DOC is not underfunded: Maggie Barry

Denies her government is exploiting the ‘feel-good factor' that corporates and volunteers felt around helping out in DOC parks and walkways.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, told Q+A this morning that the Department of Conservation got the budget it required, and denied it was being increasingly underfunded, despite reports from DOC staff that there were not enough of them – and those remaining had to spend time cleaning toilets and other tourism-related tasks rather than core conservation work.

She said funding for the department had gone from $316 millon eight years ago to $380 million currently, while “partnership funding” had also increased.

Ms Barry rejected the idea that the Government was exploiting the ‘feel-good factor’ that corporates and volunteers felt around helping out in DOC parks and walkways.

But she shared concerned about tourism numbers increasing on some of the country’s estates, in particular the Tongariro Crossing, while rejecting the idea of a border tax on tourists to cover conservation costs.  We’ve just put a border tax on for biosecurity. There is not much appetite for border taxes to be collected from the likes of Air New Zealand, I suspect, because they don’t see that as their role,” she said.  “I think more directly approaching the option of looking at the people who pay. At the moment, for example, a lot of people who go to a DOC campground are paying the princely sum of $6 per night.”

RAW DATA: Q+A transcript: Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry

Watch the interview here

MAGGIE It is my job as the Minister of Conservation to ensure that the money that I have access to from base funding, from philanthropic contributions -- $100 million over 10 years is what the Next Foundation and Project Janszoon have contributed; they share some of that with DOC projects. But I also need to be able to involve volunteers, people power. And that’s how we want to work, as a collaborative model. Over the last couple of years, partnership funding has gone up by about 19%, and we simply couldn’t do what we do without that. And it’s an important part.

 

WHENA But why not? Why not, Minister? Because that is our selling point. Our natural landscape and flora and fauna is how the world sees us. That’s how we sell ourself. Why don’t we put more money behind it?

 

MAGGIE We do put a lot of money behind it. In the last eight years, we’ve put in an extra $90 million into DOC’s baseline funding. It was about $316 million. It’s now up to about $380 million. And in addition to that, we now have extra funding that’s come through from partners and collaboratives. Why would we turn it away? Why would we not involve other partners?

 

WHENA Is the government exploiting that feel-good factor, that corporates and the army, DOC’s army, of volunteers?

 

MAGGIE I don’t think that you can talk of exploitation when you look around today at the faces of people who have been part of volunteer programmes. It’s what New Zealanders like to do. We like to be able to help out, and it would be a silly thing if DOC said, ‘No. Keep back. It’s only our domain.’

 

WHENA Do you have concerns about the impact of tourism? I think we are expecting maybe up to five million within the next decade.

 

MAGGIE It seems to me that tourism presents enormous challenges to conservation. Being able to safeguard the DOC estate from too many people coming in is a challenge we’re very aware of and that we are working collaboratively with tourism. I’ve had talks with the Prime Minister and with the Associate Tourism Minister, Paula Bennett, about ways in which we can ensure that we allow as many people as we can into our estates but that those people don’t damage the very place that they come to visit and want to see in a pristine state. So we need to spend money improving the infrastructure and ensuring that the facilities that are there are not stretched to capacity, are not overstretched, and don’t taint the visitor experience. Nor do we want to involve our DOC rangers working tirelessly cleaning up lavatories and shower blocks.

 

WHENA They are doing that, though, on the Tongariro Crossing, because the numbers in your restructuring a few years ago have gone from about 30 to about nine or 10 in that office on the Plateau, and a lot of their work is around tourism rather than core conservation work because of the popularity of that crossing.

 

MAGGIE The Tongariro Crossing has been an extraordinary phenomenon, I must say, and we’re hoping that there might be a Taranaki Crossing as well, because I think the visitor numbers have shown us that this is what people want to do. They love the idea of doing a day walk. I know there are strains on the facilities. We’re working with iwi. Tuwharetoa are also very engaged with this. They were the ones that gifted the top of the mountains to start the first national park in New Zealand.

 

WHENA So if it’s hard to get a bigger budget for core conservation work, what about a green tax at the gate, at the border?

 

MAGGIE We’ve just put a border tax on for biosecurity. There is not much appetite for border taxes to be collected from the likes of Air New Zealand, I suspect, because they don’t see that as their role. They are worried that there might be deterrent factor for international visitors coming here who are paying a series of taxes for things that they don’t necessarily feel that they are going to be using while they’re here. I think more directly approaching the option of looking at the people who pay. At the moment, for example, a lot of people who go to a DOC campground are paying the princely sum of $6 per night.

 

WHENA And sometimes that is not even collected.

 

MAGGIE Indeed. So the idea is that DOC is, effectively, by having such low-cost camping accommodation and without necessarily collecting that money, we are affectively stopping other players coming into the market and setting up campgrounds, because no one can undercut a $6 a night camping ground fee. So we’re needing to look at making our fees properly reflect the level of costs that come to DOC.

 

WHENA I think everyone is supportive of DOC. They just feel they are very underfunded.

 

MAGGIE No, they’re not.

 

WHENA They’re not?

 

MAGGIE No. I mean, the Greens are always having a potshot at DOC, so are Labour. They’re always criticising it.

 

WHENA From what I understand, they’re not criticising DOC. They’ve described DOC staff as heroes. They’re criticising the priority that Cabinet has of not funding DOC at a higher level.

 

MAGGIE We fund DOC to a level that is necessary for DOC to do the work that it does. As I said, 316 million up to 390 million. Those are the facts. That’s an increase in funding. So the idea that Cabinet hasn’t prioritised it is wrong. I don’t know why you would say it in that way. This Cabinet under the John Key led government and the Minister for the Environment and me as the Minister for Conservation, Nick Smith and I work very closely and collaboratively along with MPI. We’re more joined up than we ever have been around conservation and environmental issues and more aware than Labour ever was about the need to save nature, to intervene at a meaningful level and take the difficult decisions around 1080. Instead of folding over and not using it, which is what happened in the last Labour government, we are using it in ways that is beneficial for nature and has the support of NGOs. But if we hadn’t taken a leadership role in this, if we’d sat back in a cowardly political fashion and just said, ‘Too much political heat; we’re not going to take the tough call on using 1080,’ then I would understand why you would go on the attack around what DOC has done and what this government has achieved. But, in fact, we have done a lot to safeguard nature, and we’ll continue to do so.

 

WHENA I’m not going on the attack around this, Minister. We have, for instance, in Northland, nine kiwi recovery jobs reduced to one. What does it say to the world when we’re outsourcing the care of our birds on the brink of extinction?

 

MAGGIE I don’t know why you would refer to it as outsourcing. In the last year’s Budget, I got $11.2 million of new money, which we have distributed through Kiwis For Kiwis to a lot of the 400 different groups around New Zealand that help for kiwi recovery. We have a goal of turning around the 2% decline in kiwi populations and increasing it to a plus-2% growth in the species. That’s about 7000 birds. We’re well on the way to achieving our goals and objectives. And we are using and getting the volunteer groups, who want to help us, to be involved in saving the bird species. And I think that’s a good thing. It enables us to help the birds recover, their numbers recover, and also engaging the hearts and minds of the volunteers, who love what they do.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

6 comments
Login in or Register to view & post comments