A new vision for conservation hopes to break down some of
the old divisions, writes Tom McKinlay.
The Tahi Group of Concerned Scientists, Prof John Craig,
Prof David Norton, Dr Denis Saunders, Dr Morgan Williams
and Prof Henrik Moller. Photo supplied.
Kayaks glide past white-sand beaches on the Tahi website.
Native bush wraps dramatically rugged hills and the sun shines
everywhere. It looks fantastic.
Well, it would. It's a promotional website for a flash
But there's more going on here than slick marketing.
Tahi is the Northland retirement project of Dr John Craig
(ONZM), formerly a professor in the University of Auckland's
School of Environment, who is continuing his life's work with
the ecologically focused project in biodiversity
conservation. To wit, 300ha which is home to the pricey
retreat, a manuka honey operation, carbon-credit harvesting,
wetland restoration and tree planting, among other things.
The tree-planting count so far is up to 210,000. Dr Craig
also hopes to get into biobanking.
The internationally certified operation is plugged in to the
Zeitz Foundation's Long Run initiative, which backs projects
that combine the four elements conservation, community,
culture and commerce.
So it's an attempt to do something with the land that turns a
dollar but is sustainable for the long term.
And as such, it has given its name to a new ginger group.
The Tahi Group of Concerned Scientists has been established
to broaden the debate around conservation, drag it out of the
distant mountain reserves and down on to the plains and
coasts where people live. Country like where Ohua Tahi sits.
The group has five members: Prof Craig, Prof David Norton, of
the University of Canterbury's School of Forestry, Dr Denis
Saunders, of Australian-based CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Dr
Morgan Williams, a former parliamentary commissioner for the
environment, and Dunedin-based Prof Henrik Moller, of the
University of Otago's Centre for Sustainability.
In a paper about to be published, the group says New Zealand
needs to face up to the fact that its degraded environment
and the threatened status of the country's plants and animals
are symptoms of unsustainable living and a system that
rewards that way of life.
Rather than tackling those issues as isolated cases - and
charging a particular arm of government to set up a reserve
here, or a threatened species programme there - the group
wants to turn around some of the incentives that encourage
people to use land in unsustainable ways. In fact, they want
to create incentives to do the opposite.
People need to embrace the environments in which they live
and do their conservation there, the Tahi Group believes.
''We have to get conservation mainstreamed into our everyday
lives and our environment. As much into our city living as
into inspiring visits to national parks,'' Prof Moller says
from his small university office, in one of the collection of
old wooden villas that stretch up Castle St.
It will involve a move towards conservation for sustainable
use, shifting the emphasis away from the traditional
Not that Prof Moller is anti-national parks. He says they are
one of the country's great success stories, and
were an essential response to the government-funded forest
clearing of marginal land in the 1960s and 1970s. But they do
not guarantee the successful conservation of native plants
and animals, as they remain under attack from introduced
species, he says. Neither do they provide an immediate
environmental benefit in the places most people live and
There's a quite an adjustment in the conventional headspace
involved in all this.
As the Tahi Group sees it, the predominantly lowland areas
given over to farming (60% of the country) are big on exotic
plants and animals because the economic incentives in our
system are to plant introduced species (grass or some other
introduced food or fibre crop), then add introduced animals
-sheep, cows etc. Those then are the areas where our economic
activity takes place.
On the other hand, indigenous flora and fauna are corralled
into reserves where little or no economic activity is
permitted. It is to be preserved. Introduced species are for
making a living; indigenous species for looking at.
Prof Moller says that distinction is unhelpful and
unnecessary. Indigenous ecosystems should also be used,
sustainably, as part of the nation's economic life.
''You can have a whole lot of low-intensity uses of forest
products. It can be extractive. We can go back to indigenous
forestry. If we genuinely get that right and don't
over-harvest, we will actually promote native ecosystems and
so look after a whole lot of co-evolved plants and animals by
sustainably using that land.''
At the same time, the ecological values of production
landscapes would need to be valued more highly, in order that
industries there - farming or forestry - were required to
behave more sustainably and do their bit for conservation.
