Environment tzar urges cooperation in weed management

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is urging the Government and regional councils to work together to make weed management a priority.

“I'm just aware that we've got climate change and land use change bearing down on us, we've got a lot of exotic plants out there, they're crossing into the wild and if we don't try to stop some of them sooner we'll have a big problem down the track,” Simon Upton told 1 News.

“What are the ones we really want to worry about?

“Let’s coordinate everyone, let’s get all the regional councils working to the same song sheet and when you do that it’s worth putting some money in to back it,” he said.

The environment watchdog reviewed the country’s weed management for the first time in Aotearoa’s history, finding leadership is fragmented, information is disconnected and legislation on what introduced plant organisms should be a priority, as well as targets for action, is absent.

Upton is recommending a national weed information database that’s kept up to date, a team to be set up by MPI and DOC to survey new threat species and coordinate management with regional councils and the creation of national policy on how weeds that grow in native ecosystems should be dealt with.

"Shade-tolerant plants like wild ginger and climbing asparagus can be so destructively transformative that unless there is a concerted, joined-up effort we risk seeing significant areas of our native forests succumbing to these plants and whatever might follow in their wake," he said in the report.

"While the Biosecurity Act states that the Director-General of MPI provides 'overall leadership in activities that prevent, reduce, or eliminate adverse effect from harmful organisms that are present in New Zealand', there is little visibility of this leadership being exercised with respect to the management of native ecosystem weeds," Upton states.

He also says the Department of Conservation lacks the resources to adequately control weeds on public land and a significant amount of weed expertise was lost due to restructuring within the agency.

Upton calls for weed management to be addressed with the same priority and investment as Predator Free 2050, the Government’s goal to eradicate rats, stoats and possums by 2050.

“People somehow find things with two eyes and four legs a lot easier to feel angry about then some plant that has a nice flower - I really do think this is a problem. But what is at stake is just as serious."

Upton said in recent years DOC has invested $36 million per year on animal pest control.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan said around $14 million was allocated for weed management in 2020/2021.

The spokesperson said weeds are also managed through community projects with funding from the Jobs for Nature and One Billion Trees initiatives as well as the DOC Community Fund and other sources.

The environment watchdog also warned against letting another weed spread for decades like wilding pines before taking significant action.

The Government announced in 2020 $100 million would be spent on tackling the invasive species over four years after a fire in the Mackenzie District spread over 3500 hectares, the size partly attributed to the widespread weed.

As for regional councils, Upton said the lack of national prioritisation has led some local organisations to not focus on the most harmful plants and the complicated Biosecurity Act has hamstrung management.

"The lists of plants included in the final regional pest management plans that emerge reflect public and local political pressures to varying degrees, rather than the weeds that pose the greatest risks or cause," the report states.

Councils had expressed concern about the time and costs needed to develop pest management plans.

Auckland Council biosecurity principal advisor Dr Imogen Bassett said work on the council’s 2030 pest management plan will start next year.

“It will take us that long to put it into action and also the Biosecurity Act has things that are maybe not well suited, particularly for pest plants, so things like they have a small scale management plan option but you have to be able to show that you eradicate that species within three years, which is really difficult for plants because sometimes they have a seed bank that's been sticking around in the soil for a long time,” Bassett said.

Bassett is welcoming the report’s recommendations for central leadership and greater funding.

“We've got 25,000 species of exotic plants in New Zealand already… 2000 of those have already jumped the fence into the wild and that compares to 2000 species of natives, but we've got this 25,000 huge number still potentially a problem so it's just this conveyor belt where the problem gets worse and worse and we just really need more resources to deal with it,” she said.

Bassett’s concerned about the impact of global warming on the spread of species like the sub-tropical bungalow palm.

“As Auckland gets warmer, it will get better for them and more stressful for our natives who won't be able to compete as well,” she said.

Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor said he largely agreed with the report’s recommendations.

“It's really important that we do coordinate better, we're reviewing the Biosecurity Act to make sure that there are no gaps between responsibility…

“We'd hope that DOC would provide the guidance to us, particularly around those weeds that infect indigenous flora and fauna,” he said.

A spokesperson for Allan said drafting of monitoring protocols in line with the country’s biodiversity strategy has begun, while funding for making weed surveillance a priority is being considered for the agency’s next four year plan.

"We will undertake more auditing of weed operations in the future to ensure appropriate monitoring is set up and that operational targets are met," the spokesperson said.