It’s an acronym that appeared on many signs at last week’s protests, amid claims ‘Significant Natural Areas’ are eroding private property rights. But why is a decades-old designation to protect native biodiversity so controversial? George Driver investigates.
They’re probably the most contentious three letters in politics right now: SNA. In Northland, a hīkoi calling for an end to the mapping of significant natural areas (SNAs) attracted thousands of people in what was called one of the largest protests in a generation. A month later, tens of thousands of farmers clogged roads around the country with tractors and utes, with a call for SNA regulations to be scrapped among a list of seven grievances. Both National and Act have said the policies are unworkable and need to be binned.
What are Significant Natural Areas?
Debate about Significant Natural Areas has been going on for decades, but the contentious government proposal on SNAs is actually the result of a National party push to ensure native biodiversity on private land is protected.
Significant Natural Areas spring from Section 6 (c) in the Resource Management Act 1991, which orders councils to “recognise and provide for… the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna” of national importance on private land. Just what vegetation and habitats are significant – and what councils should do to protect them – has been a matter of debate for 30 years.
Each council has interpreted this differently, but mapping SNAs is nothing new. According to a government report, 61% of councils have chosen to formally identify and map SNAs on private land. For example, the Kāpiti Coast District Council began mapping SNAs in 1995 and Auckland went through this process as part of developing the Unitary Plan. But other councils are just starting to map SNAs now – for example, the hīkoi in Northland came after the Far North District Council began mapping SNAs under the existing law. Around 19% of councils haven’t mapped any SNAs – 36% of councils don’t even have criteria for what an SNA is – and instead they determine whether a development will impact significant native bush or habitat on a case-by-case basis as part of the resource consent process. But it’s important to note that regardless of whether the SNAs are mapped, they are protected by law and there are restrictions on what development can take place.
But some have argued this approach isn’t working. It doesn’t appear to be preventing the destruction of the habitats of endangered species – about 4,000 native species are threatened with extinction. On the other hand, the government has argued the lack of a definition of what is “significant” and how it should be protected has created confusion and uncertainty for landowners, which has resulted in cases being dragged through the courts.
So successive governments have been grappling with how to clarify the law for more than two decades. The most recent push began in 2010 when the National government developed a “proposed national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity” to introduce bottom lines to ensure indigenous biodiversity was protected on private land. This defined SNAs as “naturally uncommon ecosystem types”, including all indigenous vegetation and habitats in sand dunes and wetlands and the habitats of at-risk species. It also ordered councils to map these areas “where practical”.
But National resurrected the idea in 2016, when the then environment minister Nick Smith announced a group including Forest & Bird, Federated Farmers, the Environmental Defence Society, the Forest Owners’ Association and iwi would develop a new policy by 2018. The Labour coalition was swept to power in 2017, but the group plodded on and released its proposed policy in 2018.
Based on this report, the government has developed its own “draft national policy statement for indigenous biodiversity”, which it released for consultation in November 2019. The policy adopts most of the group’s recommendations, with a few tweaks.
So to recap, the policy the government is proposing comes from a working group started by the National government with representatives from farming and conservation groups and input from iwi.
What does the draft policy say?
The policy aims to define what an SNA is and detail what is and is not permitted on one – though much of it is written in a kind of bureaucratic legalese and is not particularly clear. Like National’s earlier proposal, the policy puts the protection of the size and distribution of native species and habitats as a bottom line – it is illegal to do things that cause an SNA to shrink or be degraded. But the definition of an SNA still seems vague. The discussion document says SNAs would be defined based on four criteria: the “representativeness” of the indigenous plants and habitats that are “typical or characteristic of the indigenous biodiversity of the ecological district”; the “diversity and pattern” of the site, defined as “the extent that the expected natural range of diversity of flora and fauna and physical aspects are present in the area”; the “rarity and distinctiveness” of the site; and the “ecological context” of the site, which relates to “how the size, shape and configuration of the area contributes to the wider surrounding landscape and ability for biodiversity to be maintained”.
It says SNAs should be determined by a physical inspection from the council “where practicable” and gives councils five years to map and assess SNAs.
While the rest of the document includes examples of how the policy would function in practice, the report is silent on how this criteria could be interpreted. Would this result in more sections of private land being designated SNAs? It doesn’t say.
Under the policy, developments that degrade SNAs wouldn’t be allowed. However, some development would be permitted on SNAs that have only “medium significance” – here the impact of development has to be managed, rather than avoided. The policy allows for subdivisions and developments on SNAs of medium significance when “there is a functional or operational need” for them; when “there are no practicable alternative locations”; or if they involve nationally significant infrastructure or mining.
The policy also introduces exemptions for developing Māori land in “medium” SNAs if it involves building papakāinga, marae and other community facilities, or if it will “make a significant contribution to enhancing the social, cultural or economic wellbeing of tangata whenua”. In these circumstances the adverse effects have to be managed by avoiding, remedying or mitigating the impact where possible, and by offsetting or compensation when the impacts can’t be mitigated.
