Over the last 150 years we’ve cleared 77% of our native vegetation, lost 98% of our freshwater wetlands, and approximately half of all our indigenous species are either threatened or at risk of extinction. So concludes a recent stocktake of Hawke’s Bay’s biological diversity.

Despite celebrated conservation projects and steady unfêted efforts across the region to halt this decline, it’s clear we must do better. And among the different environmental agencies and interest groups, there’s optimistic hope that with better coordination and collaboration, we can.

John Cheyne, 47 years in conservation and key mover in getting biodiversity on the HBRC agenda.

The Hawke’s Bay Biodiversity Strategy (to be finalised in February) is a 35-year plan to ensure our important habitats and populations of native species are “enhanced, healthy and functioning” by 2050 – a vision that aligns with the international Convention on Biological Diversity ratified by New Zealand in 1993.

The strategy recognises that biodiversity is essential for bringing greater resilience to our ecosystems, and ultimately vital for our own survival. Its key objectives: to sustain, protect and improve native habitats and ecosystem services (such as pollination, nutrient cycling and water filtration) and to grow our native species; to integrate Maori values and kaitiakitanga; to develop effective partnerships; and to actively engage the community.

It’s a non-statutory, ‘living document’, that tells us what we have and where we’re going, with the flexibility to accommodate divergent pathways, levels of involvement, and a fluid situation as we learn and adapt to new knowledge.

While Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has facilitated and resourced the development of the strategy and accompanying Biodiversity Inventory, Tim Sharp, strategic policy advisor for HBRC, emphasises that it’s been community instigated and a “collective-thinking process”, with diverse representation and input from environmental agencies and community groups, iwi, councils, government and industry. “It’s a community strategy, a signal of intent from everyone involved.”

After two years of round-table discussions, Des Ratima (Te Roopu Kaitiaki O Te Wai Maori) declares, “We are all in the same waka, paddling in the same direction, and that’s a huge achievement in itself.”

To get a feel for what this strategy might mean for Hawke’s Bay, I spoke with some of those most passionately involved in biodiversity protection, to ask what hopes and cautions they hold for it.

Identifying the knowledge gaps

John Cheyne has been working professionally in conservation for 47 years and was the first Hawke’s Bay manager of DOC in 1987. He is part of Nga Mahi Te Taiao, an informal forum for conservation groups to coordinate their efforts and act as a conduit of information; they’ve been pushing for a biodiversity strategy for years.

“A lot of really good biodiversity work has been done in Hawke’s Bay, but there’s value in providing a more structured approach.” An important outcome of the strategy already has been the collating of all existent information on biodiversity in the region, which has shown up the knowledge gaps.

For instance, Hawke’s Bay is of national importance in terms of its near-shore creatures, such as crabs and starfish, and hosts many migratory marine mammals at certain times of the year. Other than commercial catch data that shows a decline in numbers of fish caught, next to nothing is known about the state of our marine fish, mammals or invertebrate communities.

Cheyne is passionate about freshwater wetlands, and believes their plight makes them a top priority for protection. While there are some huge challenges, he sees these as “exciting times”, and points to two great examples of work done so far: the restoration of Pekapeka Wetland and Whakaki Lake (north of Wairoa).

Protecting biodiversity is not built around one issue, but a combination of factors, and wetlands are a case in point: “There’s been fantastic work at Whakaki over the last 20 years: retiring lake shores, massive planting, weed and pest control. This has been achieved largely by Maori landowners with financial support from regional council and Nga Whenua Rahui.”

While Cheyne is wary of over-emphasising iconic species and projects (although these are “great for lifting people’s awareness”), he sees a real advantage in using flagship species such as bittern, which are rarer in Hawke’s Bay than kiwi and blue duck: “If you look after the bittern, you look after most wetland birds.”

Cheyne believes that in order to realise the strategy objectives, “There’s going to have to be substantial resourcing, and it’s going to take much more than private landowners and volunteers – volunteers are great, but they’re no substitute for the statutory responsibilities of agencies such as DOC. This requires funding from central government.”

Cheyne says, “It’s important that the strategy is not cumbersome, and that it provides involvement at different levels, but I’m holding out a lot of hope for it, I really am.”

More birds, more happiness

Vaughan Cooper (Forest & Bird) believes the greatest thing to overcome is the fragmentation of resources, species, and labour, which the strategy should help address.

Forest & Bird have partnered with other organisations, such as HBRC, in the past – “with Poukawa Stream, they provided the trees and our volunteers put them in the ground” – and Cooper sees the strategy as a continuation of this partnership concept.

It also represents a shift in thinking “from one tree at a time, to one site at a time.” He suggests it could even increase our position on the happiness index, proportionate to the increase in bush and birds:

“I think in the longer term we’re going to see people far more satisfied with their environment and enjoying it more. As an analogy, you’ve just got to look out and see how many people are using the cycle ways now and yet they were never participants before. So the community is going to benefit in ways that we never thought about, and that’s exciting.”

The biggest concern Cooper has, is that with such a long-term focus and less immediate tangible gains, the enthusiasm to build on it won’t carry through.

Open space covenants

Troy Duncan is the Hawke’s Bay rep for the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust (QE II), which partners with private landowners to protect special land features for perpetuity, such as Maori middens or forest remnants, through open space covenants. There are about 250 registered in Hawke’s Bay, with a gradual increase of 3-4 on average per year. Te Mata Park has a QE II covenant.

In Hawke’s Bay 40% of our native forest remnants are on private land, along with two thirds of our remaining freshwater wetlands, so significant gains in biodiversity protection will depend on such partnerships.

