By Bruce Jefferies

One of my personal and long-held gripes is hearing our conservation areas, including national and conservation parks, described as “DOC Land.” These special places are in fact public land managed under various statutes, including the National Parks and Conservation Acts, which are administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC) on behalf of all New Zealanders. Section 6 of the Conservation Act 1987 sets out the Functions of the Department, which is a very useful summary of what DOC is legally required to do. In a similar vein, Section 4 of the National Parks Act 1980 clearly explains that our national parks are to be preserved, as far as possible for their intrinsic worth and that the public be allowed free access to them. These sections of law are worth understanding as they set the legislative “boundaries” that our conservation lands are administered under.

One of the ways that public interests in DOC operations and conservation in general are represented is through Conservation Boards – like the Otago Conservation Board (OCB) of which I am a member. Conservation Boards are independent bodies made up of ordinary Kiwis who represent “the interests of nature conservation, natural earth and marine sciences, recreation, tourism, and the local community including the tangata whenua of the area.” Members are appointed by the Minister of Conservation, on the strength of a respected track record in representing those interests. Conservation Boards are legally obliged to actively advocate for conservation and prepare and/or review submissions on policy and discussion documents coming  from central, regional and local government on, for example, the NZ Biodiversity Strategy and Action for Healthy Waterways.

Conservation Boards focus on planning and strategic direction rather than DOC’s day-to-day operations and work with DOC and other agencies on national park management plans, Conservation Management Strategies, marine reserve planning, impacts of tourism concessions and other activities on conservation land, among other things.

Whilst considering the issues, the boards also take into account public submissions, such as those prepared by FMC. The boards then make recommendations and give advice to the New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA). The NZCA is also made up of Kiwis who are appointed by the Minister, but the law requires representatives nominated from Tangata Whenua, certain organisations and communities. For example, both the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society NZ and Federated Mountain Clubs have a legislated seat on the board. 

The NZCA has the power to make some decisions (such as approving statutory documents like Conservation Management Plans and Strategies) and gives advice directly to the Minister of Conservation for everything else. So the final result is decisions and statutory documents for DOC to follow and implement. 

The Otago Conservation Board has recently considered issues like Battle for Our Birds – these relate to predator control programmes for the Otago Region, monitoring aircraft use on conservation areas and Mt Aspiring National Park, tenue review, responsible camping,  Remarkables and Coronet Peak development planning and the decline in Hoiho (yellow eyed penguins).

Conservation Boards are also required to maintain effective collaboration with Tangata Whenua, and the Otago Conservation Board does this through the three Otago Rūnaka. Two board members have Kāi Tahu affiliations and, although they don’t formally represent Iwi interests , they provide essential contemporary perspectives that contribute to nurturing the positive working relationship between the board and local iwi.

The Mt Aspiring / Tititea National Park Management Plan review, scheduled for 2020, will be an opportunity to consolidate the Otago Conservation Board’s partnership with the community. This will be critical for achieving good outcomes for the Park and for all parties with an interest in it, including the rūnaka,  DOC, conservation advocates, tourism operators and recreational users.

My experience working with boards and conservation goes back several decades, including time as a National Park Chief Ranger and Regional Conservator for DOC on the East Coast. After leaving the public service, I’ve worked internationally for over 30 years.  These roles provide me with relatively unique perspectives on conservation and how public interest is represented in conservation. One of the “take home messages” is that New Zealanders have a far greater role in the management of our public conservation land’ than almost anywhere else in the world, and that all of the 14 of the conservation boards across the country make a positive contribution, often flying under the radar, to protecting our natural Tāonga, the things we treasure most about our unique home land and islands.

This article was originally written by Bruce Jefferies from the Central Otago Lakes Branch of the Forest and Bird Protection Society, and has been adapted with his permission.

Bruce has worked in conservation since his appointment as a basic grade park ranger in Tongariro NP in 1967. Since then he has gathered experience in protected area planning and management and conservation in New Zealand  and has spent three decades working internationally including several Pacific Island countries, Papua New Guinea, and in South and East Asia (Nepal, Bhutan, Philippines, Lao PDR and Malaysia, Thailand, People Republic of China (Yunnan and Hubei Provinces) and Timor Leste.

He is a committee member of the local Branch of Forest and Bird Protection Society (Inc) and a member of the Otago Conservation Board. In 2019 he was awarded the Lincoln University International Alumni Medal.

For further information on conservation boards see the Code of Practice for Conservation Boards.

For the legislative roles of the conservation boards and the NZ Conservation Authority, see the Conservation Law Reform Act 1990, Part 2A: New Zealand Conservation Authority and conservation boards.