Takeaways from the Forest & Bird NZ national conference

There’s a remarkable amount of energy created when you fill an auditorium with like-minded people. Now, if only we could harness THAT and use it for carbon credits!

Recently I attended Forest & Bird’s national conference held at Te Papa, in Wellington. I never need an excuse to visit the coolest little capital in the world – it’s a very inspiring place.

A typically gentle Wellington zephyr carried me into the atrium, coat-tails flying and hair tangled around my face. I felt like I had sailed into a sea of grey – more than one of the presenters throughout the day jokingly commented on the average age of the audience members – where were all the young people?

After a rousing mihi whakatau (welcome), our conference theme was introduced – courageous conservation. The reality is that we have a number of pretty stark crises settling into the natural environment around us – crises that we are going to have to be both courageous to face, and prepared to battle.

In NZ we currently have almost 4000 species threatened with extinction. We also have the 5th highest carbon emissions per capita in the industrialised world. Many of our natural waterways are in collapse, our fisheries are being exploited, and yes, it is sobering. BUT overall, this conference had a message of hope, and of positive action. ‘Never think that a small group of thoughtful people cannot change the world,’ said American scientist Margaret Mead, ‘as that is the only thing that ever has.’

Conservation Minister Hon. Eugenie Sage gave a keynote address which acknowledged how far we have to go – but touched on some positive movements we are making forwards, such as:

  • an extra $100 million in this year’s budget for conservation
  • introduction of a $35 international tourist levy to help with infrastructure and measures to mitigate tourism impact on fragile ecosystems
  • a national review of the NZ Biodiversity Strategy (discussion document to be released July/August, with a theme of restoration – both of nature and of people’s connection with it)
  • the largest addition ever to a national park, with 64,000ha of the Mokihinui catchment area added to Kahurangi National Park
  • an increase in predator control and research into best new tools/traps/techniques/toxins (although we are still woefully short of weaponry budget for the war that is required)
  • $20 million to go to kauri dieback disease research
  • Seabird conservation action such as collaborating with Chile to help protect the Antipodean albatross

We had a particularly poignant presentation from Ora Barlow-Tukaki and Tina Ngata on Te Raukumara’s journey of recovery. I learned that when you join up the Raukumara range on the spine of East Cape, to the Whirinaki Forest, and down through Te Urewera, you have the longest contiguous ngahere (or stretch of forest) in the North Island. To date, only $200,000 has ever been allocated to the protection of this enormously important set of lungs for our country. A video showed us the impact of this neglect. A ghostly world of shadowy fallen giants, a complete lack of lush undergrowth due to deer browsing, and possum-ravaged trees clutching at the sky. But the hapu are taking action to turn this around, involving their young people in conservation projects and He Tirohanga Taiao (holistic indigenous assessment) every Friday. They have a long road ahead but ‘we have always been fighters!’ they assert.

A political discussion panel was next, with National Party Conservation spokesperson Sarah Dowie and Chair of Labour Environment Caucus Angie Warren-Clark joining Hon. Eugenie Sage. After a bit of gentle ribbing and heckling from the attendees, they were all asked what they would do with a hypothetical 1 billion dollar budget to spend on NZ conservation. Sarah Dowie spoke of her dream for a Catlins National Park. Angie Warren-Clark would ban trawling and spend more on reducing by-catch; and wrangle more out of farming/land management/land use to dramatically improve the health of our wetlands. Eugenie Sage would create a predator-free Rakiura (Stewart Island), would spend on Te Raukumara recovery, and would invest in developing more marine reserves around the country. All three agreed that the Resource Management Act needed a major re-write. It’s currently an 800 page document! Crikey.

Graeme Elliott from DoC then spoke to us about what the ‘megamast’ means for our vulnerable species. Basically, every few years the beech forests (along with others such as rimu and kahikatea) have a bumper crop of flowers and seeds, dumping some 250kg of food onto the forest floor. Rats and mice gobble it up and their populations explode. Stoats and weasels feed on them and suddenly we have a plague of them, too. Then once the flowers and seeds are gone – the pests turn to our native birds for food. Entire regional populations of threatened birds such as mohua have been wiped out in previous megamast years.  We have a megamast coming up, and it is a scary position to be in! The best weapon available is aerial 1080 – it is controversial, because yes, it is a poison – but it specifically targets mammals such as possums, stoats, and rats, and it biodegrades within a water source to become the same level of ‘toxin’ that you would find in a teabag. It has been argued that it also kills birds – and it is true that larger, inquisitive birds such as kaka and kea have ingested the baits and some have died. However, if we do nothing, the pest plagues will eventually cause their extinction – conversely, if the occasional bird dies from the bait, the population will still be fine. (Methods are also being investigated to put keas off the bait).  It is the most cost effective way to target plague numbers of pests in particularly inaccessible areas. For example, if you wanted to ‘simply’ rat trap the Paparoa National Park, you would need: 70,000 traps along 7000km of tracks, with 700 person days to check and re-bait each trap. And then you would need different traps and baits entirely to eradicate possums, and again for stoats…control via large scale trapping just can’t be done. Unfortunately we only have the funds to use 1080 on a minute percentage of the actual forest areas that need to be covered. If you want to learn more about this, you can find excellent, scientifically proven answers here: https://www.forestandbird.org.nz/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-1080

Next there was a great panel discussion about carbon zero targets, with particularly good inputs from Wellington schoolgirl Sophie Handford, who organised the School Strike 4 Climate. Her response to ‘we can’t afford to do this, it’s bad for business’ is ‘we can’t afford NOT to, you won’t HAVE a business if we don’t!’ Another thoughtful panellist was Countdown supermarket’s Sustainability Manager, Kiri Hannifin.

Presentations were also made on three conservation projects currently needing your support: the Te Hoiere Bat Recovery Project, Ark in the Park in Waitakere, Auckland; and the Zero Bycatch Pledge focusing on the shocking statistics of marine and seabird life caught up in the fishing industry. What is even more incomprehensible is how little monitoring is being done in this field, especially when we have species such as the Maui dolphin and the Antipodean albatross both facing imminent extinction. Please sign the pledge here! And share with others…

The final address was a powerful, though admittedly, rather somber one from Forest & Bird Chief Executive, Kevin Hague. We are simply not doing enough. It is all very well to sit around talking about the environmental mess we have got ourselves into – what we MUST be doing is taking courageous action. What can you and your children do? Extend your network and influence and collaborate with others. Organise beach clean ups for example, help your children to actively reduce plastic use and re-use objects as much as possible. Educate others. Join in on marches. Start your own campaigns. Te Reo o te Taiao – giving nature a voice. Somebody has to.

If you haven’t joined Forest and Bird, please consider doing so! They also run a fantastic children’s division, the Kiwi Conservation Club. More details here.

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  • Janine
    05/07/2019 at 1:26 pm

    Great post and summary thanks Michelle! Forest and Bird is a fantastic organisation, awesome to hear a round up of the weekend and yes, we need to be doing more. Agree 100%!!!