An outline of the approaches DOC is taking to identifying conservation priorities across its six natural heritage outcome objectives.


The Department of Conservation (DOC) is implementing a more systematic approach to managing New Zealand's natural heritage while working with others.

As part of this work, DOC has developed a range of processes that identify conservation priorities in a national context. These help it to better target effort at the places and species that will, in its view, deliver the best conservation outcomes for New Zealanders.

The identified priorities may also help guide local government, communities, whanau, hapu, and iwi, research agencies and others in their own conservation work.

By working together in this way, we can all grow the number of native species, ecosystems and places that are worked on, and increase the benefits that a healthy environment provides to our economy and to the social, economic and cultural well-being of New Zealanders.

Clear objectives help shape DOC's work

As a Government agency, DOC is focused on 'managing for outcomes' - or results. The outcome for natural heritage is: The diversity of our natural heritage is maintained and restored.

Six objectives sit under this outcome, specifying where effort will be directed. Some of the objectives are about ensuring more species survive and more ecosystems remain intact, and are based on technical and scientific knowledge. Others are about improving the species and places that are valued most by New Zealanders for environmental, social, cultural or economic reasons.

DOC plans work to ensure progress towards each of the six objectives. The outcome objectives are:

  1. A full range of New Zealand's ecosystems is conserved to a healthy functioning state
  2. Nationally threatened species are conserved to ensure persistence
  3. Nationally iconic natural features are maintained or restored
  4. Nationally iconic species are managed to ensure their populations are maintained or restored
  5. Locally treasured natural heritage is maintained or restored through partnerships
  6. Public conservations lands, waters and species are held for now and future generations This page describes how DOC identifies conservation priorities within these six objectives.

Prioritising ecosystems and threatened native species

The first objective is to preserve and restore a full range of New Zealand ecosystems to a healthy, functioning state. To do this, DOC looks at where it could be working and prioritises locations to best meet this objective.

Biodiversity specialists from DOC and the wider community have identified about 1,000 potential work locations around New Zealand that together represent a comprehensive range of New Zealand's terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. These locations are known as 'ecosystem management units'.

They vary in size from one hectare to over 50,000 ha, and often include several ecosystem types within one location. Examples of ecosystem types are coastal pohutukawa, tussock grasslands and braided rivers.

The selection includes high quality examples of particular ecosystems, previously identified sites with significant ecological values, and places where work is already being done (to ensure previous gains are not lost).

Advanced mapping software is used to prioritise the ecosystem units for management. The software takes a number of factors into account, including the types of ecosystems, the long-term costs of management, whether important threatened species are also located there, and where the greatest gains can be made.

See Setting priorities for biodiversity conservation.

Working on threatened species inside important ecosystems

The second objective is to conserve nationally threatened species to ensure their long-term survival. Although in the past DOC prioritised its ecosystems and species work separately, it is now prioritising them together. This is because it is generally more efficient and cost-effective to manage threatened species at sites that are already being worked on for their ecosystem values. Of course, not all threatened species are located within priority ecosystem sites, so some species will continue to be managed outside of these.

What is an "ecosystem management unit"?

Ecosystem management units are places identified as important for management because of the types and condition of the ecosystems and species there. They are usually quite large and often include groups of related ecosystems, which are managed together. Many also include threatened species.

One of the largest management units is Aoraki/Mount Cook (37,000 ha). This unit has small areas of Hall's totara forest, braided rivers, extensive sub-alpine grasslands, scree and glaciers. Its threatened species include kea, riflemen, rock wren and the mountain buttercup.

There is a 5,000 ha unit at the top of the Coromandel Peninsula, which includes forests containing kauri, rimu, northern rata, coastal pohutukawa, and species like the brown kiwi, kaka, long-finned eels, the Moehau stag beetle, Archey's frog and Hochsetter's frog.

A long-term 'prescription' is developed for most management units, made up of two parts. The first part describes the work required to maintain the ecosystem(s) in good condition, and the second describes the additional work required for managing its threatened species.

A small number of units (species management units) are managed only for their threatened species.

The management activities outlined in a prescription follow current conservation best practice and protocols, and are reviewed and refined over time by delivery staff and specialists from within DOC and externally. Prescriptions cover a period of 50 years, so require a long term commitment.

