theoretically offsets are no bad thing. No net loss – or a conservation gain even – certainly sounds like a win for nature. But he’s sceptical because if environmental impacts cannot be “adequately mitigated” as the NPS stipulates, then perhaps the development shouldn’t happen at all.

“We’ve got these companies wanting to use it to argue for major developments that they would otherwise lose. The Resource Management Act would say no, the Environment Court would say no. My biggest concern is companies will misuse it because they want someone to say yes,” Kevin says.

Take, for example, Bathurst Resources’ plan to mine the Denniston Plateau on the West Coast. The Australian mining company is prepared to pour money into conservation projects to gain support for its bid to decimate the environmentally unique Denniston Plateau.

Chief executive Hamish Bohannan told the New Zealand Herald, “We share a passion to protect New Zealand’s conservation” and the company will put “significant effort” into rehabilitating and protecting flora and fauna. He promises the company will “deliver environmental benefits that exceed impacts”.

Mr Bohannan proclaims his oranges are more valuable than our apples. Those apples, by the way, are rare and nationally significant ecosystems, home to unique species like the West Coast green gecko, giant land snails and bonsai rata.

Kevin says Bathurst’s offsetting deal would nullify the very foundation of the aim to achieve “no net loss” of biodiversity. “Denniston Plateau is a unique environment and [Bathurst Resources] is going to blow it up and bulldoze it. The site will be completely and utterly damaged. It doesn’t matter how good [the compensation] is, there’s nothing they can do to replace the unique things they will inevitably destroy. It will never be the same again.”

Quite simply, it shouldn’t happen. Kevin also raises the potential for developers to misuse biodiversity offsetting. For instance, Bathurst’s’ compensation package may seem pretty good at face value, but underlying factors mask its true merit.

The company has proposed to fund 5620 hectares of predator control in the Heaphy River catchment area for the next 35 years as part of its deal. Kevin says the Department of Conservation had previously signalled a commitment to this work. So where is the “net gain”? The environment on the West Coast doesn’t win. DOC does because it saves a few pennies.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee Bathurst will operate for the next 35 years. What will happen to pest control if the company goes bust? And when Bathurst terminates funding in 35 years, then what? Peter says offsetting is not all doom and gloom. “A project going ahead with offsets is better than the project going ahead without.”

So the environmental outcome is better with the offset, if the project was going to get the green light anyway, he says.

Some argue biodiversity offsetting can potentially bring ecological benefits – more conservation areas under protection, for example, or improved understanding of the existing biodiversity before project development. Kevin says international experience indicates this is unlikely to be the case. There’s been little auditing of the success of biodiversity offsets. And where this has occurred in the United States, 40 per cent of the offsets were found not to exist and only about a third of those that did protected the agreed values.

Like Kevin, Peter’s concerned about the practical application of offsetting. It’s important the conservation values in the affected area are measured very carefully, he says. You can’t simply destroy one ecosystem, or part of it, and restore another. The whole ecological make-up needs to be considered in all its complexity.

Look beyond the beech trees and you’ll see scattered totara, layers of bush under the canopy and wildlife inhabiting these areas. A broad brush approach, he says, just won’t do. There needs to be a detailed evaluation of the affected ecosystems. And from there, an offset developed to ensure an equal or positive net result for the environment.

Peter anticipates considerable debate will arise, bothin the Environment Court and elsewhere, about where biodiversity offsets are appropriate and where they are not.
Some argue biodiversity offsetting is less appropriate in New Zealand than other countries because of its rich biodiversity and near pristine habitats. Kevin says: “Overseas, almost every habitat has been modified at some stage in the past ... Its applicability is less here, because we do have more ecosystems that haven’t been grossly
modified.”

In 2009, Department of Conservation director-general Al Morrison acknowledged the difficulties of applying biodiversity offsetting, but recognised its permanent stake in future conservation. “It is not possible to put a market price on all of nature’s services. They do not fit neatly within conventional economic modelling. But we do know the price is not zero,” he says.

His words are both reassuring and ominous. They insinuate biodiversity offsets will not be applied carelessly, but notes there is a price for our environment. DOC is managing a programme that investigates the feasibility of biodiversity offsetting in New Zealand. It says a shared vision of companies, communities, environmental groups and the government will be necessary to realise the “potentially large” benefits of offsetting.

Forest & Bird is developing its own biodiversity offsetting strategies because, as General Manager Mike Britton says, the Society will be a major player in its future application in New Zealand. “Forest & Bird is one of the organisations most actively engaged in resource management planning and the consideration of resource use applications. We’ll be making our voice for nature very strong in future discussions, to ensure the protection of biodiversity is the outcome.

“We’ll also need to promote within the community the value of biodiversity and the value of conservation land so that New Zealanders understand what can be lost.” Mike says Forest & Bird will keep a close eye on development proposals that include biodiversity offsetting.

And, like our appeals against mining Denniston and damming the Mökihinui River, we’re not afraid to challenge large-scale developments that threaten our environment. Mining and power companies may have led the initial charge in offsetting, but Forest & Bird is determined to step into the arena. The future of our environment is at stake.

Jolene Williams