New conservation focus a concern

Alan Mark.
Alan Mark.
A new emphasis on recreation within conservation boards is a concern, former Otago board chairman Emeritus Prof Alan Mark says.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith ordered a review of conservation boards after Doc's restructure earlier this year.

The Otago area was split and absorbed into new regions south and north.

Conservation Parliamentary private secretary Nicky Wagner released the review's report this month, confirming that instead of aligning the 13 boards to the new six Doc regions, there would be 14 boards in the future, although their work would be aligned to Doc's new partnership approach.

''The review recommends that conservation boards be more representative of the communities they serve, with a greater focus on recreation. We will be taking this into account with the new appointments to be made early next year.''

The review also recommended the way conservation boards interacted with Doc needed to be enhanced, and an annual letter of expectation, reporting framework and code of practice to be brought in.

''We also see potential for efficiency gains from having three, rather than 14 conservation management strategies and a limited number of conservation management plans.''

While the report recommended individual national park management plans should also be retained, it suggested there should only be three conservation management strategies (CMS) instead of 14.

Prof Mark said the legislation under which conservation boards were formed was ''pretty clear'' their prime role and focus was conservation and the management or oversight of the conservation estate.

In his experience, the Federated Mountain Clubs were always allowed representation on the boards anyway, he said.

The changes to the board's role were ''symptomatic'' of the trend in conservation management at a political level.

It appeared to be moving towards reducing the status of conservation values in favour of increasing the status of recreation and tourism, Prof Mark said.

While recreation and tourism had always been considered in conservation management, they were subservient to conservation.

However, it was pleasing the Otago Conservation Board was to be retained, as it was something most submitters agreed upon.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeill said the organisation was cheered by the report, as trampers and mountaineers had been growing increasingly alarmed by how alienated the boards had become.

''This report describes a very positive path that will not only fix that problem, but make boards a whole lot more relevant and useful for everyone.''

Former Otago board chairwoman Associate Prof Abby Smith said she was pleased the importance of local representation was recognised, but was doubtful three CMS documents would ensure adequate care and stewardship of conservation land.

''Will a single document be able to provide priorities and guidance to managers from places as diverse as Nelson, Otago, and the Subantarctic Islands?''

She served for nine years on a ''highly effective'' conservation board that worked extremely well with Doc, was able to achieve important advances in conservation of regional biodiversity, provide access to local recreational groups across the spectrum, and develop relationships with the Otago community, she said.

''We did this because board members knew every nook and cranny of Otago, and were able to advocate from that position of passionate knowledge and affection. Proposals for change must not lose this local connection, this passionate commitment.''

Green Party conservation spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the tampering weakened boards' independence and Doc's conservation planning.

''This is a watering down of conservation management planning which could lead to weaker controls on high impact commercial tourism and mining activities on conservation land.''

Scrapping regionally focused CMS and having just three high-level strategies (for the North and South Islands and outlying islands) would make Doc and the boards less connected with the wild places, landscapes and species which the department was responsible for managing, she said.

''It wastes the huge investment of time and energy which boards and the community have spent developing conservancy-based conservation management strategies.''

The Government deferred the appointment of new conservation boards this year while this review was undertaken but was now advertising for members. The new boards will be in place by May 2014.

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