Field inspections will begin on the West Coast this winter to decide if significant natural areas (SNAs) spotted by researchers using maps, are in fact worth protecting.
The West Coast Regional Council says a desktop study of potential SNAs should be complete by the end of June, and the affected landowners will then be asked if an ecologist can undertake an on-site assessment.
If the landowner refuses, the site will automatically be assumed to be an SNA and protected under new rules now being developed by the Tai o Poutini Plan Committee in accordance with the Resource Management Act.
The committee - made up of all West Coast councils and iwi, and administered by the regional council - has been charged by the Local Government Commission with reviewing all three district plans on the Coast and rolling them into one.
As part of that work, the councils are legally obliged to identify and provide protection for SNAs.
Both private and conservation lands are included in the exercise. The rules, to be drafted by the committee and its planners, will probably require resource consent for any vegetation clearance or earthworks within an SNA.
Regional council chairperson Allan Birchfield last year called the process an attack on property rights and promised short shrift for any ecologist wanting to check out his private land.
But an explanatory page on the council website says a site visit will only be undertaken where a landowner agrees to one.
"Landowners know their land best and we would be grateful for any assistance that you can give us ... the desktop assessment is based on existing ecological information and GIS analysis, and from previous experience we are aware this is not always accurate."
The best way to ensure that an area was not wrongly identified as an SNA, was to allow the on-site assessment by an ecologist, the council said.
"Council will not enter private land without permission ... (but) if you say no to a site visit, then the area identified in the desktop study will be included for protection in Te Tai o Poutini Plan."
The process includes Grey district property owners, whose land was assessed years ago for SNAs.
"The criteria used by the Grey District Council is now outdated and has been replaced by that in the West Coast Regional Policy Statement," the council said.
"We have to check that these previous assessments are correct. We expect that most, if not all, previously identified SNAs in the Grey district will still qualify as SNAs."
The law defines an SNA as area that has significant native vegetation or habitat for native wildlife. It may include native bush or native forests, wetlands, river flats, lakes and rivers, or coastal vegetation, and may have a landscape area of particular scenic interest.
Landowners who try to pre-empt the SNA designation by clearing the land now could find themselves in breach of the existing rules.
The current Westland, Grey and Buller District Plans all provide some protection for native vegetation and habitats, and across the West Coast a resource consent is needed for work within 10m of a river or wetland.
Clearance of any native vegetation larger than a certain area (0.5ha in Buller and 2000 square metres in Westland) requires a resource consent.
Landowners identified as having a potential SNA will be sent a letter and map in the coming weeks showing the proposed boundary, the council said.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.