The Fight for Nature

Panel discussion at Victoria University

By Bill Benfield

Sue and I went to “the Fight for Nature” at Victoria University on November 10.

The panel discussion was moderated by Kathryn Ryan, host of the radio programme “nine to noon”.

The panel was

  • Emma Marris from the US
  • Bruce Clarkson, University of Waikato and a recipient of the Royal Society Charles Fleming Award
  • Jamie Steer from Greater Wellington Council
  • Myfanwy Emeny from Wellington City Council who deals with the burning issues of kaka from Zealandia nesting in suburbanites roofs
  • Jacqueline Beggs, director of the Centre for Biodiversity from AU
  • Wayne Linklater from Victoria.

The audience included quite a crowd from Forest and Bird, including Sue Jensen Boyd but most seemed to be DoC, academics and students.

The panel all had a chance to do a short set piece, then there could be questions – conversations from the floor.

The speakers short set pieces

Bruce Clarkson

First speaker was Bruce Clarkson, he said the trouble came with the human arrivals of around 800 years ago, but the real damage has been done in the last 200 years by Europeans, which sort of ignores the annihilation of both forest and the forest megafauna prior to European arrival.

Thereafter, he more or less trotted out the usual party line of we must preserve our wild life from the plagues of predators which of course continues to include herbivore possum.

Next was Emma Marris, who I thought may take a position on the preservation/reconciliation spectrum. Instead she offered something for all, a range of solutions to cover all opinions. I thought a local knowledge would suggest this was unlikely, as in New Zealand, there was only one opinion – the official opinion.

I was quite impressed with Myfanwy Emeny in her account of her day to day dealing with the interactions of native wildlife and the 200,000 inhabitants of Wellington. Her approach seemed pragmatic and not doctrinally driven.

Jamie Steer

Jamie Steer next gave his introduction, that much of our bio-diversity was now introduced, and while some species may require special attention, many could survive with introduced predators if left alone.

Jacqueline Beggs seemed to think her Maori heritage including huia feathers was the big issue, rather ignoring the fact that like the kakapo, huia were pretty well functionally extinct at the time of European arrival.

Did Wayne Linklater play a devil’s advocate? Human habitation on far planets with imported ecosystems from mother earth, gene adjustment for native species to improve their survival prospects, and even sending kiwi to other parts of the world like PNG.

Basically, he sees the bell jar mentality of NZ conservation as a dead end.

Huge changes before the Europeans arrived

I got first away with questions, pointing out that prior to European arrival the whole megafauna, their predators and all the forest browsing birds along with around a third of the forest cover of the land was destroyed.

That what we are attempting to do was to restore bird life to a forest that was no longer the browsed habitat they evolved in. Clarkson wriggled round that for a bit, and before Ryan could shut it down I had another go, saying Caughley had suggested a suite of mammalian herbivores like deer was a simple way to get the forest into some semblance of its former self.

That got tossed round a bit more, with Marris suggesting proxy browsers were possible, but on the whole it seemed a step too far.

Kicking around some issues

Myfanwy Emeny

Conservation in the cities and kaka ring barking trees got most of the air time and Emeny handled that well, pointing out that what she did was done with public involvement and did not necessarily reflect the science.

Much of the issue of the actual forests and what was happening there only came up when I think it was a DoC person raised predator free new zealand. That was kicked about a bit and it was really when Jamie Steer suggested that the monetising of eradication meant that there was a large body of people who would defend it. That was quickly dropped.

Someone from the back had a go at Linklater for his suggestions re shipping kiwi off shore but that was quickly squashed by Jacqueline Beggs who said Maori would not permit it.

Discussion also covered areas like synthetic meat and vegetable based meat substitutes.

Throughout it, many of the panel thought there ought to be conversations among the public on what they wanted from conservation – a view I found to be utterly at odds with the reality of what is happening on the outside of a lecture theatre at Victoria.

Clarkson has a go at Steer

There are better way to spend DoC money

The show rounded up with a brief comment from all the panellists. The item of note was an attack on Steer by Clarkson, who claimed he was being demonised and disparaged by Steer.

I saw it as a flipped side attack on Steer – accuse him of your crime against him. Clarkson despaired at the size of the health vote compared to the money going to DoC. I thought I’d rather the money go to health, and DoC be stopped from its destructive ways with our forests and wild life.

I had quite a few questions I could have asked, such as the relationship between animal cruelty and domestic violence and child abuse, citing game programmes like Landcare Researches “Ora” and dressing the corpses of dead possums as part of school fundraisers.

Not a lot achieved

This did happen!

I felt little was achieved and the only knowledge gained was the extent to which New Zealand’s conservation problems lie in an academia still wedded to the 1920’s and Leonard Cockaynes’ mantras, such as  “these forests were never browsed” and his rabid hate campaigns against “invasives” like deer.

I also experienced a little hostility from a gentleman who wanted proxy browsers like deer gone.