Who failed the snails?

Written by      

Tim Bailey

When New Zealand broke away from the massive continent of Gondwana 84 million years ago, many of our most iconic and unusual species were already on the ship. Kiwi, tuatara, Hamilton’s frog, and the giant Powelliphanta land snails are all ancient species that evolved into essentially their present day forms before our ancestors were even swinging in the trees.

Today, many of these ancient survivors and more recent descendents are under threat; scientists across the globe have highlighted species extinction and climate change as the two most pressing issues of the 21st century. One hundred and sixty-eight nations, including ours, consider biodiversity so important that their presidents, prime ministers, and leaders signed the International Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty aimed at stemming the tide of species extinc­tion by protecting plants and animals within their natural habitats.

So the New Zealand Government is doing its best to stop species extinction, right? Wrong.

In clean, green, 100% pure New Zealand, in April 2006, the Minister of Conservation gave a coal com­pany permission to drive to extinction Powelliphanta “Augustus”, New Zealand’s most recently identified species of carnivorous land snail, clinging tenuously to a high-altitude existence on a single mountain just north of Westport. Over the next few months, the ac­tions of a company owned by New Zealand citizens, state-owned Solid Energy, may doom this species to death. In this battle between big business and biodi­versity, big business won. And the Labour Govern­ment wrote the death warrant.

The reasoning behind this decision was simple enough: money. In a world with an unsustainable hunger for coal, New Zealand is racing to feed the beast, costing us our ancient species and our future climate along the way. We believe this price is too high.

In this article, we’ll tell you why the Save Happy Valley Coalition doesn’t accept the Government’s decision on the Mt Augustus snail, nor the courts’ decisions on the proposed mine in nearby Happy Valley. We hope to show you that the reason we’re continuing to spend our time and energy fighting this battle for New Zealand’s biodiversity is because the organisations charged with this task are failing on an unprecedented scale. We hope you’ll visit our occupation of Happy Valley—now in its 12th week. Most of all, we hope you’ll lend us your support The Mt Augustus ridgeline, rising steeply 1000 metres above the sea on the western edge of the enor­mous Stockton opencast mine, is a spectacularly beautiful landscape. Capped with snow in winter, it is a prominent feature of the Buller skyline with cultural significance for local iwi.

Although Powelliphanta “Augus­tus” was first found in 1996, it was not examined until 2003, and by this time the original discovery site had been mined. In early 2005, another substantial area of habitat was ‘ac­cidentally’ destroyed by mining activity. In their tiny remaining 5 ha of habitat, it is estimated that there are 500 snails left.

Last April, Solid Energy an­nounced plans to mine 94 per cent of the remaining habitat and applied to the Department of Conserva­tion (DOC) for a permit to move away 100 snails by hand. But in its application the company made it clear that it believed it could legally bulldoze the entire population to oblivion, no matter what DOC said. The coalmining licence for Stockton, the argument goes, allows any land use—be that building without a building consent or killing protected species. The Crown Law office, when consulted by DOC, agreed.

It took a Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society application to the High Court to determine that both the Crown and Solid Energy were wrong: the Wildlife Act protects protected species—no matter where they live. This doesn’t mean the company can’t kill protected spe­cies, just that it needs Government permission to do so.

In the meantime, DOC rushed through another permit the company needed to blast the ridgeline—a concession to drop up to 270 tonnes, or many large truckloads, of rock at a time onto conservation land below the ridgeline. Did DOC take into account that the rockfall area is habitat for Great Spotted Kiwi and the only part of Powelliphanta “Augustus” habitat that would not be mined? Did DOC publicly notify a concession with such potentially high impacts? No.

Solid Energy is appealing the High Court decision, but the company needn’t have worried. On April 12, Conservation Minister Chris Carter’s office announced that Solid Energy could move up to 250 in­dividual snails, take some into captivity, use heavy machinery to transfer habitat and then, without waiting to see if the new colony survived, mine the snails’ remaining habitat and in so doing kill the rest. The Minster’s office stressed that it had been a difficult decision. It must have been.

The science was, and is, very clear: the only way to guarantee that the snails do not become extinct is to leave them where they are. Moving 250 snails is all very well, if you even can find that many of these nocturnal and elusive creatures. But where do you put them? The main transfer site,according to DOC, only has enough habitat to hold at most 85 snails; hardly a sustainable population. What’s more, the area is probably unsuitable habitat—it has different altitude, aspect, climate, soils and vegetation, and is close enough that the snails could have migrated there by themselves. In captivity, fungal infections make Powelliphanta snails almost impossible to breed. Direct transfer of habitat is likely to kill many snails, and leave questionable habitat in the end.

The evidence that this popula­tion of snails has not expanded its territory, and that its habitat is so restricted, both suggest the neces­sity to protect the original habitat. If Solid Energy were allowed to attempt to re-establish a population in a different location, how is it pro­posed that the success of the move be measured? How likely is it for a top order carnivore to successfully survive immediately on re-release to a new habitat into which it has not spread to date? These scientific questions need to be answered before the destruction of the original habitat.

The economics of the situation, on the other hand, are about as clear as coal. In November, the National Business Review reported that $50 million worth of coal lies under the snails. By April, this had spiralled to $400-$700 million. Has the price of coal increased by 1300 percent? Or was Solid Energy just talking it up because they have already sold the coal from under the snails and needed to pressure the government to avoid losing contracts?

Whether you place more value on $50 million dollars worth of coal or an ancient species, or not, consider this: nobody asked for your opinion. Or ours. There has been no avenue for public involvement in this proc­ess, no consultation under the Re­source Management Act; it has even been difficult to get basic informa­tion about where the snails live.

