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An interactive map for nationwide biodiversity restoration – Expert Reaction

A new interactive map from Eco-index provides information on every catchment in Aotearoa, including the type of habitat that existed there historically, and targets for restoring 15% of biodiversity in each area. 

Eco-index says the tool will help iwi, community groups, businesses, government and land managers to set restoration priorities for areas where local

The SMC asked experts to comment on the tool. 

Dr Kiri Joy Wallace, Research Fellow, Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato, and Dr John Reid (Ngāti Pikiao, Tainui), Senior Research Fellow, Ngāi Tahu Centre, University of Canterbury, comment:

Note: Kiri and John are Co-leaders of Eco-Index 

“Native biodiversity management is gaining some well-needed attention across public and private sectors in Aotearoa New Zealand. A lot of data-driven decisions must be made soon to effectively reverse the decline of our native ecosystems. These decisions will be made by people across all sectors including iwi, business, community/catchment groups, central and regional government, rural professionals, industry peak bodies and more. They’ll include prioritisations of particular nature care projects, strategy and planning, policy implementation, business commitments, funding allocations, communication approaches and much more.

“Eco-index is focussed on providing open access information to empower these decisions with the goal of making a difference for native biodiversity. In the lead-up to the Ecosystem Restoraton Map launch we’ve tested our information with a range of users and seen it applied to diverse topics.  These include small-scale native nursery stocking decisions to ensure representative restoration of local native ecosystems, how primary sectors could approach biodiversity assurance reporting, how to engage with international impact investors, and finally, how Eco-index data complements other knowledge to support hapū-led restoration actions.

“Many hapū and iwi are heavily engaged in ecosystem restoration work across the country, often leading initiatives in partnership with Māori landowners, community groups, and councils. The restoration of the ecosystems is often key to regenerating the mauri of landscapes, creating habitat for taonga species, and creating conditions for the maintanence and enhancement of mahinga kai. Furthermore, most iwi and hapū are engaged in developing environment plans to guide local resource management decision-making in partnership with regional and district councils. Through Māori consultation and partnership, the Eco-index has been designed to support and guide hapū and iwi ecosystem restoration planning and activities, by providing clear insights into the historic extent of various ecosystems and the extent of restoration needed to maintain and preserve ecosystems, habitats and taonga species.”

Conflict of interest: Both Kiri and John receive funding from the New Zealand Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. Fonterra and Environment Canterbury have also provided funding for some aspects of Eco-index work.

Dr. Bruce Burns, Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland – Waipapa Taumata Rau, comments: 

“As well as the current climate crisis, we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. If we keep on losing biodiversity at current rates then the ability of ecosystems to meet multiple human needs will decline, with serious consequences. Modelling suggests that biodiversity crisis impacts could be even more severe for human society than climate change, so needs to be taken seriously. Yet in terms of political and social focus and debate, the biodiversity crisis is a distant second, if that.

“Because of this, I’m excited for the launch of the Eco-Index Ecosystem Restoration map as a tool for those seeking to make strategically significant investment decisions on biodiversity redress. The tool identifies those areas and ecosystems that are locally impoverished, and therefore offer the best bang for the buck in terms of actions, e.g. ecosystem protection or restoration, to reverse biodiversity loss.

“The basis for this new map is the framework developed by the Eco-index project to coordinate biodiversity actions across New Zealand with a simple target, a minimum of 15% of natural ecosystem cover within every catchment, and timeframe, by 2121. One fundamental principle this recognizes is that, unlike carbon, biodiversity has distinctive characteristics in each place. We can’t easily offset biodiversity impacts in one place by increasing it at distant locations; we need local biodiversity action spread across New Zealand. The target of a minimum of 15% cover provides a pragmatic goal for restoration but is conservative compared to some estimates of what is necessary for ecosystem resilience.

“The map being launched targets priorities for improving the spread of ecosystems being restored, i.e. representativeness. There are, of course, other valid reasons for restoring natural ecosystems, e.g., improving connections across landscapes, habitat for focal species, keeping streams clean, or sucking up carbon. Perhaps later iterations of this map will include algorithms to factor in these other issues. Nevertheless, this map is a fantastic step forward in the drive to steer real action on the ground to reverse biodiversity loss.”

Conflict of interest: “I’m not associated with the Eco-index project within the Biological Heritage Science Challenge. However, some of my research on impacts of kauri dieback is funded through Nga Rakau Taketake which is administered by the Biological Heritage Science Challenge. Otherwise no conflict of interest.”

Dr Julie Deslippe, Rutherford Discovery Fellow & Senior Lecturer in Plant Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Thriving native biodiversity is a goal shared by many people across Aotearoa. But where and how to conserve and restore our taonga is a complex issue.  Because species have different requirements an ecosystem-based approach is favoured. Unfortunately, detailed knowledge of what ecosystem types existed locally before humans modified landscapes is often unknown or poorly accessible. Likewise, because remaining native habitats may be small and fragmented, it can be difficult to assess how much of each habitat type remains and how much more land is needed to bring native species back in healthy numbers. While percentage-based targets for conservation and restoration provide broad guidelines for land managers, the success of their implementation varies with spatial scale and local context.

“For all of these reasons, the newly released Eco-Index map is a welcome tool for land managers seeking to enhance native biodiversity. Combing historic and current land cover, the tool maps where and how much conservation or restoration is needed to achieve 15% native ecosystem representation. Importantly, the Eco-Index operates at the catchment scale, which is relevant for many ecological processes and useful to local and regional authorities.

“While a key strength of the tool is its ease of use, this comes at the cost of flexibility. A fixation on the vision of “15% by 2121” means that the tool is unable to estimate other percent-based targets, despite that it claims to be based on generalised species–area relationships that indicate accelerated species losses when habitat area falls below 20% of historic extent. While percent-area targets offer appealing simplicity, important questions remain about their effectiveness and many agencies promote more ambitious targets on shorter timescales. For example, the IUCN’s Global Biodiversity Framework recommends that 30% of global land be protected by 2030. Increasing the conservation and restoration of Aotearoa’s native ecosystems to 15% is a positive step where current land management falls short. Nevertheless, there is a risk in setting mediocre conservation goals for endemic species in a global biodiversity crisis, especially as rapid climate change applies novel pressures. One hopes that a subsequent version of the tool will allow users to visualise a range of percent-area targets in support of the accelerated rewilding of our landscapes.”

Conflict of interest: None declared

Dr Duane Peltzer, Principal Scientist, Ecosystem Ecology, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, and Chief Scientist, New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, comments: 

“Globally major concerns and efforts are underway to stop or reverse widespread declines in biodiversity and the accelerating impacts of biological invaders. However, both biodiversity and biosecurity respond to changes in land cover or management, translating these global issues into local scales.

“The interactive map developed by the eco-index team provides a new digital tool for visualising landscape-scale processes, focussed on the distribution of native ecosystems and their restoration priority status. The interactive map was developed in close collaboration with a range of partners and potential users, and released intentionally as a free, open access resource for broad use.

“The ambitious goal of the eco-index team is to help achieve a minimum of 15% indigenous ecosystem cover across regions, but this will require both long-term planning and actions to achieve. This interactive map helps to guide these ambitious efforts, and ultimately better understand the landscape-scale challenge of ecosystem restoration in Aotearoa”

Conflict of interest: “I am Chief Scientist of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge that funds the Eco-Index research.”