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November 2017 Issue
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Sifting through the facts

Dr Jan Wright stepped down from her role as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in October.
From 1080 to climate change, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright has been at the centre of some of New Zealand’s fiercest debates. She talked to George Driver about stepping down from the role after a decade of sifting through the facts.

Jan Wright has become known as the calm and rational voice in the midst of fractious debates. As Environment Commissioner – often called New Zealand’s environmental watchdog – Wright has been empowered to doggedly investigate the biggest environmental issues facing the country, without fear or favour. It’s a minefield she has had to plot a course through time and again.

“When you get polarised opinions, different sides will pick the facts that suit their case,” Wright says. “That’s what the game has always been. I’ve seen the advantage is to sit back and see what is the logic in the arguments, how to think through a problem to what seems reasonable.”

If you read the Commission’s reports, you might find things that seem far from reasonable. For instance, it’s easier for mining companies to gain access to conservation land than tourist guides; a third of conservation land, classified as stewardship land, is weakly protected in law; New Zealand’s carbon emissions have increased by 64 per cent since 1990; our most iconic species are in decline.

But what many will remember Wright most for is her report on 1080 – something she says has also been one of her biggest victories. Wright’s 2011 report evaluating the use of 1080 said without it ‘many of our native plants and animals would be lost’ and that the use of the poison should increase.

“I will be trolled on the net about 1080 until the day I die I think, but it’s one report where it has made a concrete difference,” Wright says.

“Forest and Bird came out strongly in support of our recommendations and Nick Smith [Conservation Minister at the time] had the courage to fund the first Battle for Our Birds [1080 campaign].

“It is an ongoing battle to reduce predators, but it would be a lot worse without that tool.”

Although she describes herself as ‘overeducated’ (she received her PHD in public policy from Harvard, on top of a degree in physics and a Masters in energy and resources from Berkley), Wright is also well acquainted with the backcountry. She became an avid tramper while studying at Canterbury University in the 1960s.

“I was always the slow one they put at the front,” she says.

She fondly recalls taking the train to Arthur’s Pass with the university tramping club on Friday nights and hitching a ride back on Sunday in the “butcher’s van”.

“I always love being outside. I find it very healing. There is something about being out in the bush or open land – the quietness is very special.”

But those values are attracting record numbers of visitors and Wright is concerned that tourism is taking resources that should be used for conservation.

“DOC has a duty of care to protect people visiting a national park – that will always trump the protection of biodiversity,” Wright says. “Take the norovirus outbreak [which affected trampers in Nelson Lakes National Park in January this year] – that was a major job for DOC, but there was no possibility of them ignoring it and doing nothing. That’s why I’m worried that, as we have more tourists, resources for biodiversity are being squeezed.”

Wright says she doesn’t see an end to tourism growth – the problem won’t go away on its own.

“It’s supply and demand – if you look worldwide, wilderness is something that is becoming more and more scarce.”

She has hinted that the impact of tourism is a topic incoming commissioner Simon Upton is considering investigating.

But she is unequivocal on the biggest issue facing the environment: climate change.

“It affects everything. Obviously New Zealand is a small player in the world, but we need a collective response – if a privileged country like ours can’t address this, how can we expect countries which are far poorer to take it seriously?”

If she could wave a wand and have one recommendation adopted by the Government, it would be to put a Climate Change Act in place, which would put emissions targets into legislation and include carbon budgets as short term goals to meet emissions targets. This helped the UK reduce emissions by 38 per cent since 1990, she says.

Looking back, she says about 60 per cent of her recommendations have been adopted. Her advice to Upton is to be patient.

“You can’t achieve things instantly. It takes time and determination. It is a long game.”