17 Sep 2020

'Languishing' Jobs for Nature fund process leaves tourism operator fearful

7:24 pm on 17 September 2020

A South Island tourism operator says he could have prevented redundancies if wasn't for delays to a nature-based job creation scheme.

Mouintains in Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki National Park, New Zealand, South Island.

Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki National Park. Photo: 123RF

More than $1 billion was earmarked for the Jobs for Nature programme in May as part of the government's cross-agency Covid-19 recovery package to run over four years.

Today, Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage announced an extra $19.7 million for kiwi conservation aimed at reversing the decline of the species.

While the funding has been welcomed, some applicants have been waiting months in limbo unsure if they will get a green light.

Part of the recovery package included $200m for the Department of Conservation (DOC), specifically to help struggling businesses to maintain their workforce through nature-based work, giving them a breather to recover.

For Canterbury-based Hiking New Zealand co-director Daniel Murphy, the Jobs for Nature programme promised a lifeline after visitors dried up and the prospect of hibernation became a looming reality.

"We've had to hibernate our business, make our staff redundant and this could help us get through these next year, two years or however long it takes by keeping our business just ticking over and keeping our core staff together," Murphy said.

His local DOC manager recommended he put a business proposal together which he sent in May.

His proposal was simple - his crew of 20 with their extensive backcountry experience and practical outdoors abilities could start immediately on any conservation work needed in Canterbury, and they could source more unemployed tourism workers if needed. Relocating was not off the table either, he said.

Murphy followed up with letters to the minister.

While she has been supportive, he said he had been told to wait for alliances to be built between DOC, iwi, councils and businesses - those regional alliances then distribute funding.

"Our biggest fear that this is just slowing things down when we've got people that are out of work, desperately need to be employed. It's just languishing, and I think there needs to be some accountability.

"This promise has been made by the government - $1.3 billion - that's a lot of money which should have created a lot more jobs than it has we feel."

He was also worried business owners might find work from their staff in Jobs for Nature projects but not themselves.

However, Murphy said allowing capable businesses to manage staff and the project would solve that issue.

Former Hiking New Zealand worker Magan McKenna said the programme gave her hope when redundancies were first mooted.

"It was quite a stressful time knowing that we all loved working where we did, and we didn't want that to have to happen," McKenna said.

"But you know that silver lining of hearing about Jobs for Nature, that was quite exciting. We thought 'well that definitely aligns with what we do as well on our tours'."

But with no word about the programme and support from the wage subsidy all dried up, she was made redundant last month.

Now she spends most nights working on her CV, trying to find work.

"You can spend a few hours applying and doing an application process and then you might not even be seen because of the amount of people applying," she said.

"Jobs for Nature was quite exciting just because it meant that we could be outdoors and stay as a team and do something meaningful. But I guess we still just [live] in hope of that happening at some point."

So far, $168.25m from DOC's Jobs for Nature funding pool has been approved for different projects with an estimated 4152 jobs.

But Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage acknowledged there have been delays, saying it had taken time to set up the regional alliances, with two nearly ready and the rest in a varying state of readiness depending on the region.

Minister of Conservation visiting workers removing wilding pines in Craigie Burn

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

"As we've seen with the cutting off of the wage subsidy, that is a real issue for businesses that have benefited from the subsidy so I'm being assured by the department that everyone is working as fast as possible, and I know the department is in touch with a lot of the regional contacts to make sure those alliances are being established as quickly as possible," Sage said.

With regional alliances in place, she said the application turnaround would be a matter of weeks not months.

As for Hiking New Zealand, Sage said she understood their concerns about the delays.

"But we've got to ensure that the projects are well managed and deliver good outcomes so that's why it has taken a little longer than would be desirable for some applications to be considered and approved or declined. But that process is still being worked through and there's a lot of people working at speed."

In Otago, Glen Riley from Habitat Restorations Aotearoa was hopeful to have boots on the ground to plant natives in the next two weeks.

He was first approached about Jobs for Nature back in May, but said it was worth the wait to guarantee jobs.

"If everything was that easy, there would be a lot of room for unaccountable sort of action so the fact that it [has] taken longer, I don't see as an issue really ... it's to be expected for such large scale funding and work."

Riley was inundated with applications when he advertised four new roles over 10 weeks for the Jobs for Nature funded project.

He was hopeful he might be able to offer more jobs in the future.

"We've got a massive opportunity not to fix a couple of things at once, and I think it's the best opportunity we've ever had to really value our environmental work and create an entire industry out of it," Riley said.

Murphy said it was not the programme, but the process he was worried about.

"It's an awesome opportunity. It's a great initiative, but if it flounders, it's going to be terrible 'cause not only are we creating jobs, but the outcome of getting all these people out there doing this work. It's just going to be so beneficial for the environment and New Zealanders and our visitors when they can come back here."

He remained hopeful that his Jobs for Nature dreams could still become a reality.

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