Seeing the wood for the trees: Kiwi lead in biodiversity conservation

To know how to ease the damage we do, we must first take stock of the natural world. New Zealand does; Australia does not. Flickr/borkazoid

In 1992-93, 168 countries including Australia and New Zealand signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) acknowledging an urgent need to halt ongoing decline in the planet’s biodiversity. In its original form, the Convention committed its signatory partners to “a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level” by 2010.

Biodiversity continues to decline

History is now a witness to the fact that by 2010 no signatory country could demonstrate significant progress toward meeting this target, with the principal pressures on biodiversity intensifying in many regions and countries over the reporting period.

Indeed, neither Australia nor New Zealand could mount an argument that they had made any more headway than the rest of the world, although New Zealand at least recognized that the absence of effective monitoring made any other conclusion difficult to draw. While this may seem a minor point, it underlines the fact that for some time, New Zealand has recognized that an ability to measure the state and trend in its biodiversity is a critical first step in attempting to slow its decline; you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

New Zealand’s biodiversity information system

Prior to 2010, New Zealand had set about developing a number of strategically oriented “information systems” to allow the more systematic capturing, interpretation, and use of information about biodiversity change. This program of work (instigated and led by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Landcare Research) was initiated specifically to provide improved knowledge in order to design better policies, more effectively target limited conservation resources (i.e. undertake invasive species management at locations generating greatest biodiversity benefit; http://www.doc.govt.nz/publications/about-doc/annual-report-for-year-ended-30-june-2011/3-delivering-conservation-outcomes-for-new-zealand/3_2-evidence-based-investments/), and to establish clearer roles for communities and corporations in meeting the challenge of conserving biodiversity. Some recent and highly significant improvements in New Zealand’s biodiversity policy, management, and engagement can be traced back directly to these advances.

Flickr/Kalense Kid

Pivotal to New Zealand’s ability to manage its biodiversity was the initiation in 2002 of Land Environments of New Zealand (LENZ), a regularly updated data layer that can be used to classify all of New Zealand into discrete “environments”. In contrast to most other classification systems based on which plant communities occur where, the LENZ classification is a statistical model of the environmental differences between any two geographic points in New Zealand, based on a range of climatic and landform variables. This means that the number of different environments into which New Zealand is divided can be set to reflect the use to which the classification is being put. For example, Level 1 of LENZ classifies New Zealand into 20 land environments, which is an appropriate scale at which to examine patterns of vegetation loss. In contrast, Level 2 of LENZ classified New Zealand into 100 land environments, which provides a more fine-grained differentiation for regional or local land capability assessment. It also means that the classification system extends across the entire landscape, regardless of the degree to which human activity has modified the underlying pattern of vegetation. This last point is critical because it means that the LENZ classification can be used to quantify how the loss, conservation, or restoration of any area in New Zealand will contribute to the state of biodiversity locally, regionally, and nationally.

For example, by overlaying the LENZ classification with satellite-images of the current extent of original vegetation cover and the boundaries of the current reserve network, loss of habitat from each environment can be measured, and the degree to which remaining habitat is at least nominally protected quantified.

The resulting picture is that environments which have lost most original cover are also the most poorly protected. When first released, this analysis prompted the government of the day to implement a set of recommendations on minimum levels of protection that should be considered in land-use decisions affecting these environments. More recently, the current government has initiated a consultative process for a national policy that would make levels of habitat-protection be binding for councils approving any land-use change.

The same sort of analysis, regularly updated with new images of vegetation cover, provides an obvious mechanism by which the effectiveness of this policy can be measured and reported at national, regional, or environment-specific scales.

Eye on reality. Flickr/rockfordman

LENZ has also been fundamental in the development and implementation of a Biodiversity Monitoring and Reporting System (BMRS), which the DOC has established across the 30-odd per cent of New Zealand for which they are responsible. The BRMS (which DOC developed with Landcare Research) is a three-tiered monitoring system.

The first level of monitoring (Tier 1) focuses on indicators and measures that have broad spatial and temporal relevance in the context of biodiversity change (i.e. regional and national scales; trends over several years). The measures account for change in vegetation and bird communities, along with selected animal pests, and are taken at 1311 sites spaced evenly across the land managed by DOC.

Interestingly, this site-based approach builds on a national infrastructure established by the Ministry for the Environment to measure and regularly update estimates of carbon storage across New Zealand.

