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The first stage of work is beginning to identify significant natural areas on private land on the West Coast.
The committee working on a new district plan for the whole region has hired ecological consultancy company Wildlands Consultants to do the initial desktop mapping study of areas that would fit the criteria for SNA status.
Te Tai o Poutini One Plan Committee project manager Jo Armstrong said the company had done the SNA mapping for 70% of councils around the country.
"They gave us a special price of $5000 for the West Coast, which is a really good deal," Ms Armstrong said.
Identifying and protecting SNAs is a legal necessity for councils under the Resource Management Act.
The work on the West Coast would also include Department of Conservation stewardship land, but Doc had made it clear it had no funds available to contribute to the cost, she said.
The second stage of the process would involve a physical inspection, and ecologists would need consent from landowners to go on to their properties to see if bush or wetland that looked significant on the map actually met the SNA criteria.
"We know people are worried about this after the wetland process, but it’s to their advantage that they let the scientists take a look. It may be they will decide ‘there’s plenty of this vegetation in your area and we don’t have to identify this as an SNA’."
On the other hand, if the ecologists were denied access, the site would have to be classed as a SNA by default.
"We really need our politicians to allay people’s fears and encourage them to co-operate. The SNA classification could change if the ecologists get access - it won’t if they don’t."
The desktop SNA study should be complete by next April and would come back before the Tai o Poutini Plan Committee for a workshop before it was made public and landowners consulted, Ms Armstrong said.
SNA status could affect an estimated 15% of private land on the West Coast, where many landowners have left stands of native trees or wetland undeveloped.
The designation would allow some existing uses of an area to continue, including sphagnum moss picking and grazing, but it could oblige landowners in some cases to fence and do pest control, and apply for resource consent for any major change of use.
Potential regulations could be written into the new plan to help landowners by allowing them something in return, such as consent to use windfall timber or to put paths through a native forest remnant for tourism, Ms Armstrong suggested.