Saturday, December 18, 2010

...he tangata

I tend to react neutrally and ambiguously to experiences as they happen, and later I absorb them and form ideas and reactions to them over time. Sometimes very slowly. When people have questioned me this past first week home, asking me how my ten weeks of research went I have often drawn a blank.

My first instinct has been to say "fine" of course...and it was. I didnt die, I wasn't shot by an aggrieved landowner, no council ute ran me over and no marauding sea lion ate me. All in all, it went smoothly and as planned. Sure, there were moments best left unmentioned, and others that were awesome but it seems to be taking a long time to sink in.

As I slowly absorb all that went on though, I am starting to realise the one thing that it taught me. That people and the type of person in charge of any one thing are the die the world turns on.

I have seen 11 regions of New Zealand, read all of their environmental policies and regulations. I have met with countless officials, landowners, conservationists, lawyers, consultant planners, engineers, farmers, digger drivers and so on and seen the way they have impacted outcomes in that region. So i consider myself amply experienced to make this minor point.

The environment relies on champions and advocates and the rules seem to mean little on the ground, except to initiate a process or spark interest. If the rules are adminstered by those uninterested in their meaning or purpose, outcomes will be poor. If on the other hand, passionate, driven and fair people implement the law and legal tools that descend from it then the outcomes are generally greatly more positive.

What is incrementally driving our ecological integrity to the brink is not lax laws (they dont help of course!), it's not an absence of scientific knowledge, it's not even a lack of methodologies and techniques to minimise's just the people.

It's the people that:
Write the law: more interested in getting something down on paper than considering it's workability
Argue over the law: more interested in garnering votes and stroking the egos of the mining and agricultural industries like we'll die if their compliance costs go up even a percent
Fight the law: the rampant lawyers fossicking for filthy lucre by arguing for proposals no sane man would fight for, and placing cracks in the clear lines needed for true accountability
Distort the law: the consultants (people who dare to call themselves ecologists as if that means their environmental ethos is anything worth selling) that argue minutae while missing the whole damn point that the law is there to protect that which is precious for it's sake and ours...not to line their pockets with shaky litigative appearances
Implement the law: the planners who seem vastly more attached to due process than the outcomes envisioned by the purpose and principles behind the Acts. They agree to unworkable and sometimes unenforceable conditions just to tick a box and pass it on, satisfied that everything (including the intellectual rigour applied to the proposal and it's effects) is 'de bloody minimis'.
Implement the permissions: the landowners whose ethos is stuck firmly in the centuries prior to the tragedy of the commons becoming apparent who think that owning the fee simple title to the land gives them every right to strip it of any natural character it has or ever will have
Enforce the law: Those that note the breaches to the permits and the rules and shrug their shoulders, unwilling to admit that if you dont do anything then you only positively reinforce that noncompliance is OK because nobody cares anyway.

Fortunately for all those that sell out in the ways mentioned above, there are those that do not. They understand precisely what their role in shaping our world is and I have met many on my trip. But it did show me that personality and attitude are insidious and silent destroyers of the environment..and one cant help but think that some strategic redundancies here and there and some further strategic hireages in other places (dont even get me started on elections too) might just make the world of difference...

Monday, December 13, 2010

things about stuff

A short series of observations of my ten weeks of gallivanting. There is more to come in the new year but the blog is likely to go a little quiet over Christmas on account of me doing my best to switch off for those precious days of rest and relaxation.

Thing and Observation....should have been a table but you cant make one on blogger

The rumours are true: Aucklanders are in the fact the worst drivers in the country. I had more near misses in Takapuna than in the whole of the South Island. Notwithstanding that, the foreign drivers of Maui campervans are the worst drivers in the UNIVERSE. Ignorant of the most fundamental driving rules, their ability to career gaily across the centreline on the windiest of cliffside roads is unparalleled. Thanks guys, go home soon.

The condition you develop when you sleep in one musty hostel room after another for an extended period of time. It does not leave when you return,, leaving you to do such mad things as write blog posts at 5am just to empty your head.

Despite our reputation for a cafe culture throughout Kiwiland, the best coffee is elusive. Just when one needs a boost only deliverable by a cup of the magic stuff (or things much less lawful) you find yourself in some burg that has the Four Square supermarkets convenience counter listed in the tourist guides under ‘cuisine’. Suspicious? Rather!