Importantly, people can continue “existing activities” in an SNA, including farming, provided the impact on biodiversity doesn’t increase or damage the SNA’s “ecological integrity”. People can also continue clearing regenerating native bush on their land, provided it isn’t an SNA.
The policy also has implications beyond designated SNAs. There are restrictions on developing areas adjacent to SNAs and in areas where native animals might be roaming. Councils would also be required to promote the restoration and enhancement of degraded SNAs and wetlands and consider incentives. It also says councils must adopt a target to have at least 10% of urban and rural land covered with native plants.
The discussion document notes that the policy may disproportionately impact Māori land, which tends to be less developed and have more native forest (and therefore more SNAs). But beyond allowing some development on SNAs of medium significance, it says the policy will have a significant impact on the ability to develop Māori land, with entire blocks likely to be deemed a high-value SNA.
Despite claims of a lack of consultation, the Ministry for the Environment held more than 20 hui around the country before developing the draft. It also held meetings with 14 stakeholder groups, workshops with NGOs and with 50 councils. And it appears to have had reasonable support. There were 7,305 submissions on the draft (although 90% were merely from a Forest & Bird template), with 92% supporting the policy and 2% opposed. When the template submissions are stripped out, 22% supported the policy, 33% supported it in part, 19% opposed it and 12.5% opposed it in part.
An updated version of the policy was set to be released about now to “test its workability”, but the Ministry for the Environment says that is now “subject to cabinet’s decisions”. In the meantime, in the wake of the protests, the government has written to councils asking them to pause work on SNAs until the policy is released towards the end of the year.
So what were farmers and iwi protesting about?
Both farmers and iwi have raised broadly similar concerns. The landowners say they feel the policy punishes them for not developing their land and protecting native forest on it. They argue landowners who cleared all the forest off their land decades ago are able to continue developing it with few restrictions, while those who retained native forest are being restricted from doing what they want with their land.
Tina Porou is a technical adviser for the Iwi Chairs Forum, which advised the group that developed the policy, and she says the forum doesn’t support the draft policy in its current form. The government’s draft policy changed considerably from what the group proposed, says Porou, and it should include compensation for Māori landowners impacted by SNAs.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough for us,” Porou says. “What we talked about originally were compensation models, because the majority of New Zealand’s biodiversity outside of the DOC estate sits on Māori land. So as a result, we are the most impacted by these policies. So we are absolutely comfortable with, and want to be kaitiaki, but someone has to compensate Māori landowners for the loss of development opportunity.”
She says it is unfair that other landowners have had the opportunity to develop their land, but that opportunity is being denied to Māori landowners with SNAs. “We are totally committed to being kaitiaki, but not when everyone else has had the benefit of being able to do things on their land differently.
“As Treaty partners we have the right to be able to maintain our whenua and rangatiratanga and also to ensure that we have the ability to continue to make decisions on our whenua. Our whānau want to protect biodiversity and it’s a core tenant of who we are, but we don’t want to disproportionately carry the burden for this country.
“Some Māori landowners are actually really keen to be the solution around indigenous biodiversity and maintaining those pieces of native land. But it shouldn’t be for free. So how do we create something that enables that opportunity for us?”
Groundswell NZ organised the recent farmer protests and spokesperson Jamie McFadden says the government needs to look at ways to encourage farmers to protect and restore biodiversity on their farms, rather than making them feel punished. He runs an environmental consultancy in North Canterbury helping farmers develop plans to protect and restore native bush, and says putting in place national rules has riled farmers, who want to be supported rather than punished.
“What happens is because the government has come in with a regulatory ‘big stick’ approach, it upsets farmers and landowners and they lose that passion for looking after these areas,” McFadden says. “They say ‘if we look after these areas, they’ll then go and map them and put a whole lot of rules around them’.”
But hasn’t the decline in biodiversity highlighted the need for rules? He says farmers’ attitudes have changed and biodiversity is already improving. “The biodiversity loss they talk about is historic. The question has to be, ‘what have we got left and how is that best protected?’. I mean, we are protecting and restoring hundreds of hectares of native bush. Times have changed. The argument shouldn’t be about stopping farmers doing things, it should be about acknowledging farmers have changed and working out how we move forward.”
Environmental lawyer Sally Gepp, who represented Forest and Bird on the group that helped develop the policy, says the policy isn’t about punishing farmers, but recognising they have an impact on biodiversity and that bottom lines are required.
“In almost all places, if you want to clear more than a small area of bush, particularly if it’s old, well-established bush, you need a resource consent for that anyway,” Gepp says. “The national policy statement wouldn’t change anything in that regard. What it would do is say councils still get to make the rules, but it has some bottom lines. You can’t have rules that allow threatened species’ populations to be lost or that destroy the integrity of an area that is ecologically important.”