Polly Cunningham is in a rather unique position to reflect on the opportunities for future conservation volunteering. She's been the Department of Correction's district manager for Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast but is currently seconded to DOC as its national volunteer manager.
Trained in social justice and interested in rehabilitation and reintegration, Polly's had a long-time interest in Corrections and Conservation working together.
Translocation boxes constructed by offenders are used to release mohua into the Eglinton Valley
Image: Graham Dainty
In her Corrections role she is responsible for 100 staff and 1200 offenders and stresses, "we have many people wanting to do meaningful work and they get stuck into conservation work. There are lots of benefits on both sides."
Early on in that same role she came across difficulties in getting the idea going though. "After some initial challenges we got DOC and Corrections teams together, from all levels, to talk about what we could achieve together. One of the first steps was understanding each other's priorities and challenges."
The Marlborough conservation office then took on a one-off placement for one person. "There have been placements and relationships on and off over the years but we'd never had an established plan", explains Polly.
Floating timber platforms made by Otago Correctional Facility on Lake Te Anau are used by nesting grebes.
Image: Anja Kohler
Over time though this informal work and similar initiatives across the country became acknowledged through the 'Good to Grow' MOU between Corrections and Conservation in 2015.
Today the collaboration provides for work opportunities on conservation sites for offenders on community-based sentences. They help maintain DOC sites, upgrade and maintain tracks and are involved in plant nursery work. Many prisons are also actively engaged, building predator traps.
But for Polly there is more to it that just providing work. "For me that's the first step to think about. The next challenge is to think about mentoring young or released prisoners somehow in conservation. We have talked about Corrections adopting a hut or a track or providing some mentoring or coaching opportunity."
Offenders develop carpentry skills building traps as part of the partnership between the Otago Correctional Facility and DOC
Image: Mark O'Kane
Polly thinks there are a lot of people who would like to help in this way but don't know how to get involved or get started. "I think we can do more innovative things in conservation with people serving sentences."
Polly believes tourism will also influence the profile of future volunteering. "We have a lot of tourists wanting to volunteer. I think it's important to make it easier to connect with people who would like to do work for conservation.
"It would be interesting to ask every single tourist 'would they like to volunteer while in NZ?' We don't have the capacity now to do this but these visitors could help with the huge job we have. And I'm sure the tourists would find it meaningful. I think we underestimate how important it is to people."
Health and safety and technology are also issues that Polly believes need work on to support future efforts.
"Keeping people safe is an important focus for anyone running any volunteering opportunity and we've been working hard to ensure we get this right. As well, we have big numbers of people and a big scope of work. There has got to be a better systemic solution to link these together to support domestic, corporate and international conservation volunteers."