Kiwis love maps. Just having one with you, poring over it quietly (trying to figure where the **** you are and where civilisation is) in a cafe makes you the centre of attention. All manner of friendly characters are happy to offer the most detailed directions to you, drawing squiggles all over the map in a helpful fashion. There is a window of perhaps eight and a half seconds between somebody beginning to tell me directions and when my eyes glaze over and my brain squelches out my ear and runs away. Nevertheless, their spirited efforts were appreciated.

New Zealand is famous for the degree of sheep populating our fair land, but we dont view them with the same amorous intentions of our pals across the ditch of course hehe. Our woolly flatmates are however, slowly being eclipsed in number by cows. Rampant dairy conversions everywhere there’s a spare space means that, chewing gently on their grass, often with a wily sparrow perched on their head, their presence is constant. However, when they are munching in a wetland, or standing ankle (do cows have ankles? Don’t know – will check) deep in a meandering stream I am prone to involuntary fits of rage.

Thanks to Didymo I have cleaned my boots about forty times in the past ten weeks. I have cleaned my boots twice before that in four years of ownership. If they could talk they would say wtf. I am quite certain most travellers are not so careful so, while i applaud the efforts of MAF to put signs up everywhere I don’t know how effective it will be.

When the hostel TV room is inhabited by often drunk nitwits, the towns social spots consist of a single motorbike surrounded drinking trough, and the world outside is a little to creepy to dawdle around internet helped me to kill many a lonely, boring evening. In theory I should have been inputting data, but I didn’t because I lack discipline in the extreme.

Something Marie lacks in the extreme

I had not seen seals until this trip and I was super chuffed to do so. I was furious however at the gut-wrenching attack on them in Kaikoura. Further making me see red, was the impudent fisherman who later claimed that the seal population was ‘out of control’. By this I assume he means that they have a healthy and thriving population and are not utterly destroyed like everything else. The dear poppet went on to say that they ‘steal all the fish’.
When I read that I let out an involuntary yelp. The SEALS are STEALING our fish are they? Um no dear, we are the incursion into the food chain and the ocean is not a FRICKING PANTRY YOU IGNORANT WANKER. Anyhoo, I have recovered now *smiles calmly*

Driving through Aotearoa is much like driving through a giant farm – because it is one. I venture to suggest that if every kiwi spent ten weeks staring at grass and troughs and not a lot else they may also question the free ride we are giving to farmers in this country. We fiddle about with rules governing the smallest things you can imagine, where farming is the elephant in the room, subject to comparatively bugger-all rules. You could say they produce food and should be given some flexibilities – but enough is enough. Our natural capital is being eroded faster than if it was planted on Wall Street and something urgently has to give.

Lots of my friends have checked up on me very regularly through this trip. It’s heartening and I think they are better than awesome. That length of time dawdling around by yourself, although interesting, is tough when you’re away from those you love. The text messages and emails asking me how and where I was were awesome. Thanks to those – you know who you are. It is possible that my penchant for wandering off and getting lost promoted their concern for my welfare, but I’ll take them as read.

Kea are awesome...their distinctive screech and tendency to make life hell for any rubber fixtures nearby is a source of great delight to me. When I returned from the Franz Joseph Glacier, I was faintly disappointed that one wasn’t industriously tugging at the wiper blade of my rental car. I always think when animals do things like that; it’s the mischievous forces of nature getting her own back for our centuries of ignorance of her laws. It would have amused me no end, but the only kea in sight was sitting quietly up on the cliff, perched in a tree (hopefully plotting a devious manoeuvre on a Maui campervan).

I took a fair ton of warm clothes on my trip. Weighted down on its axles, my faithful wingroad carried it all – all the time. I was cold exactly twice on the trip. Once on a freezing random morning in Taranaki, and another time for about an hour on Lake Ellesmere. Other than that I had temperatures in the twenties and two periods of rain in the entire time. I am drought it seems, it spread along with me. Sorry folks *awkward silence*

During my childhood which some may call nomadic I have visited and lived in towns with residential populations less than the average primary school. Of course those people were Australian and much less cool than us, but nevertheless the phenomenon of the small town is familiar. It is nice to sit in a cafe though where everyone knows everyone and the gossip flares with the doorbell over and over. I hope the people in those towns do visit bigger towns and other countries from time to time as it’s not hard to see how one many begin to think they are the centre of the universe as far as they can see it. Nevertheless, the warm familiarity must make a hometown like that a soft place to land (even if the coffee tastes like engine oil).

