Our dependence on nature needs to be better understood, and fully accounted for, so that future generations can enjoy the choices and the quality of life that we do.

Date:  02 July 2013 Source:  Director-General Al Morrison at the NZ Institute of Forestry Conference

Speech transcript

My topic is assessing the state, trend and value of New Zealand’s natural capital. Since we have a very poor sense indeed of any of those, you might be wondering how I can say much. In hindsight, I should have posed a question instead: “Why are we ignoring the state, trend and value of New Zealand’s natural capital”.

That puts me right in the space this conference is organised around: “balancing the drive for economic development against the ever increasing demands for environmental and landscape protection and enhancement”.

That conference theme is the challenge that forms the framework for the change programme that has been DOC’s focus in recent years.

It is a challenge that in my view joins DOC and the forestry industry, because we are in the same business and facing similar challenges.

Our common business is inscribed on the business cards of DOC staff. It explains why DOC has been the subject of much media coverage, controversy and a target of criticism from those you would normally expect to be our allies.

Our common business, conservation and forestry, is to contribute to a prosperous New Zealand. A country where our kids and grandkids and generations to come prosper and enjoy the choices and lifestyle options that we do. It isn’t about standing still, locking up everything or back to the future. It is about growing a better world; passing on a better life for more people. But that growth has to be true, it has to be real, it has to be sustainable. Growth at the expense of future generations is not growth at all. It is a selfish delusion that we have been indulging for generations and that is finally catching up with us.

That is not the context in which conservation has traditionally seen itself. Conservation for prosperity is a new purpose statement for DOC. It is a reframing of the intellectual underpinning for what we do and why we do it. 

The state of our species and condition of our places is, and always will be, our core work. Traditionally, conservationists protect, enhance and preserve nature for its intrinsic value. That is our fundamental driver, enshrined in the Conservation Act.

The state of our species and condition of our places is an outcome in itself and needs no further justification. Recreational, social and commercial benefits from conservation are to be limited, and are subservient to that driving purpose of protecting nature for its own worth. That is our history. That is our legislation. It was forged on the battle grounds of Manapöuri, the West Coast forests, Coromandel mines, the Clutha River, the Aramoana smelter.

DOC is seen as the voice for nature. DOC sees itself as the voice for nature. We protect our winnings, lament our losses, and thereby keep the absolute value of nature intact.  

We are the guardian’s of the public conservation lands and waters covering a third of New Zealand. We are the upholders of the intrinsic value of nature.

Don’t read any cynicism in to that account. The sense of majesty and awe, of nature’s intrinsic worth, takes us in to an emotional-spiritual realm where we can only gaze with wonder and contemplate our insignificance in the cosmos. And it is important that we do.

Nature defines who and what we are, and no more so for any nation than New Zealand, Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. We take pride in our unique species and beautiful places, and lay claim to their clean green state as setting us apart.

Quote by Al Morrison set in front of an image of Haast Beach. "Nature defines who and what we are, and no more so for any nation than New Zealand, Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud." Photo: Florian Dietrich | flickr | Creative Commons.

That bedrock of the intrinsic value of nature is important. Nothing I have to say detracts from that, but nor does it preclude us from asking; is that all; is it complete; or does something further derive from that lofty sentiment of intrinsic value?

 Increasingly across the planet conservationists are starting to reframe their argument in the face of new challenges that derive from too long a history of disrespect for, and exploitation of, nature.

In that context, a formal programme of change has been taking place in DOC for the last few years that has involved setting a new strategic direction, organising our thinking around that, changing systems, process and structures and operating from a wider sense of purpose.

This is fundamentally in response to two key challenges.

In the 1990s government’s responded to New Zealand’s obligations as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy was developed under a National Government and launched by the Labour Government in 2000. The strategy was titled: “Our Chance to Turn the Tide” and $54 million was injected to arrest the decline in native species.

In 2005 an independent review of the strategy showed that while the money was being spent on the right work effectively, far from turning the tide we were going backwards.

DOC started counting the cost of turning the tide, and when the number mounted beyond any reasonable call on the taxpayer we told ourselves to think differently about how we meet this challenge, and why we need to meet it.

The second thing that became impossible to ignore was the impacts of the degradation of biodiversity across the planet.  Humanity is over-exploiting and destroying the ecosystems that supply the services we rely on – the quality and quantity of fresh water, the stability and health of topsoil, pollination, healthy nutrient cycles, climate regulation, fish and fibre stocks, and so on.

