Being there forever is the defining feature of Specially Protected Areas and that is ok.

One third of public conservation land is “stewardship land” – our forgotten lands – they exist in a state of flux. The specialness of their forests, birds and rivers, or the stories or adventures to be found within  have yet to be explored. When areas are explored and understood, many achieve a “specially protected status”. This status might be an ecological area, a wilderness area or a conservation park.

Stewardship land can be swapped for other land of higher conservation value. Specially protected areas cannot.

The Government argued that because stewardship land and specially protected areas are managed the same the distinction didn’t really matter; for all practical purposes they could be treated the same.  The Supreme Court however observed it is wise to have a high protective classification during the period of stewardship – otherwise future options are diminished. The defining feature of specially protected areas is their permanent status, and you know what, that is ok.

 It is the little things that really matter

When you visit a natural area, what captures you? The beauty of a river, or a mountain, or a hillside, or the park boundary?

The Government argued that “revocation (of the status of an area within a park) can be used as part of the management of a conservation park in order to achieve its enhancement”. The Supreme Court just said, No!, “the obligation to manage the park to protect its natural and historic resources does not permit revocation of the status of protected land in order to dispose of it to obtain a gain for the park to which it belongs”. It is the trees and birds and mosses and lichens and marshes and insects and the way they interact in their own place that matter not the techicalities of what may or may not be within a line on a map

‘Net Conservation Benefit’ is Dead

There is a school of thought, common amongst those who see public conservation land as a commercial opportunity, that by trading publicly held nature for privately held nature or services, we can somehow end up with more nature.  Build a dam, get some forest and a few years of predator control, or Sell off a mountain basin, get a skifield and some remnant forest with an existing covenant in a gully in the butt-end of nowhere.

The thing is every trade results in environmental damage. Nature on private land becomes a lever to destroy nature on public land.

Stewardship land can be swapped, but here the Government wanted to swap a specially protected area. The Supreme Court, bless em!, said revocation of specially protected status must be assessed “by reference to the particular resources affected and does not lend itself to a calculation of whether an exchange of land will lead to net-gain to either the Forest Park as a whole or the wider conservation estate.”

We are all bound by the law, including the Government

Government often talks about the “unfettered discretion” of ministers. Plans and policy say no more guided walkers on the Routeburn, Government says we can do what we want. Limited helicopter landings in Fiordland, don’t worry that’s ok.

The Government tried to spin a line to the Supreme Court that “the Minister and her delegate, the  Director-General,  were  not  bound  by  the  Conservation  General Policy  and  Conservation  Management  Strategy  and  that  these  documents  cannot constrain the exercise of statutory powers conferred on the Minister”.

The Supreme Court said … No-way Jose!  “Statutory context necessarily channels the choice available to the Minister”. This translates as ‘follow the damn law as it is written’!  They then observed, “planning instruments adopted under the Act are significant in its scheme  and  provide  the  context  for  the  choices  left  to  the  Minister  and  the Director-General and reasonably to be taken by them” this is one helluva a  convoluted way of saying “Conservation Management Strategies aren’t ‘one-handed handshakes’ with the community. Stick to them!”.

The Supreme Court has bluntly confirmed that we have conservation law that counts.

Conservation law is ours as a community to shape

Conservation can only be achieved over generations, through consensus within our communities.

The Government has supported some tremendous initiatives: Predator Free 2050, the Battle for our Birds, efforts to eradicate Wilding Conifers, but it must recognise that these initiatives are built on the foundation established by generations past, who have put land aside and protected it for good, and have evolved ways to ensure community oversight and “conservative” management.

The Supreme Court values public processes, well we think thats what they mean when they say: “planning instruments ensure consistency of decision-making while allowing adaptation to meet changing circumstances through plans developed with public participation…they enable the public participation provided for in the Act in actual decisions to be focused and consistent with the general policies adopted through a public process” But do we?

Are we committed to protecting our role governing public conservation land  or are we prepared to watch the “DOC estate” traded away. Are we collectively prepared to fight for conservation law? The signs are we might have to. The government  perhaps should think twice before seeking to circumvent a well-considered Supreme Court decision.

The full Supreme Court decision can be found here: Ruahine land swap decision