The leftwing contingent in society that is urban always bashes farmers, people that eat meat, people that eat gluten, people that go fishing, people that marry their cousins (no wait, that’s a fair criticism) and appear to have a picture of rural folks as being raving tories screaming around on diggers. While this is no doubt true for some, especially when one’s livelihood intersects with any one of the activities mentioned above, there is a groundswell of community activism in rural areas of New Zealand. It’s not enough to just SAY you care and take another sip of your double-shot vanilla latte. When one puts themselves in the shoes of those on the land every day, the pompous spoutings of the Ponsonby crowd does grate.

There are more cheeky and pointless things to say but I have to get ready to return to my office now. Overall my trip showed me that New Zealand is an amazing country, blessed in all ways imaginable. We have destroyed a fair chunk of it, but theres much more to save and many ways to do what we do better. Cue Bob the Builder theme...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

...on the subject of emissions...

Dear Environment

Over the past ten weeks (with more to come in this and the new year)I have consumed an inordinate amount of fossil fuel gallivanting around the country doing my field work. When at home (besides trips to see friends and family in Auckland and Te Puke) I normally try to keep my vehicle use to a minimum. So you're probably wondering why I am the recidivist offender behind such emissions all of a sudden.

The truth is that it's not simply a cleverly orchestrated jaunt at the expense of the university and other funders; but bona-fide planning research. I go into council offices all around the country (almost 20 to date) and haul out files pertaining to development sites that have had mitigation requirements as part of their approved proposal.

Once I wade through the dusty piles of documents and photocopy what's needed (unless a hawklike admin person is appointed to reluctantly do it) providing it exists, I hop into my wagon. After digesting (reading, not eating) the files, I contact the landowner, outlining my research and (all going well) obtain permission to view the subject property.

Every now and then there are no contact details available. In this situation (particularly when its a subdivision) I would ordinarily drive to the site to see if there were identifying features that could lead me to a contact person (for sale sign etc). I employed this normally flawless technique not that long back. A coastal subdivision in the early stages of sales following the issue of title.

I knew roughly where it was and knew an extension of a road had been involved, the plan implying it would be vested with the council prior to 224C. So I tootled down it and arrived at a for sale sign as expected. I rang the number on it, and advised the lady on the other end who I was and asked for the real estate agent. She went seppo (not sure if you're familiar with that colloquialism, but it means she went berserk at me) screaming down the phone that I was trespassing and did I not notice the private road sign a kilometre back.

She ranted for a significant period of time. Heart thumping, I listened, the screeching clearly audible with the phone even on the passengers seat. When the noise ebbed I picked it up and shakily said I would leave the property immediately and ring her husband on his cellphone. A curt goodbye from her, and I threw the phone back, relieved that I could escape.

I turned the key and....nothing. Incredulous at my spate of bad luck crammed into the past twenty minutes, I tried the car a few more times. Turning the radio, fans, lights and anything else draining off and came up dead. Her sustained rant had sucked the juice from the battery from afar. Considering my options, I went to phone the AA for a jumpstart. Not only was I in the middle of nowhere, but I remembered I was over a kilometre into private property and doubted the jumper leads could lawfully reach...that was that plan down.

With no alternative I left a plaintive and apologetic message on the chaps voicemail explaining my predicament and that I hoped to here from him soon but until then I would be forced to trespass. Glaring at the engine and kicking the clumps of mud around it where it was parked (RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DRIVEWAY OF COURSE) passed the next few minuutes until I heard the roar of an engine (not my one, obviously). Startled, I looked up to see a late model Jeep Cherokee zoom over the hillside and head in my direction.

Fearing the owner had a temperament not dissimilar from his lady love I cautiously sat back in the car and watched him approach. Furtively rehearsing my explanation I clacked my nails on the dashboard hoping for an outcome that didnt see me drowned in the adjacent swamp. As the jeep neared his wide grin was suddenly a welcome sight and his guffaws of laughter pealed cheerily down the hillside.

He had listened to my (now gratingly embarrassing) message and driven straight here, quickly brushing off any concerns I had about my evil deeds of the day. A jumpstart following a farm tour set the day right and I sped off, too scared to kill the engine for the remainder of the trip.

So there you go, Mr Environment. I wanted you to know that its not all a ruse and for every lovely picture I have taken, every litre of petrol I have indirectly consumed, every cheerful council officer that has chatted to me over coffee, and every forest I have been lucky enough to saunter through; there has been elaborate screw ups like this deal with.

