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May 2014 Issue
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Voting wilderness

Plans to raise Lake Manapouri, pictured from Mt Titroa, created a public outcry and ousted the government of the day

Funding for the conservation estate is inadequate, argues Mick Abbott, which is why he suggests a vote for wilderness at the coming national election

Edward Abbey was a notoriously cranky writer of all things wilderness in North America. He was hard living, idealistic and had a rabid loathing of how city-based bureaucrats and politicians ran the country’s wildest spots. For a taste, check out ‘Desert Solitaire’ written while literally the lone ranger of a landscape that was to become Arches National Park.

In one section he describes how he was ‘sitting out back on my 33,000-acre terrace, shoeless and shirtless, scratching my toes in the sand and sipping on a tall iced drink, watching the flow of evening over the desert. Prime time: the sun very low in the west, the birds coming back to life, the shadows rolling for miles over rock and sand to the very base of the brilliant mountains’.

But then his solitude is disturbed by the sound of a jeep, carrying three sunburnt people sent by the government to survey a road. Horrified, Abbey protested. ‘Look, the party chief explained, you need this road. He was a pleasant-mannered, softly spoken civil engineer with an unquestioning dedication to his work. A very dangerous man. Who needs it? I said; we get very few tourists in this park. That’s why you need it, the engineer explained patiently; look, he said, when this road is built you’ll get ten, twenty, thirty times as many tourists in here as you get now. His men nodded in solemn agreement, and he stared at me intently, waiting to see what possible answer I could have to that.

‘Have some more water, I said. I had an answer all right but I was saving it for later. I knew that I was dealing with a madman.’

Environmental debates are often like that – at the end of the day there’s no room for fence-sitting. Either you support something, or you don’t. The same can be said of the environmental issues this country has been grappling with – with the following a selective score chart.

For instance, should the country be opening public conservation lands to mining? The answer has been generally no, but occasionally yes. What about a new open-cast coal mine on the unique Denniston Plateau? Here it’s been yes. Should we build a tunnel through Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks? Well no, it’s a national park for a reason.

How about building 30km of monorail through one of our three UNESCO World Heritage Areas? The jury is still out, though perhaps Nick Smith is wary of releasing the verdict?

Should state-owned Meridian energy dam the wild Mokihinui for hydroelectric power? Definitely not. How about setting up a national network of cycleways that open up some amazing areas for biking? Here the decision has been yes, with the New Zealand Cycle Trail the result of a bipartisan initiative between National and the Greens. Should funding and staffing in the government department charged with looking after public conservation lands be reduced? Yes, several times.

Of course that’s just a slice of the many conservation and environmental issues the country has had to get its head around.

Robin McNeill, head of the Federated Mountain Clubs, wants all political parties to have policies that give far stronger protection to ‘stewardship lands’ – places that are managed by DOC but currently lack the protection received by national and conservation parks. He argues people don’t realise how easily landscapes as diverse as Great Barrier Island,  southern Coromandel, The Remarkables, South-West Westland and the Takitimu Mountains could be lost to development.

Elsewhere there’s a push for one per cent of the country’s GDP to be invested in the environment. It’s argued without it, many of the nearly 2700 critically endangered and 3000 threatened species in this country have bleak prospects. Current annual biodiversity spending is only $18 for each of our 8.5 million hectares of public conservation land. That doesn’t even buy a single trap, let alone set it.

But can taxes be expected to cover such costs? Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and Black Diamond, became sceptical of business promotions that talked of giving a percentage of their profits to environmental causes. That’s because the final dollar figure only came about after everyone – including owners, employees, suppliers, marketers and retailers – had taken their cut. In other words, the environment was something invested in only after we’d looked after ourselves.

His book Let My People go Surfing describes establishing the One Percent For The Planet Fund with the result that one per cent of every Patagonia sale is given to conservation projects. The idea’s taken off, with more than 1200 companies around the world giving more than $100m to conservation. Applied to New Zealand Inc, this approach would double our investment in conservation.

There is considerable opportunity for ‘blue-green’ initiatives, in which tourism and exporting companies dependent on the country’s clean green image can follow suit. For example, Fonterra following the same one per cent ideology would see its support of conservation, such as its $2m annual contribution to DOC for waterways restoration, expand to more than $100m.

Others consider local initiatives, like the Community Conservation Partnerships Fund, the best way to focus and increase investment. The fund’s aim is to build more capacity in communities and trusts, rather than invest solely in DOC. And look no further than the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi for the truly amazing outcomes that can be achieved through an army of volunteers, utterly passionate about their cause.

Across all the parties, much more is being advocated. And regardless of what some commentators say, our environment is always a key election issue – something politicians forget at their peril. It was plans to raise Lake Manapouri that ousted the government in 1972.

So with the election set for September, it’s worth asking: will we match our appetite for enjoying Wilderness with a similar desire to vote for it?