Taranaki’s 'people power' a model for restoring ecosystems

A bushman helping re-home kiwi, students using drones to monitor stream health, habitat and predators, and farmers helping plant and fence more than 13,000 kilometres of streambank to support water health ...

Highlighted as a model for the rest of New Zealand, these were among the 17 winners of Taranaki Regional Council's 20198 Environmental Awards congratulated by Council Chairman David MacLeod tonight (10 October).

“I am in awe of the fantastic work carried out by our environmental award winners. The winners are shining examples of how Taranaki individuals, industry, business, and community organisations are helping make large-scale improvements to Taranaki’s freshwater health and other ecosystems region-wide. It’s contributing to the region’s best freshwater ecological health in the past 24 years – it’s impressive,” said Mr MacLeod.

One of New Zealand’s leading experts in ecological restoration, Professor Bruce Clarkson, held up Taranaki’s “people power” as an example to the rest of the country about how to restore ecosystem health at landscape scale.

Speaking at the awards, Prof Clarkson, of Waikato University, singled out Taranaki’s community for its collaborative, voluntary work over the past 30 years to restore ecological health across the region. Professor Clarkson is an internationally renowned researcher and expert on restoring ecological health - the relationship between living organisms, including humans, and their environment.

“The evidence is gathering that Taranaki is on a trajectory, which puts it at the forefront of a more sympathetic and intergenerational approach to land and water management,” Prof Clarkson said.

“Taranaki’s people power is an example to the rest of the country. It provides a model for uniting a community together to restore ecosystem health at a region-wide scale, including freshwater health, native habitat and wildlife protection, and wetlands protection,” he said.

The Taranaki model is made up of a three-step matrix:

  1. Identify a shared community goal i.e. improving freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.
  2. Support individuals to commit to voluntary work and financial investment, enabling work to progress e.g. providing free plans, plants at cost, project management, and scientific evidence.
  3. Bring key players on board i.e. community groups, council, industry, influencers, to help meet targets.

A wide range of innovative projects were reconnecting and restoring the health of Taranaki’s unique landscapes and ecosystems, including Taranaki’s riparian planting programme, Towards Predator-Free Taranaki (the region-wide project removing possums, rats and stoats), led by Taranaki Regional Council, Wild for Taranaki (the region’s biodiversity trust), and Taranaki Mounga Project (an ecological restoration project on Mt Taranaki), Prof Clarkson said.

“The region still has more work to do, but it’s on the right track. Taranaki’s collaborative approach is a great example of how large-scale improvements can be made to freshwater health, wetlands, coastal environments, native plants and wildlife, with restorative work suited to each region’s unique environmental blue-print, “he said.

The award winners were the latest examples of innovation and collaboration among Taranaki residents that started more than 20 years ago and had gained momentum, restoring the health of the region’s unique landscapes and ecosystems, he said.

“A good number of the sites I documented at the beginning of my career (40 years ago) are now in better condition than previously and many of our native birds have been returned to areas they have been absent from for decades.

“The past 20 years have seen a significant improvement in the protection and enhancement of indigenous ecosystems in Taranaki, partly through changes in law and policy, and partly through the increasing endeavours of farmers and the community in general,” Prof Clarkson said.

However, he said Taranaki can’t stop now.

“We cannot be complacent. There’s still more work to be done. Significant challenges, including the climate change emergency and the arrival of new diseases such as myrtle rust, mean that conventional siloed approaches will be inadequate in scale and magnitude.  Only with collaborative partnerships that empower and support community-level action can these challenges be met.”

Mr MacLeod agreed, saying that Taranaki had not been standing idly waiting for Government regulations and the quest for improvements to ecosystem health continued. There was still work to do and additional measures with the community were underway, based on science and Taranaki’s unique environment. This included requiring dairy farmers to discharge effluent to land instead of treated effluent to waterways.

The region has again recorded no rivers or streams that were deteriorating in ecological health this year, 47 % were improving and 53% showed no obvious trend. The picture for organic contamination, such as nutrient concentrations, show a largely stable picture; 81% with no obvious trend, 16 % deteriorating, and 3% improving.

“The Council and others, including NIWA scientists, have found that ecological health is improving even where nitrogen levels are increasing. The relationship between nutrient levels and stream health is not as simplistic and straightforward as often suggested, but work is underway to achieve more improvements and fewer declines for organic contamination,” Mr MacLeod said.

Under Taranaki’s riparian programme, more than 5.6 million natives have been planted along streambanks on private and public land, 13,756km (87% of ringplain waters) are fenced and regionally-significant wetlands are also protected. Streamside fencing and planting protects waterways from stock, reduces effluent and nutrient run-off and shades streamwater to encourage native biodiversity.