Townies, that's 87% of New Zealand voters, would benefit from
more biodiversity closer to where they live, reinforcing
conservation as part of the fundamental Kiwi ethic. But they
would need to buy in too, quite literally by making
consumption choices that back sustainable production.
''We are all hunter-gatherers in supermarkets and we need to
be thinking very carefully about the way we produce our food
and choose what to buy,'' Prof Moller says.
''The idea that somehow the market alone will provide for
sustainability is simplistic.''
The country's productive landscapes should also be valued
for their conservation potential. Photo by ODT Files.
A more conscious effort is required.
Which brings us to the sharp end of the Tahi Group's
argument: that consumers should share the cost of farmers
operating in a more sustainable fashion.
''Why should we leave it to farmers all the time to pay the
costs?'' Prof Moller asks.
''If the New Zealand public want clean rivers and low
emissions and to act as responsible global as well as local
citizens, then they have to start thinking about the European
model of paying for some of that environmental good. It is
part of sharing responsibility and costs and benefits.''
What is proposed is that farmers would be paid to plant some
of their land in indigenous forest, to broaden the ecological
''At the same time that would mean that New Zealand's
landowners would be expected to give over some of their
autonomy and total freedom to do what they like on their
Prof Moller says Australia has begun some such
''agri-environment'' schemes, running public tendering for
planting woody vegetation on private land, or in other words,
buying ''ecosystem services'' with public money.
''New Zealand can find a middle ground here and start to
share the responsibilities for good land care and give
farmers a lot more help.''
The ''biobanking'' that Dr Craig hopes to develop at his
Northland retreat is another way of achieving a similar end.
At Tahi he has created lowland coastal habitat including
wetlands, a habitat in short supply in New Zealand.
Developers working in similar terrain, who are required to
put aside land to maintain the environment, could instead pay
Tahi to create more of the habitat there.
Experience and research has shown that developers are not
particularly good at delivering on the environmental promises
made for their projects, Dr Craig says.
''People can see here what they are paying for as it exists
and then we will use the income to make more,'' he says.
''One of the key rules of offsets and biobanking is that the
habitat is additional to what would have happened anyway.
Some argue that I would always make habitat so I can't then
sell it to a third party but my approach ... has always been
that native biodiversity has to pay for itself, so I made
this with earnings in mind.''
Regional councils could play a role by creating a register of
habitats created for biobanking, he says.
Regional councils, which Prof Moller says have been a
sleeping giant of New Zealand's conservation effort to date,
are also perfectly placed to take a more assertive role
greening our farms, he says.
Otago Regional Council is beginning to take on that
responsibility with its work to limit run-off from farms. But
Prof Moller says that work has not been accompanied by
substantive investment from the public to help farmers deal
with the cost of using land less intensively.
The New Zealand Transport Agency is another sleeping giant
that could actively enhance the conservation value of the
road corridors it creates, he says.
Easing back on the intensity with which farmland is used
sounds like the last thing our agriculturally based economy
needs, but Prof Moller says the picture is not
''Many farms have pushed the intensity of the land too far,
to the point where actually their profits have decreased. If
you focus entirely on how much you can produce from the land
as your indicator of success, then you try to use every last
square metre of the land, so your costs can go up more to get
that last ounce of production than you get back from selling
that extra wool, milk solids or wood.''
Reducing farm production in some areas of the country, would,
if done intelligently, increase profits, he says.
There is already an international price premium for produce
from genuinely sustainable operations, Prof Moller says,
which could pick up some, though probably not all, of the
cost of returning some farmland to indigenous woody
New Zealand ecologists have suggested that 25% of pastoral
farms need to be in woody vegetation to adequately safeguard
biodiversity, but that could be an overestimate. European
farmers must reserve 7% of their land as ''ecological
''If we could achieve that as a first goal, we can then work
out later if it is enough,'' Prof Moller says.
''The key research we need to do is to figure just how much
woody vegetation is optimal for multifunctional agriculture
and what sort gives the best all-round benefits.''
The Tahi Group says in its paper that by ensuring the costs
and benefits of new innovative conservation approaches are
fairly shared ''old enemies become new partners in
''Ecological restoration will then naturally emerge and
accelerate as part of a wider celebration and enhancement of
New Zealanders' heritage in the 21st century,'' it says.