The idea of user-pays conservation is untenable to many people. However, access to New Zealand's conservation estate already includes a level of user-pays. Tourism operators pay concessions to access Department of Conservation (DOC) land, which they recover by charging their customers. Trampers pay for the use of DOC huts and camp sites, although these facilities are often heavily subsidised from the public purse. But the majority of trampers, hunters, mountain bikers, and other eco-tourists or adventure seekers do not pay directly for the use of the conservation estate.
Conservation in New Zealand has suffered from chronic under-funding for many years, and a further $54m was recently cut from its four-year budget. The time is ripe for DOC to take a fresh look at ways to recover more funds from users of the conservation estate.
In the year to June 2010 DOC received 88% of its $315m cash income from the Crown, while only 12% was recovered from "customers". However, user-pays conservation is more prevalent in New Zealand than these figures suggest. Operations such as zoos or wildlife sanctuaries not operated by DOC also contribute to conservation in some form, and they tend to charge for access.
Like New Zealand, most countries use a mix of government money and user-pays to fund conservation. Many countries have a higher degree of user-pays than New Zealand. For example, Australia charges for access to many of its national parks. However, in most countries governments cover the bulk of the cost of conservation. Even in the free market orientated United States less than 20% of conservation expenses are recovered from users of parks and reserves.
The arguments for user-pays in conservation include fairness, economic efficiency, and cost recovery. An increase in user charges in New Zealand could promote better environmental outcomes, by boosting DOC's budget and, therefore, its ability to manage the conservation estate.
Many popular eco-tourism spots are becoming crowded with large numbers of international tourists, making visits to conservation land less enjoyable. Charging users at popular spots would provide revenue that could be used to build more board walks and tracks, allowing more areas to be opened up for visitors. It would also make more money available to mitigate the damage done by visitors to New Zealand's delicate natural landscapes.
On the other side of the debate, some people just plain don't like the idea of paying to use national parks. A valid argument in favour of government funding of conservation is the existence of so called non-use values. Even people who don't visit national parks may still gain real value from the knowledge that they exist should they ever want to visit them. People are effectively willing to pay for New Zealand to preserve its biodiversity even if they get no tangible benefit.
It is hard to exclude non-paying users from many or our national parks. People who simply drive through parks gain some benefit from the scenery. Paying for conservation solely by charging users would therefore lead to an undesirable outcome where DOC could not afford to provide the level of conservation that society really wants.
Another argument is that New Zealand's biodiversity and natural landscapes are the lifeblood of the tourism industry. If the taxpayer does not adequately support conservation, it may cost our economy by hurting tourism. Although there is merit in this argument, it does not preclude the possibility that we may be undercharging tourists for using our conservation land.
Take the examples of Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. General maintenance, management and pest control to protect the biodiversity and beauty of the areas are in the interest of society as a whole, and so should be predominately funded by the tax payer. But the huts on the 32km Routeburn Track do nothing to enhance conservation in a general sense. Because they exist solely for the benefit of a small group of users, the cost of providing them should ideally be met by those users.
In popular areas where congestion is an issue, DOC may need to cast a wider net. Congestion is a cost imposed by each additional user on other users and it is a signal that the balance between user-pays and government provision may be slightly wrong. Tools DOC has at its disposal include levies on transport operators delivering visitors, a paid car park that visitors to a particular area must use, or tolled access roads.
There is strong justification for conservation in New Zealand to continue to be funded primarily from general taxation. However, when users of the conservation estate start to create problems such as over-crowding, and demand facilities such as better tracks and toilets, there may be a case for more user-pays.