In addition to providing a picture of broad-scale changes in ecosystems, indicator species and key threats, Tier 1 monitoring provides the context for interpreting change in indicators aligned with the other two monitoring tiers; managed ecosystems and threatened species (Tier 2), and key reference sites based on long-term research locations (Tier 3). While Tier 2 and 3 monitoring focuses on understanding the effectiveness of management interventions and the ecological processes driving biodiversity change, Tier 1 provides a comprehensive picture of how the overall state of biodiversity on DOC-managed reserves is faring. There are many examples of monitoring to evaluate management-effectiveness or gain a better understanding of ecological processes, including plenty in Australia. However, the critical point of difference with DOC’s approach is their commitment to “broad-acre” state-and-trend monitoring, aimed at understanding what is happening to biodiversity across the entire reserve network, rather than just the smaller proportion in which active management is occurring or research is being conducted.

Flickr/will biscuits

More recently, a collective representing all 12 Regional Councils (which manage the other two-thirds of New Zealand) has agreed to implement a modified version of the BMRS in order to report state and trend in biodiversity on land not managed by DOC. A specified aim of implementing this system is to integrate results with those from DOC’s BMRS to provide comprehensive regional and national-scale information on changes in New Zealand’s biodiversity.

By integrating the results of monitoring across all three Tiers, it is intended that actions that address threats to biodiversity can be progressively better targeted at the ecosystems and species producing the highest regional and national biodiversity benefits. That is, the resources used by DOC and regional councils are being targeted to maximize the degree to which management is reducing biodiversity loss. Information on where the most acute threats to New Zealand’s biodiversity are occurring will also be critical in harnessing community and corporate support to address key conservation challenges.

Community-led conservation initiatives have become a major feature of the New Zealand biodiversity landscape, with 53 projects listed on the Sanctuaries of New Zealand website, and regional aspirations to eliminate all conservation pests now receiving serious consideration. The contribution that these initiatives make to regional and national trends in biodiversity can now be viewed alongside their obvious benefits as vehicles for community engagement.

Moreover, investment options for corporations or other commercial interests seeking to contribute to conservation of New Zealand’s biodiversity, can now be considered in terms of their relative value. Providing corporations with information on the value that would be produced by the different potential investments they could make into biodiversity is particularly topical given the increasing scrutiny of biodiversity offsets as a means of facilitating development projects. Until recently, the use of biodiversity offsets in this way has been largely constrained by case law through the role New Zealand’s Environment Court plays in contested consent hearings. However, access to better information on the relative impact of development projects in a regional and national context, and to tools that allow the highest value offsetting opportunities to be identified, provides a much richer environment in which to negotiate win-win outcomes.

Beyond their application to biodiversity offsetting, these tools open up an obvious pathway to the establishment of biodiversity markets, through which biodiversity credits can be generated for trading. While the contribution that conservation projects make to biodiversity would remain a relative measure, this does not limit the extent to which Governments can create market instruments to maximize the public good of private investment.

For example, New Zealand’s proposed National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity specifically invokes biodiversity offsets as an appropriate mechanism for mitigating the unavoidable damage from development projects. It is only a change in perspective that would allow a similar policy instrument to be used to facilitate corporate investment into New Zealand’s biodiversity.

Australia should learn from New Zealand’s monitoring of biodiversity changes. Flickr/Sandy Austin

The problem with Australia

These are some recent examples of how New Zealand’s early recognition of the need for more systematic data and information on the state of biodiversity has produced significant gains in policy and practice. Despite similar recognition in Australia, it is difficult to point to any national or regional initiative that will yield similar improvements through improved biodiversity knowledge. A recent commentary by a number of Australian and overseas scientists identified four barriers to more effective biodiversity monitoring in Australia:

  1. Conservation programs having vague objectives;

  2. The case for long-term monitoring being poorly articulated;

  3. A lack of appropriate institutional support and funding;

  4. A lack of appropriate data standards and data sharing protocols.

While it is tempting to focus on New Zealand’s simpler jurisdictional arrangements as being the primary reason it has overcome these barriers, that is only part of the story. As in Australia, most conservation activity in New Zealand targets measured or perceived declines in threatened species or habitat. The rationale for this focus is provided by regional or national strategies that have been developed primarily to provide a context for obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The difference in New Zealand is that the contribution of local activity to regional and national priorities can now be scrutinized through information systems like LENZ, and (increasingly) via data on the changing state of biodiversity aggregated at different scales. This allows policy and management agencies across all jurisdictions to see the state of the forest rather than simply each threatened tree.

Of course this doesn’t guarantee that when the 2020 CBD reporting period comes up biodiversity in New Zealand will be in better shape than it is in Australia. However, New Zealand will know much more about the difference its biodiversity policy settings and management actions have made over the current decade, and it will be much closer to knowing what will be required to meet the 2030 targets.

Comments welcome below.