Council staff that look right through me, utterly uninterested in helping and not clearly capable of doing so anyway. Long days in the field trying to find poorly identified property owners in remote areas. Long evenings spent cajoling landowners into property tours, reading district and regional plan provisions, and tracking down documents, people, businesses and consultants. The hostel cohabitators and often bizarre owners have been an effort, with their complicated payment systems, appliances, diurnal and nocturnal patterns and squillions of warning signs (no noise after ten, no noise before eight, wash your hands, leave bags here, dont leave bags here, dry and put away, lock your car, dont kick the cat etc etc).

So there you go, I hope knowing that it hasnt all been plain sailing makes you smile and works off maybe a few jots of my carbon footprint. Thanks for indulging me in seeing my amazing country. I promise to make up the difference by planting trees, saving wildlife, making irksome submissions on RMA instruments for the rest of my days.

Anyways, I thought I would write this now, instead of before I started. As many consent holding landowners have taught me over the years, it is far better to beg forgiveness than permission.

Yours sincerely


Sunday, December 5, 2010

a dark night on a remote river bed

The epic major leg of the research road trip is just a few days off finishing and this weekend has been a bit of a high note. There hasnt been much going on in the way of research as that winds down to make way for simply getting to the other end of the island. Long days of travel and writing up notes are what's left.

I left friends in Hawea Flat to drive through the valley to visit more friends in Haast. While I had no specific case studies in the area, there was one particular notorious compliance case I did want to have a peep at. That was mortifying as expected so I got it over and done with quickly. On the way to Haast one drives through Mt Aspiring National Park. Mt Aspiring is a most gorgeous area with a thriving population of Mohua. I was lucky enough to spy a couple of them flitting contendedly through the trees.

In Haast there was trout fishing to be done by my hosts so I dawdled around Hapuka Estuary following the activities of a lone banded dotterel. A successful catch made for dinner and a quiet evening of talking and elderflower cordial at their bach. A recent 1080 drop in a nearby patch of forest meant an evening out hunting two bambis that just may have escaped the efforts of DOC.

The forest area was on the Haast River. A trip by 4WD over the gravel bed and a great kayak ride across the fast-moving river in pitch black was a great way to start an evening. less intriguing was being literally feasted upon by millions of mosquitoes. A head net (super cool looking contraptions they are too!), a beanie hat, gloves and every milimetre of skin otherwise covered meant nothing. They munched through the cloth regardless...I must have lost a pint of blood. I am o negative, a universal donor, and assumed that that meant all mosquitoes could attack me...sigh

Being a walking buffet was all forgotten however as a rustle was heard in the bushes on the riverbank. It scurried about frantically for a few minutes as I debated whether the noise indicated a small deer, and tilted my head to listen as hard as I could from my toetoe hiding spot. But it turned out to be a tubby possum lolling about in the undergrowth. It dragged itself garfield-style onto the riverbed and scuffled about in front of us before retreating up a tree and watching us.

Just then we heard from up the valley (and over the drone of hungry mozzies) a footfall. The spotlight flashed and two startled deer reared up and took off down the riverbed. My friend with his rifle (an ss .270 for anyone who cares) attempted a couple of shots which missed. The deer made a hasty retreat around the headland and a trek after them proved futile. But hey, its not about the killshot, it's about the game...right?

Luckily it's been the only adventure on my research expedition involving a rifle thus far!

Northbound now....upward through the mighty west coast!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

the conversion aversion

A few days spent driving around Southland is a sobering experience. It is one of the regions of New Zealand with the most of its natural character left intact. So perhaps in that case the cavalier attitude to the land probably makes more sense. Even so, it’s a dismal shame the rate that the wetlands in particular of the south seem to falling prey to land use change.
A major proponent of this change is the dairy industry. Dairy conversions are taking place all over the region, and those nearby. The media has been rife with reports on this phenomenon. Most reports and concerns however have centred on their need for high amounts of water, promoting such ventures as the crop circle irrigation debacle in the Mackenzie Basin.
But the effects of a dairy conversion are far reaching and most of their impacts are insidious, yet poorly understood. Dairy is a far more intensive land use than most other livestock-based farming. The cows and the milking operation generally require more inputs than comparable land uses (sheep and beef farming) in the way of infrastructure (under-road culverts, irrigators and dams, milking sheds or storage and transport facilities, stand out areas).
Whatever the reason, the pressure or greed that drives the intensification process leads to every square inch of pasture created that can possibly be created. Streams, wetlands, sinks, and other natural land forms all get bowled by the diggers until the postage stamps of green are laid side by side for kilometre upon kilometre. The justifications include, as I have read, the need to pipe streams to ‘stop the cows going in them’ (the word is ‘fence’!). I am sure there are good examples of dairy farming conversions somewhere, but they would not appear to be the norm.
And then once the dairy conversion is complete, often the owner is on the edge of financial ruin (many people appear to have borrowed near on 100% of the capital required to purchase and convert the land). Best-practice land management barely seems to get a look in as the focus goes on recouping and repaying for likely decades to come.
What streams remain are rarely fenced, much less planted out. The wetland margins are strewn with gorse and suspicious drainage activity invades most margins. The drains typically have cows lolling in them or near them and the effluent no doubt makes the water quality results (if they’re taken) make your eyes water. The need to forever increase the stocking rates seems to truncate innovation for the bulk of the newly converted and the environment wears the consequences.
It’s rather like being in a time machine...we just don’t learn....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

