One per cent please

The Government announcement of a predator-free goal for New Zealand by 2050 sounds good. But, so far, the budget for this is woefully inadequate, and comes on top of years of cost cutting - some say the deliberate, reckless, weakening - of the Department of Conservation.

Given the importance of conservation land to New Zealand's reputation, and our collective future, we should invest more in conservation.

So how much does it take to run our country? Take a look at a website page from the Treasury titled 'Total Crown Expenses by functional classification', and you'll see government spent $95.9 billion in the financial year ending June 2016.

The big ticket items were $28.9 billion on social security and welfare. Fair enough – we have to pay pensions, and look after the vulnerable. Next was $15.2 billion on health. Also OK – you gotta take care of the crook fellas. Closely followed by $13.8 billion on education. Again fair enough – we must educate our kids, and pay the teachers. So far, so logical.

But scroll down towards the bottom of the list, and you find the $616 million spent on environmental protection. Do some more digging, and you'll find the budget for the Department of Conservation accounted for $430 million of that environmental protection spend.

That's about 0.44 % of total government spending.

In fact, spending on core conservation work is even less than this. For example, in DOC’s 2016/17 budget just $160.6 million was allocated for natural heritage – money spent looking after species and ecosystems. And $143.3 million was put aside for recreation, such as maintaining huts and tracks.

Now consider the 100% PURE campaign. It's selling New Zealand's unique proposition to the world of international tourism. You don't see pictures of hospitals, schools, suburbs, or open cast mines in the billboards. You see stunning images of our natural world – almost all taken within the conservation estate.

New Zealand has a very high level of land that is held as conservation estate – around 30 percent of our total land area. Or put another way, about 8.5 million hectares of native forests and islands and beaches and rivers and lakes and alpine land. And 1.77 million hectares of marine reserves. Stunning stuff. Plenty of scope for those 100% PURE photographers. And plenty of space to tuck away a tourist or two.

There's money in them green-blue spaces too. International tourism earned $11.8 billion in the year ending March 2015 – or 17.4% of our foreign exchange earnings. In total, the tourism expenditure, including domestic visitors in that year, was $29.8 billion (a 10% increase from the previous year). An overwhelming majority of those visitors were enticed by the splendours of our natural environment. Just like they saw in the 100% PURE posters and billboards. They came to experience that for real. Good on them.

So why then do we spend so little on caring for one of our greatest assets?

How about a new campaign to sit beside 100% PURE? We could call it the 1% PLEASE initiative. That's not asking for much – just one percent of our government’s annual spend to look after the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and those who look after them in turn.

But no. In the past few years, we have seen budget cuts for the Department of Conservation, and more than 150 jobs lost. Good people, doing good work. Now less of them must do it all with less resources. Why can't we set aside just one percent for this important entity?

No-one who sets budget figures could refuse that, surely? It all makes good sense. It's the ultimate in business and brand sustainability. It would also help future generations of our own citizens.

Just 1% PLEASE. Ironic, isn't it, to think this level of investment would be more than double what is currently being done. Puts things a bit into perspective.

This first appeared in Forest & Bird magazine.