“In Hawke’s Bay we’re fortunate that HBRC has been contributing to this, so the cost of establishing a covenant (principally, fencing) is split three ways. But a covenant is quite a responsibility; it has to be feasible – farmers have to see a reason for doing the work.

“The biggest limiting factor is the genuine offering of private land, which is where most of the ‘good stuff’ is. We have to generate the interest in it, otherwise the strategy will be like trying to have a game of rugby without a rugby ball. Organisations can collaborate all they like but if they haven’t got land to work on it’s a zero game.”

Duncan hopes the strategy will bring greater understanding between rural and urban communities (he sees some mutual suspicion and misconceptions), and that more good news stories will be told to acknowledge the work that’s already happening, “those who’ve been swimming against the tide, quietly getting on with it.”

With the biodiversity strategy, as with the QE II model, the work done won’t all be on display. Lots of it will be on private land or on land that’s not openly accessible to the public.

Duncan sees a risk of “getting sucked in to the big, sexy projects” at the cost of these smaller, less visible ones, or “over-promising, taking on too much. We have to be realistic about our capacity. This is a long-haul project; we can’t afford to burn out.”

Biodiversity advocates: Brett Gilmore, Des Ratima, Vaughan Cooper, Joyce-Anne Raihania, Tim Sharp

At the landscape level

Brett Gilmore (Hawke’s Bay Forestry) says, “When you plant a forest, you plant for a minimum of 30 years – that’s 10 election cycles and about 20 changes to the RMA, so we’re already thinking on a wider span than most.” From a management perspective, “to maintain returns on productive land you need to build resilience, and biodiversity’s one of your metrics for that.” So pest control, for instance, has been a big part of most forestry practice for years.

In Hawke’s Bay, forests have been planted exclusively on regenerating farmland, which has left fingers of secondary native bush in the deep incisored gullies. Gilmore estimates, “there’s roughly 11,000 ha of indigenous forest within plantation forests in Hawke’s Bay, so in many ways, we’re one of the largest private sectors that hold huge quantities of native bush.”

Gilmore says there are some outstanding examples of conservation and environmental management on farm-forestry blocks, and that boundaries between the different land-use provide for rich biodiversity. The key is to link these across the productive environment.

The strategy enables knowledge to be shared, and ideas to be seeded within different organisations, which is a big win, in Gilmore’s view. But “the real opportunity is this landscape-level dealing with problems”, such as goat control, possums, noxious plants and mustelids.

“One of the appealing aspects about the strategy is that it’s not legislative, but then you can’t legislate for biodiversity because creatures are not confined to property boundaries. It’s more a philosophical, ethical issue: people have to want to come on board. A challenge for many is that the value of land is so high. We need to be realistic about expectations.”

Engaging new audiences

Personally, Joyce-Anne Raihania (Department of Conservation) will be signing up to the Biodiversity Accord because she wants to ensure a healthy future for her prospective mokopuna.

Professionally, “Biodiversity is core business for DOC; it’s our job to maintain our taonga, be it animals, birds or plants. DOC celebrates HB’s Biodiversity Strategy, as it’s clear its objectives, which align directly with our own, will assist us in bringing new people on board to help grow our native species and ensure a culture of ecological change.

“We know that when individuals and communities understand the need for biodiversity, this forms the fabric of their lifestyles and practices. The strategy allows us to think of those audiences we’ve never engaged; it provides opportunities for dialogue.”

Enhancing both Maori and Pakeha views

Des Ratima points out that Treaty settlement groups will play a crucial role in the region, with nine local claims to be settled by 2016. This will see millions of dollars returned to iwi, along with large forestry blocks and farmland. The largest settlement group, He Toa Takitini (Heretaunga-Tamatea), hope to settle theirs next year, and have negotiated with the Crown for somewhere in the vicinity of $2 million to help clean up waterways.

The strategy will be valuable for ensuring that such efforts are not disjointed and there’s continuity over the years. It’s had to be kept quite generic to be inclusive and to capture a wide range of customary practice, but Ratima says Maori are confident they can work with it going forwards.

He sees the strategy as a way of enhancing both Maori and Pakeha views: cultural perspectives and values can complement each other. The history and stories of the area, for example, are part of us all.

At the last of four public hui on the draft strategy in December, Ratima concluded with this message:

“What is often missing from these discussions is the recognition of the intrinsic connectivity between people and the environment. Nature gives us tremendous uplift, with healing effects that can ripple out through our relationships and communities. Too often, we don’t regard it for what it actually does – there’s a terrible habit of disconnect when we talk of the environment in terms of figures alone. So fixing it, it’s not just a money problem or a people problem, the work begins with healing our own hearts.”

What next?

Responding to the public feedback gathered last December, HBRC senior planner Tim Sharp is aiming for the strategy to be finalised by February. Then all key organisations working on biodiversity will hopefully sign on to a Biodiversity Accord, in each case indicating the commitments or initiatives they will undertake to advance biodiversity in the region.

With the Accord in place, supporting organisations can then begin to sort out a more concrete plan of action that identifies priority species and habitats where collective efforts would have greatest value, as well as the broader public education and involvement opportunities that should be implemented.

Finally, a Biodiversity Trust will be established in hopes of attracting greater public and private financial resource to support biodiversity enhancement in the region. And of course, the public will have the opportunity to further advise HBRC on its own role in this endeavour when the formal consultation process begins in April/May on the council’s next long term plan (LTP).

You can visit the HBRC website (www.hbrc.govt.nz, keyword: biodiversity) to download the HB Biodiversity Inventory and draft HB Biodiversity Strategy.

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