Unfair trade in nature

By Jolene Williams 

New Zealanders have every reason to be cautious about biodiversity offsetting – the trade-off between development and conservation. Ecological mitigation in theory offers environmental gains but University of Waikato

PhD student Marie Brown’s research into the outcomes of mitigation measures suggests these benefi ts are not often fulfilled.

Marie, a Forest & Bird member since high school, has for the last three years been reviewing how mitigation

measures have been implemented in New Zealand. At the university’s Environmental Research Institute, she investigated 110 projects and interviewed 116 policy advisors, non-government organisations, lawyers, planners and ecologists for their views on how the measures are working in practice. 

She examined projects that included positive conservation action as mitigation measures, some of which included biodiversity offsets. Marie gave a snapshot of how mitigation was working at a biodiversity offsets seminar at Forest & Bird’s Face Up to the Future conference in June.

"My observations don’t give me great confi dence that mitigation requirements are being well-implemented,” she told the 150 people at the seminar.  “Many mitigation actions required of resource consent have not been carried out well, or at all.” 

This raises serious concern for the future application of offsets. Forest & Bird North Island Conservation Manager and senior planner Dr Mark Bellingham says biodiversity offsetting is a more complicated form of mitigation, so Marie’s research is useful in highlighting the potential pitfalls as offsets become more commonly used in New Zealand.

“My PhD research showed that councils fail to monitor their plans; Marie has shown this also applies to consents. This is a serious concern for the effectiveness of the Resource Management Act. If governments want biodiversity offsets to work, then they need to get councils and planners to monitor activities over 10 to 35-year periods of plans and consents. Then we will see if biodiversity offsetting can actually work.”

Marie outlined how requiring mitigation such as offsets had the potential to be a win for nature. But New Zealand needed to improve its resource management systems, including better agency commitment and resourcing to assess ecological impacts and consent monitoring, as well as enforcement. Clearer guidelines were needed about when and what mitigation was appropriate to improve consistency and transparency, she said.

The Department of Conservation is working on developing national best-practice guidelines for offsetting. DOC biodiversity offsets programme manager Gerri Ward emphasised it would serve only as a guidance document.

“It’s not a DOC guide on how to offset on DOC land. These are the key steps so it represents best international practice. It won’t guarantee consents.” She said the document would promote a better understanding and application of biodiversity offsetting.

Forest & Bird’s major concern is that offsetting will allow unsuitable projects to be consented that otherwise would be unable to proceed. Marie’s research shows this is already happening, largely because of weak systems. While working as a council offi cer, Marie discovered that decisions about mitigation under the Resource Management Act were “quite random and arbitrary”. It was worrying, since her council was just one of the 85 agencies that assessed about 40,000 applications every year, she said.

Marie advocated an attitudinal shift that focussed more on delivering actual results because gaining consent was too often considered the end of the battle. “It’s only the beginning,” she said. “Sometimes a spade hasn’t even touched the ground, and everyone’s walking away. In fact the real issues are how we manage the development ... and what real outcomes it genuinely achieves later on.”

Other pitfalls include lax monitoring and councils’ inability and occasional apparent disinclination to prosecute non-compliers. Miscommunication between developers and contractors can also cause mistakes.

Forest & Bird Solicitor Peter Anderson said “robust and easily enforceable conditions” needed to be imposed on projects that used offsetting to ensure a positive result for biodiversity. Forest & Bird and other organisations will promote this by submitting on resource consents and, if necessary, appealing to the Environment Court.

Peter said this watchdog role needed to continue as developments take effect. Failing to do so would mean monitoring consents “will almost certainly be inadequate and promised offsets will never materialise”. Effort, time and money would be wasted but, more importantly, biodiversity would be lost.

Presentations from the biodiversity offsets seminar are at www.faceuptothefuture.org.nz