With state-owned enterprises minister Trevor Mallard and West Coast MP Damien O’Connor bang­ing on the Cabinet table, Chris Carter chose to make the most unpalatable decision that a Conservation minister can make—to allow political pres­sure from a state-owned company to consign a species to extinction.

Waimangaroa Valley near Westport, is a stunning, wild and untouched landscape. It is home to thirty great spotted kiwi/roa and another rare endemic snail, Powel­liphanta patrickensis. Eleven other endangered birds and animals in­habit this enclave of diversity.

According to the 1998 Ngakau­wau Ecological Report, the area has “the greatest ecological diversity in the least modified condition [in the Ngakawau Ecological District], particularly of the endemic coal measure communities. It is an outstanding, and fragile, natural area (and landscape) and its values should be recognised in all future management.”

This DOC report was a broad sweep of the area aimed at iden­tifying Recommended Areas for Protection (RAP). The authors had explicitly tried to exclude areas with coal resources from the RAP, but felt that some areas—such as Happy Valley—were simply too ecologically important.

But after Solid Energy lawyers met with DOC staff, the recom­mendation of protection for the upper Waimangaroa was suddenly removed.

The regional DOC conserva­tor later claimed that this did not mean the area wasn’t ecologically important, just that it would now be left to the Resource Management Act to decide on its land use. But the RAP would not have meant the area necessarily became formally protected. And how could any court consider the area’s importance when even DOC failed to recommend its protection?

Five years later, Solid Energy ap­plied for resource consent to open the Cypress Mine, a 105 ha open­cast pit that includes the Happy Val­ley wetland and much of the upper Waimangaroa. By the end of 2005, this application had been through the Environment and High Courts, and Solid Energy still won. Surely this meant that environmental justice had been done?

But would the outcome have been different if the area hadn’t been removed from the RAP? Or perhaps the mine would have been stopped if the courts had considered the 12 million tonnes of climate-changing carbon dioxide the coal would pro­duce? Or if the court had heard from the Landcare Research scientist who was told not to testify by his em­ployers because the institution had research contracts with Solid Energy it didn’t want to lose.

Or perhaps biodiversity would have won the day if the courts could have considered the potential effects of the other 3–6 opencast mines Solid Energy has planned in the area. The Cypress Mine will destroy the habitat of 10 per cent of the Powel­liphanta patrickensis population, but mines planned for the next 50 years will destroy 70 per cent or more. For the beautiful russet brown snails, living essentially unchanged for mil­lions of years, 50 years is too short a time to adapt or be destroyed.

Surely, you say, the Resource Management Act required that Solid Energy mitigate this destruction? Certainly. For one, the company is building a predator-proof area of 17 ha. Never mind that the proposed predator-proof area already has very few pests and a healthy population of snails that are already likely to be at carrying-capacity for the area. No amount of greenwashing can make up for habitat destruction, and in this natural haven with few predators, it is habitat that these creatures need.

One of the outcomes of the court process was a provision that Solid Energy transfer 12 ha of the national­ly-significant Happy Valley wetland, with plans subject to approval by a team of experts.

However, the team of experts is appointed by Solid Energy and the local council. The team isn’t required to include any wetland ecologists, which is just as well for Solid Energy, since the wetland ecologists we’ve asked about successfully transferring many football fields of wetland, and storing some under a sprinkler for several years, just laughed. Wetlands are com­plicated hydrological systems, and attacking them with heavy machin­ery will break up the peat under­neath, causing a massive release of nutrients and irreversibly altering the entire system. According to Alan Mark, renowned wetland ecologist, the international scientific literature revealed just one previous attempt at such a wetland transfer—which failed.

In 10 years, when Solid Energy have finished with their 96 m deep pit, what will remain of the precari­ously balanced ecological commu­nity of Happy Valley, of this natural haven for kiwi and snails? A bull­dozed landscape, a dead wetland, encroaching gorse. The mining will move on, but the loss of biodiversity will be forever.

Earlier this year, Solid Energy published an environmental report that put the company within 2 per cent of having a “net positive effect” on the environment. A more hon­est assessment may come from the substantial scoping report on Solid Energy due out from the Parliamen­tary Commissioner for the Environ­ment (PCE) this June.

Environmental management in New Zealand is largely in the hands of local government, and on the West Coast the councils are not do­ing their job. The councils that fail to get Solid Energy to clean up existing pollution are the same councils that are subject to another investigation by the PCE, councils that back the illegal draining of wetlands, councils that—illegally and without consulta­tion—removed all of the wetland protection provisions from the regional plan.

Under their management, Solid Energy’s water-right apparently al­lows it to discharge so much acid mine drainage and coal fines that the lower Ngakawau River is devoid of all life. Some whitebait venture upstream in the spring, but when they hit the acidic, coal laden-waters of the Ngakawau they turn tail and head back out to sea. Don Elder, CEO of Solid Energy, joked that lo­cals could fill their coal buckets from the river. Nobody laughed.

So with a state-owned enterprise out-of-control, local and national government failing to protect our biodiversity, what is left? What can the Save Happy Valley Coalition, volunteers juggling work, study and snails, do now? We have no con­sultants, no public relations depart­ment, no private investigators, no millions of dollars to spend.

We have no choice—like those thoughout the ages who have used non-violent direct action to chal­lenge wrongs–we must take our banners to the streets, we must try to stop the bulldozers with our bare hands.Watch this space. This is David and Goliath, without the slingshot.