Businesses are seeing limits to their growth from this, and consumers are demanding they do something about their environmental impacts. That is a powerful combination that we have yet to see played out on a grand scale. But even in resource-rich, low-populated New Zealand the issue of water quality, quantity and allocation, and its associated impacts on soil, erosion and flood control is a serious one. And on the consumer front, there are good examples of trade benefit from setting high environmental standards, while on the other side of the coin a chocolate manufacturer paid a high price at the hands of consumers who frowned on its use of palm oil.

That New Zealanders voted with their pockets over the issue of tropical rainforest destruction and the plight of the Bengal Tiger is a telling sign that the consumer regulator is an international force to be reckoned with on the environmental front.

So these two forces:

  •  evidence that DOC was failing to turn the tide on biodiversity loss, and
  •  the alarming downstream impacts of biodiversity degradation

 forced DOC to rethink its vision, purpose and operating approach.

It required us to grapple with the implications that conservation is not just an outcome; something we do because it has intrinsic value.

Conservation work, the state of our species and conditions of our places, is also an indicator.

It is an indicator of the health of our catchments and critical ecosystems. If our native species are flourishing in their natural environment then that is an indicator of the ecosystem health of that environment. And that is something we need to pay attention to, not just in national parks or the local wetland project or on public conservation land, but right across New Zealand’s lands and waters, including the marine environment.

The health of ecosystems is critical to our health – our physical, social, cultural, spiritual and financial health.

We rely on the services nature provides, and it takes healthy ecosystems to meet our needs.

I do not need to lecture this audience on the nature of those services or their critical importance to us.

Together these benefits from nature make up our natural capital

And the stock and condition of our natural capital has a direct bearing on our prosperity.

By prosperity I mean the wellbeing that comes from accounting for all forms of capital.

This is a challenge to the orthodox economics of GDP, which far from valuing and accounting for natural capital, actually inflates its number by discounting or ignoring it.

It was only a matter of time before dismissing the costs of environmental impacts would catch up with us.

But if this is a challenge to orthodox economics, it is also a challenge to traditional conservation thinking. Our work, while valuable in itself, also becomes a critical part of something bigger.

We have to see and operate in the whole system, not just part of it.

And that means changing the way we think.

We have to ask, how we can operate under a system where the state of our biodiversity and our role in that work is a critical part of  New Zealand’s economy.

The implications of thinking and operating across the whole system are transformational.

The fundamental problem of operating exclusively in the intrinsic value space is that we reinforce a cost-based model for conservation. It feeds the orthodox view that conservation is a nice to have; that to have a healthy environment you first have to have a wealthy economy. The environment is a discretionary spend.

That view only holds in the short term, as we are discovering. The eventual reality is the opposite: financial wealth hinges on environmental health. That’s why, throughout history, the battle to control natural resources has been at the heart of wars and feuds. Healthy environments are necessary, not a nice to have.

But shifting from a cost-based to an investment-based model, where the state and trend of our natural capital is a critical part of the economy presents a number of challenges for the conservation movement generally and DOC in particular.

When you move beyond intrinsic value  as you exclusive raison d’être  you move in to a pragmatic space where blame games such as “dirty dairying” or “no mining” don’t cut the mustard. Finding a prime culprit is a comfortable place, because it is they, not you, who are under moral pressure to act.

Taking a whole of system approach involves abandoning that simplicity and acknowledging that the fault lies in a systemic approach that we have all contributed to building, and that we have all tolerated to a point of failure. It means seeing yourself as part of the solution. It involves compromise and value-exchanges. It takes you in to the world of off-sets. It can mean giving up something to get something better and being prepared to accept others perspectives. It is a world of greater complexity and it is a world that many environmentalists are uncomfortable in. They would rather lose than surrender and compromise to those they have long battled for their occasional gains.

Making that shift is why DOC is moving in to the partnership space. It isn’t because we want to fill our coffers or make up for budget cuts. It’s because we need to lead far greater engagement in conservation if we are going to turn the tide on biodiversity decline. We need to partner with the community, iwi, local government, business, and private landowners – everyone who has a stake in the prosperity of this country – to make conservation something all New Zealanders engage in across all of New Zealand.

