28/05/2022·4 mins to read
Tighter rules to protect indigenous biodiversity
Biodiversity is a part of New Zealand's identity, but thousands of our native species have been identified as either threatened with, or at risk of, extinction. Without a national effort to address these risks, these native plants and animals are likely to disappear forever. In late 2019, a draft National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity (NPSIB) was released for consultation, generating over 7000 submissions. A new exposure draft has now been released, for stakeholder consultation until 21 July.
Why the NPSIB?
The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) provides the framework for maintaining and protecting indigenous biodiversity, but it does not provide detailed direction and is often subject to different interpretation, application and monitoring by councils. For example, recent attempts by councils to map Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) in the Far North and West Coast have proved to be technically and politically difficult processes.
The NPSIB attempts to fill this gap. Its objective is to protect, maintain and restore indigenous biodiversity in a way that recognises tangata whenua as kaitiaki, and people and communities as stewards. It also provides for the social, economic, and cultural wellbeing of present and future people and communities. Importantly, the NPSIB should provide a more robust and nationally-consistent legal framework for councils and the Environment Court to resolve these tensions.
Broadly speaking, the NPSIB will require councils to take these key actions:
Territorial authorities will have to identify and map SNAs, and notify plan changes to include the SNAs in district plans within five years of the commencement date.
Regional councils need to develop regional biodiversity strategies which must be completed within 10 years after the commencement date.
Councils must take steps to protect indigenous biodiversity outside of SNAs. This includes applying the effects management hierarchy to any adverse effects on indigenous biodiversity that may be irreversible and providing appropriate controls to manage other adverse effects.
Central government will provide a suite of new support measures as part of the NPSIB package, including:
Guidance and examples of best practice;
Direct support to involve iwi/Māori in NPSIB processes;
Increasing council biodiversity funds to support indigenous biodiversity on private land;
Direct support to assist councils with SNA identification and mapping; and
Pilots of new biodiversity incentives / support measures and exploration of further measures.
Three fundamental concepts
Three fundamental concepts underpin the NPSIB:
Te Rito o te Harakeke
Te Rito o te Harakeke is an approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness and interdependency between indigenous biodiversity, ecosystems, the environment and people. Iwi and hapū are kaitiaki, and as such, councils will work with them to give effect to Te Rito o te Harakeke. Te ao Māori will also inform biodiversity management.
The maintenance of indigenous biodiversity
The maintenance of indigenous biodiversity involves maintaining the size of indigenous species populations and their natural habitats. It means preserving the properties, functions, full range and extent of ecosystems and habitats. It also involves maintaining connectivity between, and buffering around, ecosystems as well as their resilience and adaptability.
The effects management hierarchy
The effects management hierarchy refers to the approach where adverse effects are dealt with: firstly by avoiding the adverse effects where practicable, secondly by minimising the effects where practicable, thirdly by remedying the effects where practicable, fourthly by biodiversity offsetting where possible, and - as a last resort - by biodiversity compensation.
NPSIB contains definitions for biodiversity offsets and compensation. In keeping with Te Rito o te Harakeke, the process must be informed by science and mātauranga Māori where available.
Managing effects of new activities on SNAs
The assessment and identification of SNAs must be done by territorial authorities using the criteria set out in Appendix 1 of the NPSIB. Local authorities must make or change their policy statements and plans to include objectives, policies, and methods that require that the following adverse effects on SNAs of any new subdivision, use or development are avoided:
- Loss of ecosystem representation and extent; or
- Disruption to sequences, mosaics, or ecosystem function; or
- Fragmentation of SNAs or the loss buffers or connections within an SNA; or
- A reduction in the function of the SNA as a buffer or connection to other important habitats or ecosystems; or
- A reduction in the population size or occupancy of Threatened, At Risk (Declining) species that use an SNA for any part of their life cycle.
Other effects must be addressed in accordance with the effects management hierarchy.
Effects of existing activities on SNAs
The NPSIB will require councils to make changes to their RMA planning documents to ensure that the effects of existing activities on SNAs do not increase nor result in the loss of extent or degradation of the SNA’s ecological integrity. Where this is not achieved the adverse effects must be managed using the effects management hierarchy mentioned above (depending on the nature of the adverse effect).
Exceptions to the SNA rules
Some activities will not be subject to the "avoid adverse effects" direction and will instead be subject to the general SNA effects management rules and will involve specific management approaches. These are:
- Pastoral farming
- Plantation forests
- Māori land
- Specified infrastructure - including lifeline utilities and regionally significant infrastructure. There must be a “functional or operational need” for that infrastructure to be in that particular location. There must also be no practicable alternative locations for that infrastructure.
- Mining and aggregate activities
- Activities in geothermal SNAs
- Any use or development that addresses a very high risk to public health or safety
Councils will work with Māori, landowners and the Department of Conservation to identify taonga species and highly mobile fauna. The deadline for councils to do this is in 8 years’ time.
Are there rules for activities outside of SNAs?
For any new subdivision, use or development that occurs outside of SNAs, local authorities should apply the effects management hierarchy to manage any irreversible adverse effects on indigenous biodiversity. For adverse effects that are reversible, local authorities should apply appropriate controls to manage them.
Observations and next steps
There is no doubt that the NPSIB will provide much needed national direction for councils in terms of what is required to recognise and provide for the protection of significant indigenous biodiversity under section 6(c) of the RMA. However, the obligations on councils should not be underestimated. The district wide assessments and identification of SNAs will, for most councils, require significant resourcing.
While there are some exceptions for specific activities (eg infrastructure) and types of land (eg Māori land), the direction of travel is relatively clear: certain adverse effects listed in the NPSIB must be avoided while others must be avoided unless it’s not practicable. This will likely lead to new restrictions on the use and development of land comprising significant indigenous biodiversity. The NPSIB will not, therefore, avoid the inevitable tensions that councils will have to face when implementing the NPSIB, with policy and consenting decisions having to be made to tackle this complex issue.
The exposure draft of the NPSIB is currently published for targeted stakeholder consultation until 21 July 2022. If you want help with making a submission or require further advice on the NPSIB, please get in touch with our experts.
Special thanks to Lydia Chai and Matt Whitmore for their assistance in writing this article.