Significant Natural Areas (SNAs): What you need to know

8:40 pm on 10 June 2021

Explainer - SNAs have been in the news a lot - mainly because people have been loudly voicing concerns about them.

Take the hīkoi in Northland in protest of them, or West Coasters calling for a halt on identifying SNAs.

But just what is a SNA? And why are people upset about them? RNZ is here to clear it all up.

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Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

What is an SNA?

SNA stands for Significant Natural Area and they are pretty important whichever way you look at them.

Forest and Bird says they are "New Zealand's most important remnants of native habitat - places where rare or threatened plants or animals are still found".

The Resource Management Act (RMA) 1991 Section 6 requires that they are protected.

It refers to "the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna" - or SNAs.

Why are they important?

Environmental Defence Society chairman and executive director Gary Taylor says we need the big picture context about why SNAs are important.

"Native forests and wetlands took 80 million years to evolve and in 800 years in two waves of human impact, so much was lost."

He points to the number of species at risk in New Zealand - 4000 - as an example of the damage done.

However, most of the indigenous lowland forests and wetlands left are on private land.

"What you would hope for is most New Zealanders would be united in wanting to protect what is left of indigenous forests and wetlands," Taylor says.

Forest and Bird group manager of conservation advocacy and communications Jen Miller agrees: "Most people understand they've got something really special and treasure it".

Not everyone sees it that way however.

Who decides what's significant

A 2016 study notes "the term 'significant' is not defined by the RMA, and this ambiguity has resulted in confusion among resource managers and users, as well as national disparity in approach to the identification of SNAs".

Taylor says "significant" has, however, been defined by case law several times.

Councils around the country are responsible for identifying SNAs in their territory. Because of that issue around "significant", each council can apply different standards when assessing SNAs.

Miller says, at the moment, not all councils are statutorily required to identify them.

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SNAs are 'New Zealand's most important remnants of native habitat - places where rare or threatened plants or animals are still found', Forest and Bird says (file image). Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The 2016 report says "the process of determining significance has commonly been fraught with tension as parties with competing interests attempt to bring about an outcome that best serves their purposes. The limitations of methods used for compiling schedules of SNAs in planning documents are many".

Taylor has said previously an SNA designation adds "specificity".

"Once you map these special areas, and an SNA comes up on an overlay on the council property map, then everyone knows. So it adds specificity and certainty."

In 2018, a draft National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity was released (NPSIB).

Forest and Bird says the NPSIB was developed following a two-year process involving Forest & Bird, Federated Farmers, the Conservation and Freshwater Iwi Leadership Group, the Forest Owners Association, the Environmental Defence Society, and a representative from the extractive/infrastructure industries.

Taylor says the policy statement is in part trying to standardise the definition of "significant".

It's yet to be finalised.

Miller says the process of mapping SNAs has been under way for years - in at least one case a decade ago.

So why the worry?

Part of the concern about SNAs is that most are on private land, and those who own that land are worried about losing it, or the land itself losing its value and adding complications for owners.

Miller points out that "no one has unfettered property rights".

Forest & Bird says it's important to note that existing practices in or near SNAs will generally be able to continue.

"Existing grazing, tourism, or honey production for example can carry on. But these activities won't be able to intensify, and new activities won't be allowed to negatively affect SNAs.

"The sorts of activities that might harm an SNA are felling trees for subdivision, or clearing bush to convert into pasture."

Miller says you might argue that it's better to have an SNA "so you know what you can and can't do".

Alongside the NPS is likely to be a range of supplementary measures to help support landowners. Miller says that's likely to include money for fencing, pest control, rates rebates and so on.

Taylor notes that those sort of activities are already restricted and require consent.

"I don't think people should be paid to protect the environment," Taylor says. "I think that's a moral requirement. But there ought to be assistance for, say, fencing remnant forest."

Forest and Bird says unless it is required under a Regional Pest Management Strategy, a council can't require land owners to do weed or pest control in an SNA, but landowners with SNAs may have greater opportunities for funding and support for weed and pest control.

In 2020, then Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage ruled out direct government compensation for landholders with large SNAs on their properties, but also said the "Native Heritage Fund exists to purchase land on a willing seller/willing buyer basis and there have been a number of instances where farmers around the country including on the West Coast, have sold land to the fund".

Miller says that fund needs more money put into it.

For those not on board with SNAs, Taylor hopes having the situation properly explained by councils will make a difference.

"That's where the game needs to lift."

"I think the risk of running ahead [with SNA mapping] is you will just p*** people off... The way in which councils engage is an issue here."

Some had done well to explain the issue, others not so much, he says.

What SNAs mean for Māori land

A hīkoi of over 1000 iwi and hapū members including the 84-year-old daughter of Dame Whina Cooper who oppose the proposed restrictions on their whenua has targeted the imposition of SNA restrictions on about 42 percent of the land in the Far North.

Up to 100 percent of some properties were set to be classified as SNAs until ministers called a halt to the process.

Those marching said it amounted to a land grab, and given the long history of appropriations of Māori land by the Crown they have good reason to be cautious.

Te Poari o Ngāti Wai chief executive Hūhana Lyndon said it undermined their tino rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga rights.

Forest and Bird argues the NPSIB will ensure that all local councils appropriately recognise the particular relationship and knowledge that tangata whenua and Māori land owners have of their whenua and taonga.

Miller says the NPSIB attempts to give exemptions for collectively-owned Māori land - not individual titles - around what could occur on an area identified as significant.

"Some cultural uses, papakāinga, housing development, that kind of thing."

Forest and Bird says: "Among other important provisions, the NPSIB specifies that 'local authorities must, with the consent of tangata whenua and as far as practicable in accordance with tikanga Māori, take all reasonable steps to incorporate mātauranga Māori relating to indigenous biodiversity in implementing this National Policy Statement'. It also says 'Local authorities must take all reasonable steps to provide opportunities for tangata whenua to exercise kaitiakitanga over indigenous biodiversity'."

There are also special provisions in the NPSIB for Māori land, Forest and Bird says, including that it "provides exemptions for new activities on Māori land, while still allowing for the need to protect indigenous biodiversity".

However, there are certainly restrictions for Māori land.

"New activities within an SNA on Māori land can proceed according to the 'effects management hierarchy'. This means that if the effects cannot be avoided, they must be remedied. If they can't be remedied they must be mitigated. If they can't be mitigated, they must be offset. If none of these are possible, the activity may not be allowed...

"This provision will mean that new activities in an SNA on Māori land would need to be consented, whereas previously they might have been permitted activities."

No done deal

For now, Taylor says there's a misunderstanding that the SNA situation is a done deal. As already mentioned, the NPS is yet to be finalised.

"The NPS ought to make things simpler, cleaner and more welcoming for landowners if the complementary measures are substantive," Taylor says.

Taylor says those raising concerns about SNAs are reacting prematurely, and advises waiting for the NPSIB process to be completed.

"My advice would be to wait and see what emerges. We need to see what this policy is going to look like", Taylor says.

An "exposure draft" for the NPSIB, followed by more submissions, is expected in the latter half of 2021.

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