Wetland responsibility comes at a cost for farmers

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Wetland responsibility comes at a cost for farmers

Do you know the difference between wetlands and wet lands? 

Wetland and wet land in a wet landscape at Kaihoka.

That small gap between words creates a significant difference for farmers. Gaps in my knowledge are being filled as I begin to understand how  margins between "wetland" and "upland" are detected, learn new words like "obligatory" and "facultative" plants, and find out what a fen is (and that we have plenty in our paddocks).

Using the Resource Management Act, the government ruled that all wetlands must be identified, with responsibility for this passed to councils. Our local council used aerial and satellite images to produce detailed maps with blue lines identifying wetlands. A big white envelope arrived in our mailbox containing a wad of these maps with 37 blue line areas marked on our property.

This project is not voluntary so our only choice was either to accept these areas as identified, or request a site visit to clarify the accuracy of boundaries. We initiated the visit and a council botanist spent a day here talking, walking, and GPS mapping margins. He investigated five sites looking at plants, soils and water, digging, taking notes, samples and photographs.

This resulted in some recommended boundary modifications and he will return to continue with the other 32. Final maps will be listed on wetland database and shown on our property LIM (Land Information Memorandum). The scientist passes responsibility to policy makers, then rules regulate that there should be no activity "that impacts on the wetland" and so responsibility passes to the good landowner.

I understand the importance of wetlands to filter sediment and nutrients, assist with flood prevention and provide natural storage to maintain water flows during dry spells. We enjoy the aesthetics of our many swamps with sedges and bulrushes. We know the environment is healthy and regularly see white herons, bitterns, numerous pukeko and occasional rail. I comprehend this is a required scientific exercise to identify wetlands and advise whether it is "high value" or not, depending on the presence of rare species and how many of that particular type of wetland still exist. I do understand that over the years more than 90 per cent of New Zealand's wetlands have been "lost".

The gap in my understanding is why management has passed down the crucial responsibility of intact wetlands on landowners without remuneration. As one landowner at a recent meeting stated, this means that land use is now "frozen" on these sites. Any drainage "must not alter the hydrology". Pre-existing ditches may be maintained to the same depth but further ditching is "precluded". Land development is a discretionary activity requiring resource consent, adding considerable cost and uncertainty. We are effectively being limited to present land use with no intensification or conversion possible. This impacts our land value as diversification is restricted.

"Support" for wetland owners is offered in the form of some fencing materials to exclude stock, rates relief if we choose "official protection" and the co-ordination of volunteers for planting or weed control. There is no financial reward to celebrate landowners who have retained, protected and often enhanced the valued 10 per cent of remaining wetlands. There is no compensation for the direct costs of protecting wetlands or the indirect costs of lowered land value and possible RMA consents.

The 90 per cent of wetlands gone are not just to farm development. Many New Zealand cities and towns are built where wetlands once thrived. Urban expansion reclaimed estuaries and coastlines. River mouths are modified. The more wetlands that are "lost" the more valuable they become.

The responsibility and cost for preserving wetlands must be shared by everyone. It is time that "valuing wetlands for environment and recreation" becomes real and not just bureaucratic speak. Responsibility has been passed along, so now finances must come from government to councils and to landowners. We need to recognize and reward rather then restrict and regulate. 

Source: Stuff