Too busy to be leader

:  Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage

Green MP and Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage has confirmed that she will not be seeking the Greens' female co-leadership.

She says she wants to put her focus and concentration into her portfolios.

That’s easy to understand. Sage is one of the greenest of Greens with a long track record in environmental activism and lobbying.

Now is her chance to make a difference.

And she already is.

As she sees it the biggest single issue facing the Department of Conservation was the National Government’s freeze on funding.

In 2009 the National Government cut the Department’s Budget from $458 million to $23 million.

To keep pace with inflation, even the cut figure should have risen to $480 million last year, but in fact, National had increased it to only $458 million – an effective cut in the budget of nearly five per cent.

This was set against a massive increase in pressure on the DoC estate from tourism. In the three years from 2014, trampers on Great Walks tracks increased by 35%.

DoC charges hut and campsite fees for the “Great Walks” like the Milford Track or the Round Tongariro track, but Sage says this year there will be a $2 million shortfall in the "Great Walks" account.

Within the DoC budget, National's priority was for funding to go to what Sage calls headline-making programmes like the "Battle for our birds" which saw further pressure on the general budget.

“The previous Government’s sustained underfunding of DoC, the cuts to DoC funding meant the department was looking more and more for commercial organisations to do basic conservation work,” she told POLITIK.

“safeguarding our indigenous bio diversity is a core crown function.

“The Department needs to be adequately resourced to tackle the bio diversity crisis, but it shouldn't be so short of money that it is looking to the corporate sector to provide."

One of her concerns about corporate funding is that distorts the work of DoC.

"There was funding allocated for specific programmes that brought positive headlines, but there was no increase, in fact there were severe cuts in the Department's baseline spending, so that gave the Department no certainty to increase its work and “Battle for Our Birds” was restricted to just doing mammal predator control.

"That in itself was a good programme, but DoC needs more funding so it can do comprehensive predator control over a much larger area.

So she says she is having a “significant” conversation with the Minister of Finance over increasing the funding and it is something she says she is heavily engaged with.

Her other compliant about the previous Government – and one echoed by many conservationists --- was the way DoC seemed to tone down the s advice which it was required to offer on resource management and mining applications.

A typical example was its advice on an open cast mine proposed on DoC land near Westport which it said it “neither supported nor opposed” even though scientists opposed the application because of rare wildlife in the area.

"Under the last Government, you saw a focus on using public conservation land for development and making sure that DoC wasn’t advocating for nature as it is supposed to do under its legislation.

“So I have directed the Department to take that statutory responsibility much more seriously because we have a biodiversity crisis with 4000 species  threatened or at risk of extinction.

"They don't all live on public conservation land so if we are going to protect their habitats; DoC has got to be active in the public and private space.”

And then there is tourism.

For DoC, it is a double-edged sword. As Sage admits, tourism as the country's largest export earner, actually adds to the reasons why DoC should be properly funded because so much of what tourists come here to see and experience is on DoC land.

But the tourists and the tourism industry also puts pressure on the conservation lands.

Sage wants to see some of the proceeds from the proposed Visitor Levy go to the Department.

“That is being actively discussed,” she said.

There are other commercial pressures on DoC. Some have come from the process known as “tenure review” of high country leases.

Research by Anne Brower of Lincoln University shows that the Crown has paid $117 million in compensation to leaseholders who have surrendered land to DoC but those same leaseholders have paid only %62 million for the freeholding of the land they have been allowed to buy.

A lot of that land has been onsold – often to overseas buyers for huge capital gains.

Six run holders in the McKenzie Basin paid $700,000 to freehold land they then sold for $26 million.

There is an independent commissioend outside Government review of the whole process, and she expects that to report within the next week or so.

It will not be surprising if it calls for an end to the review process as it is currently run.

She says she is not opposed to high country farming.

“There is definitely a future for high country farming because it has been on those properties where there has been a lower stocking regime, more extensive grazing, where you have had better protection of shrubland, wetlands and the like and that whole image of the archetypal "Southern man’ hasn’t changed dramatically.

“But we need farming in the high country to be sustainable.

“Destroying the indigenous character of the landscape is not sustainable.

"So it is working out how we can continue to have farming there which protects the biodiversity and landscape values.

“People wouldn’t be farming in the high country unless they had some appreciation of the landscape.

“But at the moment there has been far too permissive a regime around cultivation, clearance, burning and the destruction of biodiversity."

Linked into the high country review is overseas land sales.

Another of Sage’sinisterial responsibilities is the Overseas Investment Office, and already she and Environment Minister David Parker have ordered a tightening up in the criteria applied by the office to overseas farm sales.

“The purchase of rural land is a privilege and ahs to provide substantial and identifiable benefits to New Zealand.

“The previous Government was so permissive in allowing the sell-off of prime New Zealand land.

"That has now changed, and we've made it very clear that it is a privilege to own land and apply to buy it."

And she is also looking at some of the approvals that have been granted. Inquiries are continuing into the “character” of Matt Lauer, the US TV personality, who was approval last March to buy the Hunter Valley station alongside Lake Hawea.

That was a controversial approval, in part because the Overseas Investment Office ignored advice form the local Council and some organisation in the area to allow access across the station to conservation areas at the head of Laker Hawea.

Sage says Linz is now negotiating that access.

She is our “greenest” Conservation Minister so far and what she achieves will be critically  important to the Greens membership.

That is why she has passed on the co-leadership. that is how determined she is to bring a change to conservation.

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