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Short term gain, long term pain:

The damaging consequences of cutting funding for environmental regeneration

Pioneering wilding pines on the march across iconic Central Otago landscape

In Queenstown Lakes District and Central Otago, teams committed to the control and management of wilding conifers are yet again pruning budgets in the face of an alarming reduction in funding in government’s June budget round.

Further up the Otago headwaters, a consortium with a vision of a Southern Lakes Sanctuary faces the same issue as their funding too, dries up in a new age of post Covid austerity. This group pulls together 85 previously disparate community groups in an unparalleled collaboration to sustain predator control across 155,400 ha in the magnificent catchments of Lakes Whakatipu, Wānaka and Hāwea.

Southern Lakes Sanctuary project area

It’s the same story for many similar groups across the country. For those who’ve been in Wilding Conifer Control for many years, it’s galling. They've been playing the funding game for decades. Now, the national budget is now reduced to a mere third of what it was last year. Across the country, the fund for this control work has decreased from a high of $30m odd in 2020/2021 (boosted by Jobs 4 Nature funding) back to its pre-Covid fund of just $10m for 2023/2024. Otago’s share of this is for the 2023/24 year is about $1.2m. The gains made by these groups in the previous 3 years, and the years previous, can barely be maintained at this level and are likely to be completely lost if such cuts continue.

And yet there’s a massive cost benefit ratio (CBR) in investing in wilding control – somewhere between 20:1 and 34:1 according to the 2018 government commissioned Sapere report which looked at the value of achieving sustainable wilding conifer control across multiple agencies. The report found the programe gave an “outstanding return on investment” and made strong economic sense. An updated report completed in September 2022 has just been proactively released and has again arrived at that level of CBR. It offers 4 investment options (pg 8) and outlines the CBR of each:

  1. Status quo “losing the investment” – reduce funding to $10 million per annum and scale back control activities to 10 management units. 20:1 Cost Benefit Ratio

  2. Minimum “protect the investment” – continue control activity across the existing 49 management units – 34 to 1 Cost Benefit Ratio

  3. Intermediate “extend the investment” – expanding the activity to include a further 11 priority management units – 33:1 Cost Benefit Ratio.

  4. Maximum “national control” – the intermediate option plus a further 19 priority management unit – 32:1 Cost Benefit Ratio.

Think about this for a moment; many many government projects, from road building to wellbeing and everything else, get approved at slithers of margins above 1:1, sometimes below if the political and public will is strong enough. Yet the funding available for the next three years for wilding conifer control will barely maintain gains. At $20 - $34 benefit for every dollar spent, you have to wonder, what’s the problem? And for the mostly volunteer Wilding Conifer Control groups, who’ve formed themselves into a national organisation, what’s the point?

Sprayed wilding conifers

Wilding conifers have been a persistent threat to New Zealand's native ecosystems, aggressively taking over large areas, outcompeting indigenous flora, depleting water resources, creating massive fire risks, and altering iconic landscapes. Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, is concerned. In a strongly worded letter to the Minister, he highlights the critical importance of long-term funding for Wilding Conifer Control and warns against halting financial support before the job is done. Upton rightly emphasizes that controlling or eradicating pests requires consistent and sustained efforts over extended periods. His Space Invaders paper tells that story. I'm sure this will all be food for discussion at this year's Wilding Pine Conference to be held in Queenstown in October - like so much of the work in the environmental field, the conference is run on the smell of an oily rag and costs from a mere $80 to attend. I will be there.

Back to the Southern Lakes Sanctuary where an enormous loss of funding as Jobs 4 Nature Covid response cash dries up is likely to result in the loss of three years of phenomenal gains in predator control, if a solution is not found. And there’s more to lose; institutional knowledge, the young scientists and ecologists and the brilliant tech people that have all gathered together under this umbrella. Where are their next jobs? Australia? Canada?

Almost worse, we as a country lose our first fledgling moves towards founding a new economy on biodiversity credits. The future losses, economically, environmentally and socially, don’t bear thinking about.

These budget cuts reveal a concerning pattern of short-term thinking around New Zealand’s environmental funding that is not unique to wilding conifer or predator control initiatives. New Zealand has witnessed similar scenarios with the management of pests like rabbits, deer, goats, and pigs. Control efforts in the past have demonstrated initial success, only to be hampered by budget cuts that allow these populations to rebound. The consequences of such a pattern are evident today, with rabbits, pigs, deer, and goats reported at greater numbers than following the last rounds of controls – this pattern dates back to the 1870’s. This story from Newsroom’s Melanie Reid documents the flipflops in funding that is the history of rabbit control.

The thing is, the goal of eradication necessitates unwavering commitment until the last pest is eliminated, even though this final phase can be the most expensive part of the entire program. As we get close, we see ratepayers, and hence their representatives, getting cold feet during the final mile, just as is happening right now with wallaby control as officials are forced again to defend their spendy task in the face of attacks from, in this 2023 case, The Taxpayers Union.

ORC staff member with dead wallabies, south of the Waitaki

The impacts of inadequate funding are far-reaching. Beyond the immediate loss of progress, the resurgence of these pests threatens the fragile balance of New Zealand's ecosystems. Native plants and animals face greater pressures, leading to diminished biodiversity and ecological instability. And the economic repercussions are huge, as industries reliant on undisturbed landscapes, such as tourism and agriculture, suffer and lose immense future opportunity. And spare a thought for the poor contractor, scaling up and down, buying and selling equipment amid uncertainty. There's also the COP15, biodiversity goals that we signed up to only 9 months ago. (COP 15, the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) There, Aotearoa NZ "firmly committed to contributing to the new global targets in line with the national biodiversity strategy, Te Mana o te Taiao."

Let’s call for New Zealand to reevaluate its approach to funding conservation efforts. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past, lets adopt a forward-thinking strategy that emphasizes long-term investment in environmental restoration and pest eradication programs. Actually, just reaching for the goals we've already agreed on the the world stage would be a great way of continuing this work. Getting on with funding the plans we have to safeguard our environment is a no brainer on every level. It's economically sensible (minimum $20 - $1 cost benefit ratio), it helps us reach our global agreements, it makes us all feel better because our world is better and it's a promise to future generations that we will protect the natural treasures that define our identity.

Let's ask our aspiring politicians some questions around this during this campaign season. For starters: How do you plan to fund wilding conifer control given the outstanding cost benefit ratio of doing so? How do you plan to fund the meeting of our COP 15 commitments? And while we're at it, pop in a wee question about how we're going towards our COP 27 promises.

More reading:

All views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent ORC position.

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