exciting excrement

It was the strangest thing...I had wandered off from the group (well, no, that isnt at all strange actually) and sauntered down to the viewing platform. I was at Tairua Heads Royal Albatross Centre, an amazing facility just out of Dunedin. The foresight of Richdale in decades long passed had seen an incredible conservation programme based on the albatross, the penguins and other coastal avian gems sustained. The viewing platform gave you an excellent perspective on the wild coastal cliffs of the Peninsula.

Royal Spoonbill (they're all royal here dahling) stalked the kelp strewn foreshore. Spotted Shags lolled on ledges above and red billed gulls flapped noisily around your head. Their colony nearby was all rackets and guano streaks, but it was nice to see them so numerous.

Anyways....the strange thing was seeing the coastal cliffs alive with activity. The powerful wind blew the most unholy smell up your nostrils. You had a sense of nature being in utter control. And it I put my beloved binoculars to my eyes and was suddenly splattered with a not insignificant amount of gull poop.

My new conference t-shirt, thermal undershirt, treasured cap from an Indian NGO and my binocular case all become gooey victims of the gulls unceremonious deposit. Fearing reeking of digested fish for the remainder of the lengthy field trip I quietly purchased half a new garb from the tourist shop and carefully stowed the soiled clothing in a sealed plastic bag.

Some of my more observant fellow conference participants noticed my freshly bared head (hat hair = HATE) and shiny new jacket in no time and reassured me that getting crapped on by a threatened species is actually amazingly good luck. Good...I was worried it was an indicator that my love of ornithology is profoundly misplaced. If you add to that the knowledge that seabird guano deposits are a historically rare ecosystem, then you see why I am feeling positively special....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

....the long arm of the irrigator

I drove from Christchurch to Dunedin today; 630 kilometres via the Mackenzie Basin. It was a phenomenally long drive for me, and makes me think that I will be planting trees for the rest of my natural life to offset it. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous drive, but not without it's shocks.

The irrigation of the Mackenzie has been in the news a lot of late, so it was important to me to see it first hand. The media furore had centred around the widespread installation of irrigation systems, largely to provide for the conversion of existing pastoral land into dairy farming.

Dairying is a resource-intensive farming operation, particularly relative to other types of farming such as sheep and beef. The Mackenzie by its very nature is a naturally dry basin and extensive canal and dam construction of past decades is being progressively added to with much much more waiting in the wings.

Seeing the lurid swathes of green cloaking otherwise dry hillslopes was a strange sight (would fit comfortably in any urban readylawn suburb) and I am certain it would fail any gateway test on sustainability of agricultural practice. And yet it proceeds as the bottom falls out of the merino market and milk suddenly looks a lot more tasty. The freezing cold in winter makes the climate terribly inhospitable for the poor milking cows, so the logical next step is to propose that they be kept indoors....another animal rights minefield.

So...lets review....we started farming an dryland environment; it came as a surprise that water was at a premium; so we chopped and screwed the hydrology to devise a complex array of lakes, canals and dams; then we now shift to one of the most resource-intensive land uses which requires even more water that transforms the landscape into a bizarre patchwork of stark green circles on a basis of cracked and spiky earth...and each move is justified by the bad call at the last intersection...

Incrementally, more water rights will be handed over and more and more arms of irrigators will sweep across the sky. Irrigation in itself is not bad, sometimes land needs a bit of help in the dry, but some such irrigators must run almost year round to make this area vaguely suitable for Daisy and her pals. And it makes you realise that managing the environment well has no silver bullet associated with it, that it does not come about as one big decision or a series of large policy calls.

Managing the environment well is the combination of thousands of small decisions made by individuals, companies, communities and regulatory agencies...each one providing a ramp for the next by setting the parameters and precedents....we need to think critically at each and every stage and make decisions that reflect where we want to be not where we are....