New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2008) 32(2): 225- 237

Halting indigenous biodiversity decline: ambiguity, equity, and outcomes in RMA assessment of significance

Forum Article
Susan Walker 1*
Ann L. Brower 2
Bruce D. Clarkson 3
William G. Lee 1
Shona C. Myers 4
William B. Shaw 5
R. T. Theo Stephens 6
  1. Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
  2. Environment, Society, and Design Division, PO Box 84, Lincoln University, Lincoln 7647, Canterbury, New Zealand
  3. Department of Biological Sciences, Science & Engineering,University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand
  4. Auckland Regional Council, Private Bag 92 012, Auckland 1142, New Zealand
  5. Wildland Consultants, PO Box 7137, Te Ngae, Rotorua 3010, New Zealand
  6. Research, Development and Improvement Division, Department of Conservation, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

In New Zealand, assessment of ‘significance’ is undertaken to give effect to a legal requirement for local authorities to provide for protection of significant sites under the Resource Management Act (1991). The ambiguity of the statute enables different interests to define significance according to their goals: vested interests (developers), local authorities, and non-vested interests in pursuit of protection of environmental public goods may advance different definitions. We examine two sets of criteria used for assessment of significance for biological diversity under the Act. Criteria adapted from the 1980s Protected Natural Areas Programme are inadequate to achieve the maintenance of biological diversity if ranking is used to identify only highest priority sites. Norton and Roper-Lindsay (2004) propose a narrow definition of significance and criteria that identify only a few high-quality sites as significant. Both sets are likely to serve the interests of developers and local authorities, but place the penalty of uncertainty on non-vested interests seeking to maintain biological diversity, and are likely to exacerbate the decline of biological diversity and the loss of landscape-scale processes required for its persistence. When adopting criteria for assessment of significance, we suggest local authorities should consider whose interests are served by different criteria sets, and who will bear the penalty of uncertainty regarding biological diversity outcomes. They should also ask whether significance criteria are adequate, and sufficiently robust to the uncertainty inherent in the assessment of natural values, to halt the decline of indigenous biological diversity.