An economic slant on DoC?

The Labour party has learnt that it cannot lock New Zealand industry away from the world as it once thought. Now it may be learning it can’t lock up the conservation estate. It is too valuable an economic resource.

Earlier this week Conservation Minister Chris Carter said on radio that he was trying to speed up the processing of concessions for tourism and recreation ventures on the conservation estate, up 350 since 2000. But tourism is only part of what might over time become a bigger story.

Start with Carter’s expansive ambitions for a network of nine conservation parks in the South Island high country as farmers choose to negotiate to freehold their Crown pastoral leases. Under those deals, done by a process begun when National was in office, the government buys in land that has “significant natural value” — so far about one-third.

Add to that the creation of a swag of new marine reserves and a picture emerges of a museum-country.

Any surprise in that? Helen Clark was a lock-it-up-and-throw-away-the-key Conservation Minister in the late 1980s. She took the arts portfolio as Prime Minister because she reveres heritage — not only cultural and historical but also natural.

Her government has been quite green. A high-profile policy plank in the 1999 election which brought her to power — and into controversy with one of her own state-owned enterprises — was a ban on logging state-owned native forests.

That policy, as part of generally environment-friendly platform, was another step along a path down which Labour set out in 1972 when the Values party, the Greens’ forerunner, suddenly emerged on its environmental flank.

Labour’s adherence to the Kyoto climate change protocol attests to this post-1972 greening. Ministers claim practical reasons: the science is undeniable, they say; our competitive economic advantage being climate-based, we have a lot at risk from climate change; and there is a fiscal gain from having more emissions credits than debits in the first round. But actually the practical reasons are rationalisations of an ideological preference.

Even so, Labour is not green enough for the Greens. Not least, this is because Labour recognises that most voters want to be richer and want those riches in home comforts, entertainment and gadgets. In that acquisitive world small is not beautiful.

Greens also differ from mainstream Labour in valuing biodiversity for its intrinsic sake, regardless of any utility to humans — a wetland must be preserved for the sake of the wetland and a bird saved from extinction for its own value.

There are Labourites who take this view or at least argue, as many Greens do, that maintaining biodiversity is critical to human life as we know it or at a minimum adds value to lives that might otherwise be much duller.

But there are also many Labourites who connect more easily with an older Labour tradition: that nature is to serve humans, not be their master. West Coast MP Damien O’Connor is one of those.

It is this tradition that is likely to be much closer to mainstream voters.

Mainstream voters generally think it is nice to preserve special areas and save species from extinction. Surveys show this.

But tree-huggers they are not. Their environmentalism is probably a “yes, unless” attitude. Yes, lock up forests, unless I need a job or some special timber. Yes, save the black stilt and the lower Waitaki braided river but not if I have to have cold showers in the winter. (The obverse is just as selfish: preserve the Waitaki so I can go salmon fishing.)

So with looming electricity shortages and a dip in the economic cycle sure to bite sometime, an assertive policy of taking land and water into conservation and marine reserves will need stronger arguments than “nice”.

OK, line up the arguments.

One has something to do with identity: a remarkable landscape is trademark New Zealand. It is us and so worth preserving.

Next, that spectacular landscape sells to tourists. The tourism boost from its display to millions on the big screen in Lord of the Rings attests to its selling power.

Then there is the conservation estate’s recreational value. Tramping, hunting, fishing and commune-with-nature lodges can fetch higher — in some cases super-high — tourist dollars. Concessions in conservation areas count. (Though there is now a problem of managing a rampant rise in numbers.)

There may also be a branding value for sales of other products and services, loosely associated with “clean and green” or “pure New Zealand”.

And it is just possible the lifestyle attraction associated with access to unspoiled nature might lift New Zealand’s appeal to international companies as a place to do business, especially in “thinking” businesses (software or other high-end services, for example) for which distance is no deterrent.

But all of that is hard to quantify and in any case does not justify the latest or next lockup purchase of a high-country lease or designation of a marine reserve. What does one more conservation park in the high country add by way of enticement of tourists or shoppers at a supermarket or hardware store in Germany?

It doesn’t help that farmers see the Conservation Department (DoC) as competition and/or a poor farmer, squeezing out merino farming. Nor that some private conservators, of kiwis for example, have found DoC obstructive.

Looking in from those perspectives, DoC is an economic negative — a political indulgence, a fiscal cost, without economic benefit.

But stir in three factors.

One: Conservation competes with hot showers. If a dam is blocked in a national park to preserve some valued plant life and next winter is a dry winter, punters in Auckland are not going to be overly fussed about the plants. And they might take vengeance on the incumbent government just as it is readying for an election.

Two: The Te Papanui tussock area Doc has preserved stores and filters 60 per cent of Dunedin’s fresh water supplies. Without it, the city would be up for expensive processing.

Three: Tourist numbers are rising fast and projected to go on rising (failing a serious international economic or security shock). Quite apart from getting them past customs and finding them beds, what are we to do with them when the traditional tourism get saturated.

Carter suggested to farmers in June that his new South Island high country parks could provide “a very appealing alternative destination”. He urged them to seek concessions in the new parks as part of their freeholding negotiations.

In effect Carter was saying that instead of farming merinos they could farm tourists along with grapes and other land uses denied under the leases. Waxing eloquent, he added: “Individuals and whole communities have been enriched by this economic diversification. I applaud it.”

If you doubt that enrichment, take a quick tour of the Cromwell-Bannockburn area, where high-end pinot noir and cafes grow where once there was only matagouri. Then imagine tourists being carted up the remote valleys and on to the tops where once only ewes, musterers and intrepid trampers trod.

The key words in Carter’s quote above are “economic” and “applaud”. The point, which he did not develop but some officials are pondering, is that the conservation estate should be seen not just as a glass cage but also as an economic resource, including even for electricity.

Preserving some rare lily won’t cut much ice at the ballot box next year, except on Labour’s Green flank. Talking up opportunities for high-value-added exports (tourism and so on) might. And so might backing RMA consents for wind farms and power pylons on DoC land. And that might change the mix in the politics of black stilts versus hot showers.

Conservation then becomes an issue of management: managing a balance, of attempting “sustainability” in an economic as well as an ecological sense. Ecology turns from being only a competitor with economic development to a sometime ally.

DoC has begun edging this way. A DoC report issued in April estimated the conservation estate was supporting 1800 jobs on the West Coast.

The question now is how far DoC, set up as an advocate for conservation, can make the switch in its strategic thinking. And then whether Labour’s greenish bosses can make the same switch. Don’t be surprised if, very quietly, they do once the next election is out of the way.