Our partnership with Fonterra is a good example. Fonterra is committed to putting $2 million a year for 10 years in to wetland restoration. The money will go to community groups, not DOC. The partnership will actually cost us in terms of resources to support that community activity. The reason we are in it is two fold. First, that’s $2 million a year of conservation activity that isn’t happening now. Second, it’s a small start to get New Zealand’s biggest commercial enterprise to start picking up its responsibility for taking account of its supplier's environmental impacts.

The business sector has a particular responsibility to engage in healing the wounds to our lands and waters. Laws and regulations can set the requirements and standards and demand they be met, but they work best as backstops to a generally willing business sector that learns to be profitable without environmental subsidies. We have a long way to go.

DOC’s approach of creating partnerships with business is designed to support any genuinely willing move to grow the conservation business across New Zealand. Our core work, focused on the public conservation land, remains an important commitment that we will continue to deliver. But partnerships are the growth path for conservation. It is a new area of expertise for DOC and it will take time to build the new skill-base, information, knowledge and experience to fully succeed.

Because the economic value of natural capital is largely invisible, and accounting for it is largely absent from national or business accounts, we do not have the valuation systems yet that we need to balance financial, social and environmental values in policy and decision-making.

But private corporations are increasingly seeing the value of biodiversity and recognising its links with business growth and durability. And they are seeing smart ways to address the issues without crippling their businesses, and that can improve their reputation, brand value, or bottom line.

The Pure Advantage group, formed in 2010,  includes some of New Zealanders most successful and influential business leaders – Geoff Ross, Chris Liddell, Rob Fyffe, Sir Stephen Tindall, Rob Morrison, Justine Smyth, Jeremy Moon, Sir George Fistonich, Phillip Mills , Sir Mark Solomon, Joan Withers…this is not the hard core of the Green Party or Forest and Birds Executive. So what are they on about?

In a 2012 report entitled, “New Zealand’s Position in the Green Race”, Pure Advantage states that many countries are “already demonstrating the link between green growth policies and strong economic performance. Countries all over the world are investing in green development to help their economies transition to a more robust, sustainable and environmentally benign platform”.

Corporates, the report states, “need to step up to provide the necessary leadership to get things moving”, but Pure Advantage says “what is ultimately required is a partnership between government and industry”.

This is what it will take to lift biodiversity out of its invisible place in the economy. It involves encompassing the full range of intrinsic, non-market and market values of nature.

That integration of values has been a struggle for conservationists, governments and business. Perhaps it is a result of humanity’s continued path away from direct contact with nature, because indigenous peoples find no difficulty in this fusion of values.

Maori combine their kaitiakitanga or guardianship functions with whänaungatanga, managing nature for its benefits to us, under the holistic system of mätauranga Maori. That is the value set that we need to hold in all its complexity.

The forestry industry is well versed in the challenges that an ecosystem approach presents. You are grappling with the same challenges as DOC, and many of the issues and initiatives to address them were canvassed in the recent Forestry and Ecosystem Services conference.

There is no question that you have improved your approach to such industry-related issues as erosion and sediment control, the biodiversity benefits of plantation forests, and the clean-up of logging debris at harvest. Problems remain with forest re-establishment reducing, and reforestation of areas that shouldn’t be replanted. And there is the issue of a damaging period of up to nine years post-harvest where issues of soil instability remain.

There is complexity with the emissions trading scheme, and with the development of a National Environmental Standard for forestry.

I can add no value to your conference by posing as an expert in the intricate detail of these matters. But I would like to end with some potted observations.

 Insurers are putting the damage from the recent storm that ripped through New Zealand at some $40 million. Part of the problem was thousands of trees that blew down. In Wellington, council work gangs say most of those were exotics: pines, macrocarpa, eucalypts and poplars. Some natives didn’t stand up to the storm, mostly newly planted ones or those on unstable areas, but for the most part they stood their ground far better than the exotics.  It wasn’t a coincidence. They are made in New Zealand for New Zealand and built to survive roaring forties weather.

So we now have a demonstrated value for our native biodiversity, and I’m wondering if the insurance industry will use premiums to incentivise native tree plantings over exotics. Sound silly?  You get benefit for garaging your car; you get benefit for alarming your house, so why not replacing your exotics with natives.

Much as I like the made in New Zealand version, this is  not an argument against exotic forests, though I do wonder where the forestry industry would be now if all those years ago we bit the bullet on longer harvesting cycles and planted natives.

