by Lowry Yankwich ’21

Lowry Yankich '21 and supervisor Brooke Cox

While Boston was cloaked in winter, I spent January in Hamilton, New Zealand, working at the Department of Conservation (“DOC”). Coming from California, Hamilton felt like Sacramento – a major city within an agriculture belt, a business center where the business is land. To its north lies Auckland, New Zealand’s megacity, population 1.7 million.  An hour west, over rolling coastal mountains, sits Raglan, a funky surf town with the longest left-breaking wave in the world. An hour east and you approach the Coromandel, a remote peninsula with white sand beaches, winding mountain roads, and whole forests planted for logging. To the south a few hours and you’re literally at Mordor, the volcano into which Frodo Baggins cast his precious ring.

With its natural bounty, New Zealand finds itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, traditional Māori culture, much of which permeates discussions today, places nature at the center of its world and mythology. Take Mt. Taranaki, a gorgeous volcano on the western coast of the north island. Legend has it that Taranaki once lived in the center of the island with the other volcanos. But Taranaki became embroiled in a battle with Tongariro over Pihanga, who they both loved. Tongariro won the battle, and Taranaki fled west, creating a major river where he passed, and a swamp where he paused.

The flipside of this veneration of the country’s natural beauty, however, is exploitation. Settlers in New Zealand have long profited off of New Zealand’s natural splendor, and its friendly climate. Huge forests blanket hillsides with non-native trees, all grown to be logged; they grow faster in New Zealand. Dairy farms pepper the north island. Thanks to the efforts of colonial entrepreneurs, who dreamt of making a hunter’s paradise, the country is full of invasive species: chamois and Himalayan tahr; Canadian geese and mallards; catfish and trout; hares, hedgehogs, rabbits, and deer. Some of the prettiest plants are also invasive. Native species have suffered. In particular, endemic flightless birds are like free dinner for non-native predators like possums and stoats. Nearly 80% of native bird species are currently at risk of extinction.

As the agency responsible for managing one third of all land in New Zealand – millions of acres of native forests, alpine areas, wetlands, dunes, coastal ecosystems and estuaries – DOC is at the center of the national debate over what to do with New Zealand’s natural endowment. It is DOC that embarks on eradication campaigns to clear out invasive species, and DOC who negotiates the fragile balance between encouraging tourism and protecting the “unspoiled” nature that draws tourists in the first place.

I worked on the policy side of DOC’s “permissions” team, which is responsible for granting temporary permits for private uses of public lands. While the easiest thing to do to protect conservation lands would be to close them to the public, DOC can’t do that as a matter of law. Instead, it regularly permits helicopter and bus tours, foot races and fishing competitions, film crews and sheep ranchers. DOC “decision-makers,” who sit in regional offices across the country, review applicants’ proposed uses of conservation lands, and consider the effects that such uses could have on the land. A decision-maker can decline an application that is inconsistent with conservation, or set conditions on the use of the land to mitigate adverse effects.

This is where climate change comes in, and where the bulk of my work took place. I studied how the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change could factor into the permitting process, and by what precedential or statutory authority. Last year, New Zealand became one of the first countries to pass a national bill setting stringent carbon dioxide and methane emissions targets. By 2050, the country plans to have “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering as much as it emits. The bill is not a total win for environmentalists – New Zealand being a major agricultural economy, there is a carve-out for methane emissions from livestock – but is a major step forward. Interestingly, the bill did not articulate how the country would reach its targets. And, in addressing government departments, the bill said that guidance would come later.

DOC doesn’t want to wait for guidance; it wants to begin addressing climate change now. So what tools, and what authority does it have? My research, derived from statutes and case law governing DOC’s permitting process, supports two contentions. The first contention is that the “effects” a decision-maker can consider in reviewing a permit application are broad, and could conceivably include the effects of emissions, however small, on global climate change. The second is that DOC decision-makers have substantial discretion to impose conditions on permittees, including emissions reporting requirements and reasonable emissions reduction targets.

I found strong statutory support for reading “effects” and the discretion of DOC decision-makers expansively. This could be good news for those wanting to adopt a ground-up strategy for addressing the impacts of climate change; however, it also raises questions about the competence of regional decision-makers to implement national policy. I also tried to argue that, in any case, DOC should act sooner rather than later – that the new emissions targets will ultimately result in liability for government departments that do not consider them. Of course, saying these things is easier than implementing them, but I hope that my work offers my team solid footing from which to begin refining DOC’s permitting process.

New Zealand seems to have all the right ingredients: a parliament attuned to climate change, a culture that venerates the land, a reputation for its wilderness and thus an incentive to preserve it. Yet even in New Zealand, addressing climate change is a daunting challenge. As a nation of five million, how much can it really do to combat climate change? One option, fatalistically, is to do nothing. The other is to do all you can do, leading by example, hoping that even if your action doesn’t make a dent, those it inspires do.