More than one third of all land in New Zealand is managed by the Department of Conservation as public conservation land. New Zealand is facing significant challenges in reconciling development proposals in these protected areas. The Department of Conservation manages development proposals in protected areas containing high conservation values using a legislative framework of planning and permitting processes. This process provides robust advice to decision-makers.
The use of lands and waters held in protected areas can help to address economic goals such as increasing exports, boosting regional economies and increasing the revenue available for conservation management. However, in many cases, the lands and waters subject to development proposals have high values from a biodiversity, recreation and/or cultural perspective. At times, considerable tensions are generated by these development proposals due to competing interests. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has had to consider mining, power generation, tourism infrastructure and other development proposals in protected areas containing high conservation and/or cultural values.
- Permissions for Activities on Public Conservation Land: Public access to protected areas is free of charge. However, any business or organization that wants to use public conservation land for activities that involve private or commercial gain must obtain consent, in the form of a “concession” or other statutory permission, from the Department of Conservation. There is a wide range of activities managed by statutory permissions, which include uses such as ski fields, open cast mines, beehive placements and individual aircraft landings.
- Management of Effects: A key way that development proposals are reconciled with protected areas is through the management of environmental effects. This conservation legislation focuses on the values of the land affected. It sets out certain tests that the concession application must meet before it may be granted. When considering a development proposal, the Department of Conservation assesses a number of factors such as the nature of the activity proposed, potential environmental effects and the extent to which the activity is consistent with statutory planning documents. There is a need to balance the applicant’s interests with impacts on biodiversity, recreation, and historic resources. Conditions are placed on the activity in order to manage environmental effects. Certain activities are prohibited in some areas. For example, exploration and mining is prohibited in all national parks, marine reserves and other highly sensitive areas. These types of protected areas comprise approximately 40% of the area managed as public conservation land.
- Accounting for Cultural and Community Interests: Many development applications will impact on community or cultural values attached to lands or resources. The statutory framework requires that the Department of Conservation to take into account Maori cultural interests when assessing concession applications. Consultation is undertaken with Maori on applications in order to adequately understand the nature of, and take into account, the cultural interests and values affected by the application. For concession applications that have more significant effects, the Department seeks public submissions that can be accounted for when decisions are made.
The successful application of the statutory permissions framework has required the development of clear and comprehensive internal policy guidelines on the regime's application for staff to use when processing permission applications across the Department of Conservation. It has also required accessible and user-friendly guidance on the process for applicants and interested parties. A key lesson learned is the importance of applying a project management approach. It includes making sure everyone is aware from the outset of the impacts need to be managed and how; ensuring the appropriate level of consultation and stakeholder engagement; clarifying roles for advisors and decision-makers; clarifying the timeframes, key risks and issues; implementing a robust peer review process; and timely communications around decision-making.