Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Net conservation" is unlawful

Today the Supreme Court delivered its judgement on the Ruataniwha Dam land swap - and found it to be unlawful:

The Supreme Court has ruled conservation land cannot be destroyed for the Ruataniwha Dam.


In its decision, the court said the Conservation Act allowed the responsible minister to revoke protected status "only where its intrinsic conservation values no longer warrant such protection".

"The Court of Appeal was right to conclude that the revocation decision was unlawful because it was driven by the [Department of Conservation] Director General's view that there was net benefit to conservation ends to be obtained from the proposed exchange, which could be implemented only if protected status was revoked.

"That did not justify revocation under [Section 18(7) of the Act]."

This is obviously good news in the battle to protect Ruahine Forest Park, and its hard to see how the Ruataniwha Dam can go ahead now. But the case goes much wider than that. DoC has used this idea of "net conservation gain" - of allowing protected land to be bulldozed provided they get something else, somewhere, which also needs to be conserved - as a fundamental part of its business model, and has used it to enable everything from ski-fields to coal mines. But that entire approach has been ruled illegal. Which means that all those proposed coal mines and dams which rely on a compliant Conservation Minister signing away the conservation estate for magic beans are simply not going to happen. And our environment will be much better for it.

The interesting question now is the status of past land swaps. After all, if the decision was illegal, they should be reversed. But the environment may have been so degraded in the interim as to destroy the conservation value of the land in question, making a return pointless. But I guess that's going to depend on the specifics of the case - and on whether anyone wants to go to court to reverse something already apparently settled.