New Zealand Law Society - Fixing NZ's conservation crisis

Fixing NZ's conservation crisis

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The Law Foundation has always been a strong supporter of legal policy development for environmental issues. A recent Law Foundation-backed project is challenging policy-makers to take much stronger action to arrest the alarming decline in our native species.

Vanishing Nature: Facing New Zealand’s Biodiversity Crisis is the first comprehensive stock-take of the country’s natural heritage and efforts to protect it. The study finds that existing measures are failing to protect threatened species like the kiwi, the kauri and the kokopu (whitebait).

Lead author Marie Brown, of the Environmental Defence Society, says that an imbalance between public and private interests is a key reason for the crisis.

“We have drawn into the public spotlight the power of private interests in New Zealand to influence the content and implementation of law – for example, farmer representation on regional councils leading to weaker implementation environmental law,” she says.

“You end up with an imbalance between the common good and those extracting for their own gain, with the environment being the loser. We highlight the instances where that occurs.

“Until we bring private powers into better balance with the public interest, our natural heritage will continue to degrade.”

Vanishing Nature was launched last month by Conservation Minister Maggie Barry at a function hosted by Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse. I announced to those present that the Foundation would fund a follow-up study on how to operationalise Vanishing Nature’s findings.

Another Foundation-backed environmental initiative, the environment guide website, also went live recently. This is an important new information resource for anyone dealing with environmental issues (more on this below).

Vanishing Nature set out to examine law and policy around our native biodiversity on land and in lakes, rivers and the sea.

Marie Brown says that people often don’t appreciate the importance of our natural world and how it affects us. This includes tangible benefits like pollination, water quality, clean air and abundance of fish stocks, as well as less tangible things like cultural values.

“It’s a real challenge to communicate to people that they have skin in the game with biodiversity,” she says.

“I think we have taken our natural environment for granted, and it’s not factored into economic or other decision-making for that reason. It’s only recently that we have become aware of things like natural limits.”

As one of 28 biodiversity “hot spots recognised world-wide, our responsibility to protect New Zealand’s threatened endemic species is global as well as local”, she says.

“The need for us to act is inarguable. I suppose this book says we have tried but we have not addressed the real reasons for ongoing decline, and we won’t make substantial progress until we do.”

She says we are not at “ground zero” – there have been some successes, and community conservation, for example, has mushroomed in recent times – but much more needs to be done.

Most fundamentally, more funding is needed for conservation, including through polluter-pays and user-pays approaches, as well as changes to the tax system through environmental consumption taxes and rebates for good practice.

“There is abundant justification for conservation to get a bigger slice of the pie … we also have to incentivise people to act so that conservation becomes a beneficial activity and degradation of nature has a greater cost,” she says.

People have to be mobilised around conservation goals, with agencies being made accountable for achieving these goals through national and regional monitoring and reporting – “the cost is significant, but the cost of not knowing whether goals are being achieved is also high.”

Marie says the follow-up study, Pathways to no net loss, will look at the practical changes needed to better protect our biodiversity – recognising that against a backdrop of decline, there are decisions that need to be made every day.

“The concepts in Vanishing Nature are quite big – the next study will be about operationalising Vanishing Nature into resource management policy,” she says.

She expects the research to be done in time for discussion at the Environmental Defence Society conference Wild Things in Auckland in mid-August, with a paper to be published around October.

Environment Guide website

The Foundation has also backed a new website providing valuable source information and guidance on environmental issues.

The site ( builds on an earlier guide to the Resource Management Act to include topics such as the Marine Exclusive Economic Zone and freshwater biodiversity.

Fiona Driver, of the Environmental Defence Society, says the new site aims to be a “one-stop shop” on all aspects of environmental law. The content has been peer-reviewed by relevant external organisations, and targets “anyone in the resource management field” including legal professionals, planners and community groups.

  • The site was established by the Environment Foundation, a body aligned to the Society and focused on educational initiatives.
  • The Law Foundation provided total funding of $87,000 for producing Vanishing Nature and the follow-up study, as well as $39,000 for the Environment Guide website.
  • Vanishing Nature can be purchased online at:
  • Information about the EDS conference Wild Things can be found at
  • Information about the Law Foundation and its other research can be found at

Lynda Hagen is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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