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16 February 2010

Taupo - the first one plan


A controversial scheme to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering Lake Taupo is seen as a precedent for other regions where land use practices are environmentally unsustainable. The PR lessons are spelled out in Protecting Lake Taupo - the Strategy and the Lessons - a report by Sue Yerex, a Lincoln University Kellogg scholar.


Lake Taupo is one of the country's greatest tourist and recreational assets. To keep it that way, a scheme has been put in place by Environment Waikato (EW) to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the lake by 20 per cent by 2020.

Getting agreement from the government and major stakeholders was far from easy. Even now, three years after it became law, the scheme is highly controversial.

Farmers in the catchment now need a resource consent to farm, a total heresy to Federated Farmers. In fact it's not all that bad for individual farmers, most whom appear to have had their nitrogen emissions ‘grandfathered' at close to business-as-usual levels. The big losers are owners of undeveloped and forested land who are pretty much locked into their existing low-emission land uses forever, a situation they see as extremely unfair.

Because the Taupo scheme is the first of its type in New Zealand it is seen widely as a precedent for other regions where land use practices are environmentally unsustainable. The lessons, positive and negative, are spelled out in Protecting Lake Taupo - the Strategy and the Lessons - a report produced in July 2009 by Sue Yerex, a Lincoln University Kellogg scholar.

Although it's a gold-mine of information, the report has not been widely circulated.  After sitting in our in-tray for six months, it is now well-thumbed. Here are some PR lessons WHAM takes from it.



For regional councils:

  • Consultation means consulting, not dictating. Trying to impose a scheme that has a significant economic impact on land owners without consulting with them is asking for trouble. No red-blooded Kiwi likes being told what to do by ‘some suit'.

  • Drip-feed your science through land user networks as it comes available. Discuss options before firming up on policy. Share the issue with stakeholders. Give them a stake in the solutions.
Taupo farmers had no inkling that their activities might be affecting the lake until EW told them at a public meeting that they were ‘responsible for polluting the lake'. This bombshell affected the self-image of those involved and was responsible for much of the media flak that followed.
  • Involve communications strategists in your policy development from the word go. Leaving communications managers to fire the bullets crafted by technocrats is certain to attract a barrage in return.

  • Focus your communications on the need to protect an environmental attribute that is valued by everyone in the community.

  • Science is essential. But policies must also be seen as fair by the public at large. A good plan is one where the public believes everyone is pulling their weight.

  • Be prepared for the debate to go in a few circles before everything is finalised. Allow time for those most affected to come round, to go through the cycle of disbelief, anger and denial before they finally reach acceptance.

For land owners:

  • Organise. Get all those affected together in a cohesive group. Debate, reach a consensus, then keep everyone involved and informed. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Fund your own research so you know as much, if not more, than the council about the environmental impact of your operations. The research findings give you credibility and leverage in the public domain.
  • Don't slam the door on the council. The direct head-on-head battles favoured by Federated Farmers usually don't work. The council has the power to legislate and will do so without your input if that's what you really want.

  • Insist on your right to be consulted, while bearing in mind that your objective is to get a least-cost workable compromise.

  • Don't overplay your hand. When push comes to shove, there are only 200 farmers in the Taupo catchment with holdings of 20 hectares or more, and surveys show that the other 22,000 locals strongly favour a clean lake over farm development.

  • Don't talk just to the officials. Make sure the councillors and the minister know your leaders personally and are kept up to date with your position. 
With the Taupo scheme, neither Environment Waikato nor Ministry for the Environment officials bothered to pass on the forest industry's concerns - which meant the minister felt she had been gazumped when, just after the ink had dried on the relevant cabinet papers, forest owners told her about their concerns in a public forum.
  • Involve tangata whenua. They have political clout and very importantly, have a vested interest in the environmental and economic sustainability of their land and water resources.

  • Decide early on whether your group has the resources to take the council to the Environmental Court if an acceptable compromise can't be negotiated. The Court is expensive, but can be preferable to endless talkfests that go nowhere, delay decisions and sap morale.

  • Don't expect the government to compensate you for lost opportunities. It may be unjust and offend the polluter-pays principle, but the political reality is that if a line is drawn in the sand, it will probably be at the current watermark.

  • Keep a close watch on emerging issues. Have them put them on the agenda at the next discussion group or monitor farm field day, so you are not caught unawares by new regulatory or market requirements. 

For NGOs:

  • Avoid the blame game. You may know all the issues inside out, but many of the main economic players probably don't. Labelling them as polluters or worse will only make them more defensive and more motivated to fight the measures you want to see put in place.

Please note that these lessons are based on WHAM's interpretation of the report. The author may not agree with all of them.

In addition, the report has many comments on RMA policy and the mechanisms used to reduce the nitrogen emissions in the catchment. These are beyond the scope of this article.

For a hard copy of the full report, send a cheque for $15 to Sue Yerex, RD 1, Turangi 3381. For a PDF of the main body of the report, please email afussell@wham.co.nz



- Trevor Walton

What do you think?

Mark Trafford
Trev, I think you have spelt out the facts in a very clear manner. Only wish more of this type of message was out in the public arena!

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