Only months after the Department of Conservation (DoC) was revamped, fears are being expressed that business interests could be having a disproportionate influence.
The department has been restructured to become more efficient and to strengthen partnerships with the community and private sector.
Labour Party conservation spokesperson Ruth Dyson believes commercial interests are now able to influence DoC's priorities because of the resources they are offering.
"As long as DoC is very strong and resourced to be able to say: 'here are our priorities, and nothing can alter them', then sponsorships for additional programmes can be put on top of that.
"But what I think is happening is that sponsors are able to re-prioritise for the department, because of the resources they are offering."
However, DoC director general Lou Sanson says working with business as well as the community to boost the conservation effort makes good sense.
Mr Sanson says it is better to aim for cooperation, and highlights the dairy industry and the work done to improve water quality.
"I think Fonterra has been quite inspirational and they have taken one of our staff into their organisation.
"Being inside with Fonterra has to be a hang of a lot more productive than sitting outside trying to solve all this through RMA and planning issues."
DoC's manager of commercial partnerships Tim Fraser says the department recognises there could be perceptions that it's sold out.
Mr Fraser says that to balance such concerns, the department has principles in place to ensure any arrangements are transparent and DoC can contest any controversial proposals.
Questions over DoC's future role
But the Forest and Bird Protection Society remains fearful that under the changes, the department could be stepping back from its role of protecting New Zealand's natural heritage - laid out in its founding document.
Green Party MP Eugenie Sage says there is an inherent conflict and under the Key administration Resource Management Act advocacy by DoC has halved.
"The arrangement with Fonterra - that potentially creates a major conflict of interest for the department, where you have got a commercial organisation that want increased dairying, increased intensification, yet the department is charged with protecting our native fisheries and conservation.
"What I think we're seeing with Ruataniwha (Dam) is the department pulling back from advocacy that potentially will not be popular with sponsors like Fonterra".
A draft DoC submission on the Ruataniwha Dam water storage project said the Hawke's Bay Regional Council proposal was a risky and untested approach to water management which could kill the rivers involved.
The draft submission was written for the Board of Inquiry into the dam, but not submitted, and instead, DoC submitted a brief "neutral" document which did not raise concerns about what could happen to water quality and the dangers for at-risk fish species in the Tukituki and Waipawa rivers and tributaries.
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