Otago Daily Times editorial worth a read

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NZ's green and pleasant land

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/editorial/252232/nzs-green-and-pleasant-land

NZ's green and pleasant land

Ask what activities they enjoy, and swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, skiing, camping, tramping or climbing would likely be high on the list.

Consider the policies and proposals that generate huge debate, and they are often ones that are perceived as possible threats to our natural environment and our enjoyment of it - foreshore and seabed legislation, fishing rights and quotas, hydro-electric power stations and wind farms, transport projects, mining on conservation land, fracking, offshore oil and gas exploration, land-use intensification, irrigation takes, water quality standards and foreign investment in farms or scenic land.

Consider the heavenly language we use to describe our country to ourselves - ''Godzone'' - and the labels we proudly use to market ourselves to the world - ''clean, green New Zealand'', 100% pure New Zealand'', ''nuclear-free New Zealand'' and ''home of Middle-earth''.

Tourism is our second-highest export earner (and topped the list for the first time for the year ending March 2010) after dairy, and responsibility for it is held by Prime Minister John Key in his role as tourism minister.

Given the importance of our natural environment, it is understandable several recent Government reforms are disconcerting and seem at odds with the way we promote ourselves.

The announcement that 140 Department of Conservation jobs are to go under a restructuring proposal which will replace the 11 regional conservancies with six regions comes after a review last year with the loss of almost 100 jobs.

Doc director-general Al Morrison and Conservation Minister Nick Smith have said conservation won't be compromised and Mr Key has said government agencies need to be leaner and more efficient. The Doc restructuring is aimed at finding $8.7 million in savings.

While no-one would argue with the need for increased efficiency and belt-tightening in the ongoing global financial crisis, it is a delicate balancing act with a fragile ecosystem as the canary.

Opposition parties, Greenpeace and Forest and Bird are among those saying the environment will inevitably pay the price for the latest cuts, and volunteer groups will not be able to pick up the pieces.

There has been criticism - including by Auditor-general Lyn Provost - of the department's focus on ''growing'' commercial partnerships.

Fish and Game claims Doc's advocacy role has already been affected, and is concerned it is no longer submitting on many controversial proposals - including the high-profile open-cast coal mine on conservation land on the Denniston Plateau which looks likely to get the green light.

Proposed changes to the RMA are also causing concern. Environment Minister Amy Adams says the changes are designed to speed up the consents process, which was causing frustration and costing time, money and lost opportunities.

The proposals also include new limits on the ability of submitters to oppose projects, raising fears from local councils they will lose their say in projects in their own back yard. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright says some of the proposed changes go against the fundamental purpose of the Act, which is to protect the environment.

She says the RMA is the balance to the marketplace and it is concerning that economic development is creeping into the Act. In addition to that is the increasing mantra of job creation from the mouth of the Conservation Minister himself.

While no-one would argue economic development is an important consideration, surely ''advocating for the conservation of natural and historic heritage'' - as per Doc's mandate - should be the primary focus for the minister.

There is no doubt we all have a part to play in conservation, but the thought the Government is handing over or amending any of its statutory responsibility for the country's flora, fauna and landscapes is of concern. Our remaining pristine wilderness - and even the quality of that is debated by some - remains a prime asset. As such, looking after it is - or should be - a priority for us all.