Management units outside of public conservation land

Most of the ecosystem and species management units are on public conservation land, but some are not. Generally this will be because a threatened species or particularly unique ecosystem is located there.

In these cases DOC will work with land owners such as whanau, hapu and iwi, territorial government, or private land owners who wish to explore opportunities to work together to protect and preserve these places.

Identifying marine conservation priorities

Much of DOC's work in the marine environment is guided by statutory obligations and existing policies, including international reporting requirements and processes for establishing Marine Protected Areas.

A suite of projects is helping build a better picture of the ecological integrity, or health, of New Zealand's marine environment, and to monitor changes over time. This information will be one of the cornerstones to prioritising marine conservation management decisions in the future.

Another project is identifying ecologically and economically significant ecosystems within New Zealand's marine environment, which will also inform future conservation management actions.

Nationally iconic natural features and species

DOC has made a long-term commitment to maintain and restore nationally iconic natural features and species—outcome objectives 3 and 4.

To help fulfill that commitment, DOC is identifying what is needed to improve the natural features and species that people consider nationally-iconic because they help define New Zealand and New Zealanders.

In 2011, about 3,600 people were surveyed as part of a formal research programme while more than 1,000 contributed to a questionnaire asking which species they thought were 'quintessentially kiwi'. Most people named a small group of native species—kiwi, ferns, kauri, pohutukawa, tui, kakapo, kea, rimu, kowhai and tuatara.

These species form the pool to be managed to achieve objective 4, that 'nationally iconic species are managed to ensure their populations are maintained or restored'.

Many of these are already being actively managed by DOC, whanau, hapu and iwi, community partners and sponsors.

Although survey results for nationally-iconic natural features were not as clear-cut, New Zealand's 14 national parks received by far the most attention, so DOC's focus is beginning with these.

National park management plans are one of the sources for determining the work to be undertaken to protect the natural features in these parks. Where possible, this work will be integrated with work to manage the ecosystems and threatened species that occur in these landscapes (objectives 1 and 2).

Prioritising locally treasured natural heritage

DOC is working together with local communities and whanau, hapu and iwi to identify what is valued at local places, how this fits the bigger picture nationally, and what people want to achieve for natural heritage in their region.

Some of these conversations are taking place as part of reviews of conservancy conservation management strategies (CMS).

These strategies guide how management work is undertaken by DOC and others to achieve more conservation.

Get more information about the CMS process and the national programme for reviewing and updating them

Public conservation lands, waters and species

The sixth outcome objective is that 'public conservation lands, waters and species are held for now and future generations'. This encompasses the work that must happen irrespective of the priority it is given within other objectives. It includes fire control, pest-led management and statutory land management, as well as a new programme for monitoring the status of, and trends in, biodiversity.

Reshaping the work to deliver better results

DOC is gradually reshaping aspects of its natural heritage work programme to deliver better outcomes across all six objectives. This involves a process of ongoing engagement with whanau, hapu and iwi and local communities to identify the best combination of national information and locally-designed programmes, along with early engagement with Treaty partners to ensure we continue to fulfil our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. It also involves understanding, valuing and taking into account the wider benefits that New Zealand's natural heritage provides to our economy and to the social and cultural well-being of New Zealanders.

Because the prioritisation models take current management activity and biodiversity condition into account, work is happening in many of the high priority locations already. However, the activities being undertaken may be different in future and may involve a much wider range of groups and interested people.

The importance of monitoring for biodiversity outcomes

Biodiversity monitoring is an essential component of natural heritage activities. Monitoring is critical for taking stock of progress, learning and improving practices, and showing how resources can be spent most cost-effectively to improve conservation outcomes. DOC has started putting in place a comprehensive system for monitoring biodiversity outcomes across public conservation land and waters. This system has the potential to be expanded across all of New Zealand with the help of other agencies.

Working together to achieve more conservation

The priority-setting work is part of a broader improvement programme to develop a more nationally consistent and cohesive approach to managing natural heritage across all New Zealand's land, waters and species.

In all this, DOC acknowledges the essential contribution of its enduring Treaty partners to the achievement of the outcomes it seeks on behalf of New Zealanders.

Sharing tools and techniques supports DOC's strategy to work with a wide range of New Zealanders to plan, deliver and monitor biodiversity, and to help them contribute to achieving valuable conservation gains.

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