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April 2015 Issue
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Community voice or muzzled lip-service?

Contrary to Conservation Board recommendations, huts owned by Routeburn Walks Ltd, foreground, can now cater for 40 people. Photo: Christoph Strässler/Creative Commons

As Conservation Boards around the country are reappointed this month, Barbara Morris ask whether they are serving their purpose


‘The board of the time had felt conned and marginalised when DOC overturned the plan by making the concession decision. The board expressed its discomfort …’.

Thus the ex-chairperson of the Otago Conservation Board commented on the Ombudsman’s Report damning the Department of Conservation’s decision to allow more guided walkers on the Routeburn Track in contravention of the management plan and, by inference, ignoring the advice of the board.

It’s been a year since I was advised my services on our local conservation board were no longer required (board members are appointed and dismissed by the Minister of Conservation). The ego suffered a momentary dent, and the very short notice of termination – effectively seven days – provided a few minutes of irritation.

But on reflection, I decided it was not a disaster as I was becoming increasingly doubtful about the role of conservation boards and that being outside the tent might be a better place to be.

If I now wish to ask our local MP which planet she lives on after telling us we are lucky to live in a country with an abundance of wildlife, I can do so without worrying whether I am compromising fellow board members or DOC staff. If I wish to comment on what I might see as shortcomings in management of recreation or conservation issues, I can do so without wondering whether I am encroaching on the no-go area of DOC’s operational matters.

In other words, the restrictive parameters which I saw as hamstringing conservation board members as advisors with no real power no longer applied to me.

I did, however, enjoy my four-and-a-bit years on our conservation board. Members were drawn from a wide spectrum of conservation and recreational interests and our meetings provided useful opportunities to discuss a variety of issues, each of us offering a slightly different perspective depending on where our interests lay.

But as time progressed it became apparent that although a conservancy may place value on the advice of its board and enjoy excellent relationships, when the final decision was made there seemed to be no obligation to heed anything which board members preferred as an appropriate course of action. One only has to read conservation board minutes in areas where controversial decisions have been made – for example a tunnel, a monorail, guided walkers – to realise that the opinion of the local board as the voice of the community didn’t seem to count for much.

Chats with a couple of ex-board members revealed: they all enjoyed their time; they found it interesting and intellectually stimulating; the department sometimes appeared to pre-empt board decisions; in the long term not that much was achieved.

Another area that exercised me was that few people in the community knew conservation boards existed, let alone what they actually did. It’s difficult to be a voice for the community if the community doesn’t know you’re there.

Some boards do make an effort to communicate with their local communities. For others, the obligatory notice of a forthcoming meeting is about as good as it gets.

This lack of visibility within the community was also noted by the Conservation Board Review panel’s report in 2013 and the recommendation made that boards actively seek feedback from their communities. It’s now 2015 and we look forward to the implementation of this and other recommendations of the panel.

Board members are not without expertise or contacts – contacts which in the new partnership concept for DOC could be extremely useful in mobilising business and community interests for better conservation and recreation outcomes.

However, much time is spent on entertaining, but often fruitless, discussions, receiving reports, forming working parties and subcommittees, monitoring Conservation Management Strategy outcomes which for various reasons often haven’t been realised and are unlikely to be so, or, as one board noted, having its efforts ignored by management.

On occasions, I was reminded of the story of the emperor’s new clothes – not much to show at all.

Barbara Morris is a Taupo tramper and has served on the Federated Mountain Clubs executive and the Taupo Tongariro Conservation Board