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Introduction

This report to the nation describes New Zealand's natural environment, what we have done to it, and what we are doing now. It is written in the hope that, confronted by the available evidence, we can learn both from our successes and from our failures. In the short time that humans have been in New Zealand, we have dramatically changed the environment through such activities as harvesting, deforestation, wetland drainage, the introduction of pests and weeds, and the generation of pollution. The changes have generally led to economic improvement, but have been devastating for many indigenous species. In some cases, they have also had an economic backlash (e.g. through soil erosion, flooding, soil and water contamination, and air pollution).

It has to be said at the outset that much of this had to happen. Humans simply could not have survived here without making changes. Most of the indigenous plants were of limited use for food or fibre and most of the large edible animals were too slow breeding to be sustainably harvested. It is a tribute to the ingenuity and tenacity of classical Māori society that people survived here at all, and it is a tribute to the European settlers who came later that a prosperous and stable economy was built in such an apparently hostile environment. Today's New Zealand stands largely on the achievements of those vanished generations.

We may legitimately ask whether it was necessary to destroy quite so much forest, drain quite so many wetlands, introduce quite so many alien species, create quite so much pasture, and extinguish quite so many native species, but we cannot undo history. We can only learn from it and try to do better. In so doing, we must appreciate that our predecessors, both Māori and European, did not value the environment in quite the same way we do today. Like us, they valued species and environmental features that had economic, cultural or spiritual significance (i.e. resource or instrumental value), and they sometimes tried to sustain these as far as their knowledge and technology allowed, but they rarely valued nature for nature's sake. The ideas of protecting other species for their intrinsic value (i.e. their value to themselves rather than to us) or of sustaining complex ecological processes for their life-sustaining 'services' are largely twentieth century concepts that owe much to modern scientific thinking.

The Government's environmental strategy, Environment 2010 , incorporates these new ethical and ecological dimensions, as do our key environmental laws, such as the Resource Management Act 1991, the Fisheries Act 1996 and the 1993 amendment to the Forests Act. These laws are explicitly based on the ethic of sustainability which obliges us to sustain the natural environment not just for our use, but for its ecological functions, its intrinsic value and its potential value to future generations. Under this ethic, the environment is no longer the economy's servant but its host, and extinctions and environmental degradation are no longer acceptable prices to pay in the pursuit of economic growth.

Putting the sustainability ethic into practice requires good information as well as good intentions. New Zealanders are familiar with the sophisticated battery of economic indicators and progress reports that regularly chart the state of the economy. The social and environmental spheres, however, are less well served. This was highlighted recently by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in its review of New Zealand's environmental performance (OECD, 1996). The OECD review noted that, despite our innovative environmental legislation and our clean, green, marketing image, New Zealand's lack of high quality environmental data is a significant barrier to effective environmental planning and management. The review recommended that high priority be given to producing this State of the Environment Report and to developing national environmental indicators. It also recommended that consideration be given to dramatically increasing the amount of environmental monitoring, and improving its coordination.

The limitations of New Zealand's environmental data were a frequent challenge in preparing this report. Although a considerable amount of information does exist, it is often of limited value for assessing national, or even regional, trends. This is because it is often out of date, confined to one particular time period or location, or gathered using different methods in different areas. Also in some cases information is simply non-existent. Progress is now being made toward overcoming these deficiencies through the Ministry for the Environment's national environmental indicators programme (see Box 1.1).

Box 1.1: Environmental Indicators: monitoring the vital signs

New Zealand's unique environment has become a major component in marketing strategies for both our primary produce and our tourist attractions. In addition to our unusual birds, bats, frogs, and lizards, we do have clean air, fresh water, and green pastures compared to many countries. However, our environment has undergone massive changes in a very short time, and it is under constant pressure from human activities. In many cases, we do not know what changes are occurring within the atmosphere, our rivers, and our soils, why they are occurring, and the best way of stopping them. Good information is needed to make good decisions about the environment.

One form of information is the environmental indicator. An indicator is something that is measured regularly to show trends or sudden changes in the state of a system, population or individual. Simple indicators measure a single characteristic (e.g. the concentration of ozone in the atmosphere) while composite indicators combine information from several characteristics. The 'ecological footprint' is an example of a composite indicator. It combines information on land area, land use, consumption of land-based resources and population size to show how much land is needed to maintain the lifestyle of an average member of the population. The power of an indicator, whether it is simple or composite, lies in its ability to tell us whether things are getting better or worse.

Economists have used indicators to monitor the 'health' of the economy for many years. They have watched the fluctuations in economic indicators, such as food prices, house prices, the CPI (Consumer Price Index) and the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), to show the pressures on the economy, the state of the economy, and the effectiveness of any responses. Volumes of economic information are produced each month. Environmental scientists are not so well off. A number of nationally coordinated monitoring programmes do exist for such things as weather, some rivers, shallow lakes, groundwater, atmospheric ozone and greenhouse gases, marine toxic algae, and commercial fish catches. But the vast majority of environmental monitoring is not coordinated or standardised across the nation. One of the reasons for this is the decentralised nature of New Zealand's environmental management system.

The Resource Management Act 1991 requires the Minister for the Environment to monitor the effect and implementation of the Act and to monitor and investigate other matters of environmental significance as necessary. It also requires the Minister of Conservation to monitor the effect and implementation of coastal policy statements and permits. However, the main responsibility for environmental monitoring under the Act falls to local authorities. Because these are only required to monitor aspects of the environment relevant to their region, national environmental information is often difficult to asssemble.

A national Environmental Indicators and Monitoring Programme is now being developed for New Zealand by the Ministry for the Environment (1996a and 1996b). The idea is to standardise the key indicators being monitored throughout the country so that monitoring costs and expertise can be shared among local authorities, useful comparisons can be made between localities, and national trends can be identified. The programme has focused initially on indicators for land, water, and air and will then proceed to develop indicators for: waste; indigenous habitat and biodiversity; pests, weeds, and diseases; fisheries resources; energy; climate change; ozone depletion; and transport. The intention is to have the core set of indicators in place by the turn of the century allowing the environment to stand alongside economic and social considerations in the development of sound policy and equitable laws in the new millennium.