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Hundreds of areas of native habitat are being deliberately and unlawfully harmed around the country with near impunity, a report released by Forest & Bird has found.   

The report See no evil: biodiversity loss on private land documents hundreds of instances of deliberate damage to native habitat, some of it large scale, or of high significance. The report also details dozens of local and regional councils with little ability to detect illegal habitat destruction, let alone proactively protect the natural environment for which they are responsible.   

Using data provided by regional and district councils under the Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act, Forest & Bird has documented vast blind spots, inconsistencies, and ineffectiveness in the country’s ability to protect native forest, wetlands, and coastal and river margins.   

 “This report shows very clearly that nature is under attack on private and public land, and that public agencies are desperately failing in their responsibility to do anything about it,” says Forest & Bird Chief Executive Kevin Hague.

“Where councils are aware of large or important tracts of native habitat being illegally sprayed, burnt, cut down, or poisoned, very few of them are equipped to enforce the law to its full extent. This means there is often no meaningful consequence or deterrent for those committing significant environmental crimes.” 

“Equally concerning is that a third of New Zealand’s councils have no records of any unauthorised vegetation clearance in three years.  

“Because most councils aren't actively looking to protect vulnerable habitat, it isn't surprising that they would be completely oblivious when damage is caused.    

“Where councils do become aware of deliberate harm to their natural environment, they are more often than not toothless in their ability to protect it, either due to weak local rules, or desperately under-powered compliance teams. 

“It is clear that in the absence of dedicated staff, resourcing, and consistent rules, New Zealand is losing significant places and species with little risk to the perpetrator,” says Mr Hague.  

"There is easy money to be made in harming the natural environment and little meaningful deterrent. This is undoubtedly a calculation made by some land-owners and farmers around the country, as this report indicates.

“There is simply no guarantee that important habitat will be protected, regardless of its size, importance, rarity, or classification. It is telling that in three years, there have been less than 10 prosecutions for native habitat destruction, despite there being hundreds of instances of known unauthorised clearance,” says Mr Hague. 

Some of the instances of unauthorised vegetation clearance in the report include:

  • 103ha of an SNA in Waipā district was sprayed by plane, for which the perpetrators received an abatement notice and two formal warnings.    
  •  In an instance in the Kaipara area, investigating officers concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to do more than provide education after the land owner denied involvement in damaging an SNA.     
  • The Thames Coromandel District Council explained to a member of the public concerned about activity in an SNA that “the TCDC District Plan does not consider SNA requiring special treatment or protection.” 

The report highlights massive discrepancies between how councils respond to unlawful habitat destruction. An instance of vegetation clearance that may go to court in one area may receive a simple warning from council officers in another.   

  • An unauthorised dam in the Waikato that flooded 24ha of wetland was only required to be ‘remediated’, according to Waipā District Council, whereas Horizons RC prosecuted someone for partially draining 10ha of coastal wetland.   
  •  Dunedin City Council is seeking formal enforcement action through the Environment Court for clearance of 0.1ha of native regenerating bush, while in comparison Taupo District Council issued an abatement notice against a landowner who, despite their consent conditions, cleared an area containing Nationally Endangered geothermal kānuka. 

There are also wildly inconsistent responses within the same councils.   

Where Environment Canterbury prosecuted a farmer for causing the ‘total destruction’ of a 24ha wetland by aerially sprayed with herbicide and digging a 5.5km network of drainage channels, they failed to even check on two other instances of reported wetland destruction.    

  • One report of clearance of wetlands at Flock Hill station stated that ‘The works have mainly removed large areas of native terrestrial vegetation, cultivation and pasture development’. But ECAN’s records show the site has not yet been visited, despite being the incident being reported in Jan 2020.   
  • Another instance at Bush Gully Stream wetland in Canterbury involving ‘large scale spray-off of native bush and potential super phosphate and grass seeding via helicopter’, including ‘spraying across waterways in an erosion and sediment risk zone’. The enquiry was noted as being ‘closed without being progressed’.    

“It is clear that nature on private land is not protected. Despite the very small number of instances that ever come to the attention of Regional and District Councils, many are not investigated or acted on,” says Mr Hague. 

“New Zealand is currently doing a terrible job of looking after nature on private land. Without strong policy direction in the form of a National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, and an independent monitoring and compliance agency, New Zealand’s unique natural environment is sliding ever closer to collapse.” 

“Forest & Bird encourages all New Zealand’s to use their vote to give nature a voice this October. This is an important opportunity to make sure all parties commit to strong environmental policies that give our precious native species the protection they desperately need.”  

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