Part 5: The Department of Conservation’s land information systems

Department of Conservation: Planning for and managing publicly owned land.

In this Part, we describe:

We then set out our conclusions.

Why are land information systems important?

The Department needs consistent and accessible land information systems for:

  • maintaining effective oversight of the land it manages;
  • informing strategic planning and operational decision-making; and
  • measuring progress to implement strategic goals and objectives for land.

The Department manages more than 12,300 properties throughout the country. Well-organised information, and data on the nature and extent of each property, would enable the Department to have effective oversight of the land it manages.

The Department prepares national strategies and plans that provide direction and guidance for planning, programmes, and initiatives throughout the Department. Operational management decisions are made by Conservancy or Area Offices. The effectiveness of strategic land planning, and operational decision-making, relies on good information systems.

Nationally, the Department needs information on land to measure progress against particular goals and objectives it has set for land.

Our expectations

We prepared expectations about land information systems, and then assessed the Department’s performance against the expectations. We looked at how the Department manages and processes land information through its:

  • land information gathering;
  • land information storage; and
  • use of land information.

We expected the Department would gather information on land it manages. For each property, we expected a legal description, land classification, information on location, a list of assets on the land, concessions granted, the date the land was acquired and how it was acquired, current valuation, conservation values associated with the land, any known Māori interest in the land, and links to information on relevant reports about the land. We reviewed property information in the Department’s Land Register, Valuation Register, and other land information databases.

We expected that the Department would have comprehensive land information systems that would store detailed records for each property that it manages. We expected that these records would be stored consistently and be accessible to staff who needed them for their work. We reviewed the Department’s Land Register, procedures for its maintenance and use, and property documentation for 28 properties in the Northland, East Coast Hawke’s Bay, and West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancies.

We also expected that this land information would be used for making decisions and monitoring progress against relevant land planning objectives and priorities. We reviewed the Department’s use of land information within its reporting systems and processes.

Gathering land information

For each property it manages, the Department actively gathers information on the legal description, land classification, location, visitor and recreational assets, concessions granted, current valuation, and conservation values associated with the land.

The Department gathers information on Māori interests in particular areas of land recognised in Treaty settlement legislation. Also, the Department’s staff have access to archaeological databases for information on historical sites. However, because of the sensitivities involved in the nature and location of many Māori interests on land, Department staff we spoke with prefer to consult or engage directly with tāngata whenua regarding sites of significance when new Department activities are proposed for the land (for example, building a new track) rather than relying on only formally documented information.

Since 2002, the Department has included Crown land as an asset in its annual financial reports. The Department holds a Valuation Register, which includes the rateable values for each of the properties it administers, from which a total value of the land is calculated. The Department employs an independent valuer to gather and check that this information is suitable for including in its financial reports.

Information on the origin of properties

The Department does not actively gather information on the origin of the properties that it inherited from former organisations. When the Department was formed in 1987, most of the land that came under its administration was derived from reserves, national parks, and other Crown land allocated from former organisations such as the Department of Lands and Survey and New Zealand Forest Service. The Department has a standard operating procedure that identifies external sources of data that can be used to determine the origin of this land.

In processing applications to exchange, dispose of, or change the classification of land it manages, the Department must gather information about how the land came under its administration. This information will affect whether the land can be exchanged, disposed of, or have its classification changed, and the uses to which the land may be put.

In the strategic planning documents we looked at, the extent to which the Department intends to engage in these activities was not clear. In our view, if the Department plans to engage in land transactions or review classification status, it should proactively document when properties were acquired and how they were acquired. Given the number of individual properties managed by the Department, we appreciate it would be a significant undertaking to identify when and how all the land it manages was acquired. However, we recommend the Department consider the usefulness of gathering this information.

Recommendation 6
We recommend that the Department of Conservation consider the usefulness of gathering information on the origin of all the individual properties it manages.

Recording land transactions

Other than the Department’s Land Acquisition Fund Register, there is no central record for, or common method of recording, land transactions undertaken by the Department. Information on the Department’s land transactions is held in various forms by only those conservancies undertaking land transactions and the manager of the Land Acquisition Fund.

In our view, the Department needs the ability to see the number and type of land transactions it is doing within individual conservancies and throughout the country. This would ensure that changes to land resulting from transactions were recorded in the national Land Register, and other relevant databases. It would also help in checking that individual land transactions comply with standard operating procedures, and ensure that the Department has a clearer overview of the land it manages.

Recommendation 7
We recommend that the Department of Conservation review its systems to record land transactions, to gain oversight of the number and type of land transactions occurring within individual conservancies and throughout the country.

Storing land information

The national Land Register is the Department’s property information database. The Land Register is used to store information collected about the legal description, location, and classification of properties managed by the Department. The Land Register is linked to the Department’s geographical information system, providing spatial mapping data. The Land Register is also linked to the Permissions Database that records concessions, leases, and licences on land the Department manages, and to the Visitor Asset Management System that provides details on the location of visitor assets (such as huts, tracks, and bridges).