What I don’t wonder about is the $3 million a year DOC spends on wilding pine control. And despite that, the ordinary traveller visiting such places as Mt Cook/Aoraki would be excused for thinking they were passing through a plantation forest. That $3 million a year is taxpayer’s money, but strangely, nobody has ever suggested who DOC should invoice. We are a tolerant society and just keep forking out to rectify the environmental damage imposed by others. For example, by 1975 investors in the Tui Mine near Te Aroha in the Kaimai Range had extracted their precious metals and abandoned the mine and liquidated the company. It became a highly contaminated site, and so far it has cost New Zealanders $22 million to stabilise it.

Was that mine truly profitable for New Zealand, or was it only profitable at the time because you and I picked up the environmental cost years later when the shareholders were gone?

I also wonder when or if we are ever going to deal to the unsightly landscape that harvesting creates. Yes a lot is being done to contain erosion and protect biodiversity. But are landscape protection measures such as roadside strips too much of an ask. We place value on fire control and sacrifice planting strips to manage it, but pay little attention to landscape values, even on key tourism routes. Some of the regions under the old Forest Service were landscaped, so maybe it’s a case of rediscovering  that value.

I haven’t come here to find fault. Forestry and forest products contribute some $3.5 billion to the New Zealand economy and the industry deserves a bright future. But like all human activity, it comes with environmental impacts that need to be accounted for.

That is the nub of the problem. We do not account for the environmental impacts of our activity in any systemic way.  You only need to fly over the mouth of many of New Zealand’s major river systems to see the brown sedimentation slick extending well up the coast.

That is our topsoil, and topsoil is the fuel for our economy. Depending on the soil form, it takes between 100 and 500 years to build two to three centimetres of topsoil, so it is in effect a non-renewable resource. And yet we seem to pay far more attention to measures required to compensate for the impacts of losing our soil to sea and air than we do to fixing the causes of the problem.

The underlying challenge in all this is how we change our thinking and behaviour across society so that   the base of our economy floating out to sea is seen as just as catastrophic a problem requiring urgent and radical action as the global financial crisis is.  I welcome the day when we address our environmental debt with the same resolve we apply to addressing our financial debt.

Working together practically is the best route to achieving that state. There are numerous examples of the forestry industry and conservation doing that.

To take one example, Kiwi can do well in exotic forests where there are enclaves of native vegetation. They survive well during harvest and maintain their territory into the next rotation.

Forestry companies, DOC, the Kiwis for Kiwi Trust and Wildlands worked together to produce information and provide guidelines and support to best manage forests and do predator control to help kiwi populations grow at little cost. There is a significant opportunity for the industry to be part of saving kiwi, which are still declining in numbers.  

A similar opportunity exists with the native falcon; the kärearea which appears on our $20 notes but is threatened in our countryside. Falcons nest on the ground on outskirts of exotic forests and prey within them. Forest management that takes account of this, including pest control, could increase numbers. The industry has the opportunity to play a part in reintroducing the kärearea to northland via plantation forests.

How good would it be to see the forest industry join the many sectors and players in the Predator Free New Zealand project and be part of showing how the environment and industry can support each other in partnership for mutual benefit.

None of this is simple. We need to take these activities and conversations to a new level. New Zealand has a unique opportunity to lead the world in what it means to live prosperously in harmony with nature. If we’re smart, we can even do it to our benefit.

But to get there we need to change the way we think about the place of the environment in our policy and decision making.

I recently heard an interview on National Radio with a businessman from Dannevirke counting the cost to the Tararua district of farmers having to meet the nitrate levels set by the Horizons One Plan.

I have no reason to question his figures of $50 to $60 million with 200 jobs lost from farms and another 100 in surrounding towns.

What struck me was the question that was not asked: what is the cost to the community of not meeting the standards.

There would be little point in asking, because he wouldn’t know. The question is not mapped in to our thinking; let alone how to answer it.

The present change programme at DOC is fundamentally driven by the crucial need to ask that question, and gather the information and develop the tools to contribute to robust answers.

That is a challenge we face together, because it lies at the heart of creating a New Zealand where our dependence on nature is better understood, and fully accounted for, so that our children, mokopuna and future generations can enjoy the choices and the quality of life that we do and see the wellbeing of the nation strengthen.

To get there, we need to turn the waka round.
E tū ki te kei o te waka, kia pakia koe e ngā ngaru o te wā.
Stand at the stern of the canoe and feel the spray of the future biting at your face.
No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.  

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