The Authority understands from your recent comment in the House that you are giving some thought to conservation boards in the context of the Department’s current restructuring. We have been contacted by several boards seeking information about this. We felt it appropriate to provide you with our advice, given it is a matter on which we hold views.
While we are not aware of your inclinations, to us it seems likely that one option is to align board boundaries with departmental regions. For this reason, some of our comments are directed specifically at this possibility. Other comments are more general in nature.
Purpose of conservation boards
The Department’s administrative boundaries have been devised for its own operational purposes. We believe that conservation board regions and boundaries should relate to conservation board purposes.
Fundamentally, the purpose of conservation boards is to represent New Zealand citizens in a partnership between citizens and the Crown (represented by the Department) for the management of public conservation resources.
The Department has a stewardship role. The achievement of its strategic purpose relies on strong engagement with communities, to achieve better conservation outcomes. Good relationships with, and insights into, community priorities and concerns are essential. The Department also needs community ‘sounding boards’ for its ideas. The conservation boards perform this role well. They are a manifestation of ‘conservation with communities’.
Tenets underpinning achievement of this purpose
For conservation boards to achieve their purpose, and be useful and effective, the NZCA believes boards need to:
- Understand and share people’s connections to the national parks, other types of public conservation land, landscapes and natural features of the board’s area
- Reflect the diversity of communities and the full spectrum of interests in the public conservation lands of the board’s area
- Be perceived by the public as being ‘of them’ and different from the Department.
Potential effects if board boundaries were altered to match departmental regions
If boards were reduced in number, so that their boundaries were aligned with the Department’s administrative regions, the NZCA sees a number of significant disadvantages including:
- Decreased ability to bring together adequate knowledge of conservation lands and their values within such large areas
- A muting of the ‘voice’ of the community, given the reduction in the number of board members
- Insufficient diversity to represent adequately the communities of interest that are now represented on individual boards.
The overall effect would be to decrease the quality of the advice boards provide to the Department and to reduce local democracy.
Two contrasting examples illustrate our concerns. The new Northland/Auckland/Waikato region contains an estimated 50% of New Zealanders, a great diversity of ethnicities and the largest number of iwi of any of the new departmental regions. One conservation board of 12 members for 2 million people does not seem credible. At the other end of the spectrum is the new West Coast/Nelson/Marlborough region with considerably fewer residents but millions of hectares of public conservation land including seven national parks in whole or in part.
The Authority notes also that Treaty settlements are increasingly reserving spaces on boards for iwi nominations. These give life to iwi connections to specific places. They bear no relationship to the Department’s administrative boundaries.
We also note that there are many well-informed and capable people from diverse areas of interest who want to contribute to conservation by serving on a conservation board. This year’s nomination list clearly demonstrates this.
We believe conservation boards offer an important and critical mechanism to help realise the Department’s enhanced focus on working with communities, to which end the new departmental structure is directed. For this reason, the role of boards should be strengthened, not weakened.
Boards should continue to assist the Department to work collaboratively with the communities that are connected to conservation places. This is important when undertaking management planning, but also in the Department’s work generally, when it seeks engagement with the various communities of interest within New Zealand (business, iwi, etc).
The way conservation boards operate may require some adaptation to better fit the new departmental style and to help achieve more conservation through working with communities. However, their fundamental mandate and functions remain valid and should not be diminished or diluted.
We would like to be involved in your consideration of conservation boards and look forward to hearing from you how we can best do that.
Dr Kay Booth