Landscape: Debunking the ‘absolute’ protection myth

Exploring the implications relating to the identification and management of outstanding natural features and landscapes

The intent of this ‘think piece’ is to briefly explore some of the implications relating to the identification and management of Outstanding Natural Features and Landscapes, including avoiding adverse effects within the Coastal Environment, arising from two recent seminal court decisions:

  • Environmental Defence Society v King Salmon – NZSC 38 (2014)
  • Man O War Station Limited v Auckland Council – NZHC 767 (2015)

Identifying Outstanding Natural Features (‘ONFs’) and Landscapes (‘ONLs’)

What is a ‘natural’ landscape?

The term ‘natural’ in relation to landscape has been discussed in a number of Environment Court decisions and is typically attached to landscapes that retain a relatively unmodified landform, areas of vegetation (particularly native), a presence of water and an absence of obvious human influence. Consistent with this endorsement, a ‘natural’ landscape does not require a pristine indigenous environment. At base, it is the perception of ‘naturalness’ through which natural features or landscapes are identified. This can include parts of highly modified ecosystems (including farmland) where the landform remains relatively intact and the perceptions of human artefacts are limited. Both the King Salmon and Man o War decisions validate this view, noting that human engagement and intervention do not necessarily detract from or diminish the level of naturalness and, in some instances, can act to ‘enhance the natural character of an area’ and contribute to a landscape’s intrinsic value. Put simply, some working rural landscapes can still be perceived as ‘natural’.

Applying the threshold of Outstanding

The term ‘outstanding’ takes on the ordinary meaning of the word. Landscapes of this standing should therefore stand out from the rest in relation to the presence of important values, qualified as such by meeting objective criteria. Through this process, it should be readily apparent why an area or feature qualifies as outstanding. The Man o War decision clarifies that the threshold for determining whether or not an area qualifies as ‘outstanding’ has not changed as a result of the King Salmon decision. This means that areas which qualify as ONFs and / or ONLs should not be amended or redefined in response to the majority view on the meaning of protection expressed in the King Salmon decision. The protection of natural features and landscapes is a separate, but related, policy issue and should not form the basis for what qualifies as outstanding.

What is the appropriate assessment scale of reference?

The Man o War decision finds that ONFs and ONLs need not be recognised through a national (or even regional or district) comparison. Whilst the RMA requires protection of ONFs and ONLs as a matter of national importance (s.6b), not all such areas will be nationally significant. This means that for a landscape or feature to qualify as outstanding, it does not necessarily need to stand out against other national exemplars. The Man o War decision also noted that the concept of ONL applied by the Environment Court to date has been developed at regional and district scales.

Developing a standardised evaluation methodology

In applying thresholds for naturalness and outstandingness, as well as ensuring important values are recognised at an appropriate scale, it is increasingly evident that a national standard for landscape evaluation, on which to base objective value judgements, is required. This must recognise values which resonate with the community and/or Iwi in relation to the particular landscape or feature that has been assessed. Development of such a standard would also afford increased certainty for those engaged in the resource consent process.

Currently there is no single recognised methodology for evaluating landscapes, with any such assessment largely influenced by the objectives of the valuation exercise and the responses of people who may value the same landscape in different ways. Notwithstanding this, best practice recognises that the process of attaching values to a landscape should be applied through the use of a consistent and coherent methodology forming judgements upon agreed landscape evaluation criteria. This has recently been clarified and reinforced further within the Landscape Guidance Note on the Quality Planning website . Further guidance can be developed to ensure the process of identifying important landscape values can inform subsequent landscape management decisions to avoid adverse effects.

Managing Outstanding Natural Features and Landscapes

Avoiding adverse effects

In applying Policy 15 of the NZCPS, the King Salmon decision found that the imperative to ‘avoid’ adverse effects of activities assumes its ordinary meaning of ‘to not allow’ or ‘prevent occurrence of’. This finding affects how planning instruments are developed, particularly in terms of the nature of the provisions drafted to meet this imperative (e.g. active management of appropriate activities vs prohibition). However, the decision also suggests that, in avoiding adverse effects, some activities with minor or transitory effects may be acceptable and that some use and development may also enhance natural values. In seeking to avoid adverse effects, this raises an issue in relation to the appropriateness of the many and varied activities associated with rural production (or other human induced modification), and the degree to which they should be managed within any area identified as an ONF or ONL.

Landscapes, by definition, accommodate a range of dynamic natural and cultural (human induced) processes which are perceived by humans. Ensuring that adverse effects on ONFs and ONLs are avoided requires an understanding of which natural and cultural processes are valued to ensure that these values are maintained or enhanced. Consequently, the continued function of natural or cultural processes which do not detract from or diminish the presence or perception of important landscape values cannot be determined to generate adverse effects.

Put simply, avoiding adverse effects requires preventing the degradation of values which contribute to a landscape or feature being judged as both natural and outstanding, while recognising that dynamic natural and cultural processes will continue to operate. If, for example, farming activities with inconspicuous isolated buildings or structures contribute to part of the human induced processes which occur across an area of valued landscape, then the continuation of such processes may well be appropriate in that context.

Enabling appropriate development

The King Salmon decision clarifies that the protection of ONFs and ONLs from inappropriate development does not infer protection from any development. In defining what constitutes inappropriate development, the meaning of ‘inappropriateness’ needs to be assessed by reference to what it is that is sought to be protected. Conversely, in determining what constitutes appropriate development in the context of ONFs and ONLs, particular attention needs to be directed towards the important, recognised values that underpin such areas. It is these such values that should form the specific focus of protection. The basis for identifying suitable, compatible activities therefore will largely depend on the extent to which it can be demonstrated that the establishment or continued operation of particular activities within these areas will not erode such important values.

In essence, the ability to manage ONFs and ONLs so that important values and characteristics are protected and adverse effects are avoided requires clearly understanding and defining the key values which require protection. Furthermore, effective landscape management must recognise the practical reality that, in many instances, such areas form part of a dynamic environment in which cultural processes, such as farming, will continue to endure.

Download a printable version [PDF 4.1MB] >

For further information please contact Rhys Girvan

23 June 2015