Standard data fields in the Land Register and standard operating procedures allow property information to be stored and updated consistently. A Land Register operating procedure outlines standards, accountabilities, and processes for recording and maintaining property information. The procedure also provides guidance on determining what land should be recorded, updating the register, and performance measures for data entry and correction.

Property valuations are stored on the Department’s Valuation Register. The Valuation Register holds property values for specific parcels of land, and is used only for financial reporting purposes. The Valuation Register is separate from the Land Register, which holds property information for conservation units and is used for managing the land.

Storing information about conservation values for land

The Department has several national ecological databases to identify threatened species and under-represented environments – for example, Pestlink, BioWeb, and LENZ.

Conservancies store information about conservation values associated with land in conservation management strategies and other databases and inventories. We reviewed conservation management strategies and property documentation for 28 properties within the Northland, East Coast Hawke’s Bay, and West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancies.

The Northland and East Coast Hawke’s Bay conservation management strategies identified conservation values associated with individual properties within their land inventory registers. Further information about values or changes in values was contained in conservancies’ inventories or reports. The draft West Coast Conservation Management Strategy did not identify specific values for properties within the land inventory. Values for some properties in the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservancy were found in plant lists, ecological reports, and biodiversity action plans.

Reports, inventories, and surveys relating to properties were held within the Department’s electronic filing system, or in Area Offices. However, the Department could not provide us with complete lists of reports, inventories, or surveys. There was no centralised system linking reports or information to individual properties.

Information about conservation values associated with land can be used to inform and prioritise work plans. In our view, to ensure that all relevant information about conservation values associated with land is accessible, references and links to relevant conservation management strategies, databases, inventories, and reports should be accessible through the Department’s Land Register.

Recommendation 8
We recommend that the Department of Conservation include on its Land Register (or through links from its Land Register) references to relevant conservation management strategies, reports, inventories, and surveys relating to properties it manages.

Using land information

Land information is used to report on legal protection for different land types through the Department’s Annual Report. LENZ is used to report on trends in the percentage of the most at-risk environment types under legal protection. Existing databases support staff when they are identifying priorities, and land information is used to inform business plans and programmes.

Reviewing land classifications

The existing classification status for some land managed by the Department may not accurately reflect the state of the conservation values present, or future conservation outcomes sought for specific places. Because of this, in some cases land would be better protected by a change to another classification – for example, upgrading conservation areas to national parks or wilderness areas. Conversely, some conservation areas may have classifications that are not warranted. For example, the East Coast Conservation Management Strategy notes –

… some historic places are afforded protection in this network of protected areas, more by accident than design. These places are not particularly representative of either the range of historic activity, or the best examples of historic values in the Conservancy.

There is provision for changing classification in the legislation governing land managed by the Department. Also, under the Reserves Act 1977 there is a requirement to formally classify all land under the Act for its appropriate purpose.

The Department advised us that the process to change land classifications is often complex and costly. When changes to land classifications are proposed, the Department requires an assessment of the outcomes and implications of the changes. The Department has prepared criteria to determine whether proposed classification changes should occur, and, if so, whether they are a high, medium, or low priority.

Statutory land classifications set the purpose (and therefore the level of protection) for which land is to be managed. The conservation values present (or aspired to) on a piece of land should match the land’s classification. The Department does not systematically check that this match exists for each piece of land it manages. In our view, it should.

Recommendation 9
We recommend that the Department of Conservation use land conservation value information as part of a programme to ensure that land classifications appropriately protect the land they apply to.

Using land conservation values to measure, evaluate, and review performance

The Department is setting up systems to use land information for measuring, evaluating, and reviewing the Department’s performance in protecting natural and historic heritage areas. The Department is designing a Natural Heritage Management System intended to record inventory information about ecological and heritage values. The purpose of the system is to provide objective information to enable the Department and the community to select best outcomes for natural heritage areas, and report on achieving those outcomes.

The Natural Heritage Management System project began in 2002 and has recently reached the implementation phase. While we have not audited the project, we encourage the Department to create a system that will enable it to use conservation value information and data for measuring, evaluating, and reviewing the achievement of its objectives.

Our conclusions

The Department has detailed land information systems, which include much of the information we expected. These systems allow information and data to be stored consistently, and they are accessible to staff.

In our view, the Department’s information systems could be improved by storing information about land transactions and conservation values on land, consistently.

The Department uses land information to inform business plans and programmes, and to report on the legal protection of different land types. It is also setting up systems to use land information to review its performance in protecting natural and historic heritage areas. In our view, the Department should also use land information to systematically check whether land classifications appropriately protect the land they apply to.

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