Unlawfully clearing about 30 hectares of vegetation, including rare and threatened plants, near an internationally significant wetland has resulted in a $15,000 fine for a Hauraki Plains farm manager.
The clearance by Robert Cookson, for the purpose of creating extra dairy pasture land, came despite the fact he had been told by Environment Waikato that it would be unlawful, said EW’s complaints and enforcement manager Rob Dragten.
In sentencing notes after a hearing at the Hamilton District Court, Judge Melanie Harland said the actions of Mr Cookson, who pleaded guilty, involved culpability at the highest end of the scale of carelessness.
Mr Cookson was charged under the Resource Management Act after clearing vegetation on the so-called "Cookson block" in 2007, using a bulldozer and roller crusher. This resulted in widespread vegetation destruction, including destruction of the rare and threatened plant Dianella hermatica.
The area the clearance occurred in is adjacent to the internationally significant Kopuatai Peat Dome, which supports a diverse range of rare animal and plant life, and is one of only three sites in the Waikato that is protected by the International Ramsar Convention, Mr Dragten said. "EW will continue to remain vigilant about protecting the Peat Dome and in monitoring land use around it."
Judge Harland said that given the importance of the Peat Dome and the defendant’s awareness of the significance of drainage issues on the Cookson block to the Dome, it was reasonable to assume he would have checked out any vegetation clearance fully with the council first. "I assess his culpability at the highest end of the scale of carelessness."
Judge Harland fixed a starting point for a fine at $25,000 but gave Cookson credit for factors such as his early guilty plea, previous good character and remorse, and examples of the care he had taken to protect the environment in other areas.
Mr Dragten said Cookson was now unable to farm on the cleared area, so was not able to take advantage of the illegal works. It is expected that the cleared vegetation would recover by itself over the next 10 to 15 years.
"This judgement sends a clear message that rare and unique wetlands like Kopuatai and the buffer zones around them are important, and need to be protected" Mr Dragten said. "Before disturbing any wetland area, farmers would be well advised to contact the regional council for advice on what, if any, restrictions may apply."