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Amber Bill - Acting Manager, Community Engagement and Reserves, Parks and Gardens, Wellington City Council, New Zealand

Amber Bill
'When you mix biodiversity with passionate communities, an urban environment and around 3000 hectares of open space, the day is filled with mental gymnastics.'





Where does your interest in conservation come from?

I've always been interested in the natural environment. When I was at school, there was no such thing as environmental or ecological studies so I was unaware of conservation as a career option. However, my parents were keen on the outdoors – I went on my first tramp when I was six years old and always spent time in the bush – camping, tramping or tagging along with my Dad hunting. When I got to university I carried on tramping and made friends with people who were doing environmental studies. I did a couple of papers, was fascinated – and pretty much hooked for life.

What was your dream job when you were growing up?

I'm a bit of a generalist so my interests varied from carpentry to veterinary school, to being a doctor. I guess the latter aspiration was what kept me in the sciences and ultimately led to studying biology and conservation. Plus I've always been stubborn about wanting to work with people. I think coupling an interest in what makes people tick with a passion for the natural environment naturally leads to a career in conservation.

Can you give a brief outline of your work history?

In New Zealand, the Department of Conservation (DOC) is probably the first place you think of if you want a career in conservation; so my first real-ish job was with DOC volunteering over a summer assessing forest health. My first paid job was with Invercargill City Council, assessing all the sites of natural significance and recommending how to protect these in the future.

I then spent a bit of time working for an ecological consultancy firm called Wildland Consultants, honing my vegetation survey skills. Then back to DOC in technical support for managing weeds. It was about this time that I got interested in how you engage with people and prevent behaviour that is environmentally damaging – for example growing weeds in gardens that then jump the fence and become invasive, or dumping garden waste and creating a problem in natural areas. So I welcomed the opportunity to work for DOC as the national weeds awareness coordinator. During this time I launched an education and awareness program in New Zealand called Weedbusters which was modified from Australia. After this I was keen to have a more local focus, which brought me to my current place of employment in my hometown, Wellington.

What qualifications and training do you have?

I have a BA in psychology and a BSc in ecology, as well as a postgraduate diploma in ecology. These have been enormously helpful and I wouldn't be where I am today without them. It's more than just the qualifications though; it's learning how to research, understanding the big picture, and building contacts. I did my postgraduate research at a different university which was also valuable as universities vary in their approach to subjects, particularly ecology. Without my postgraduate supervisors I never would have got my first job – thanks to Dr Kath Dickinson and Dr Carol West; so I can't overemphasise the importance of good supervisors. I also dabbled in a PhD at yet another university. This was a valuable time for researching what makes an effective environmental campaign, but in the end I decided that I didn't want to be a scientist or an academic, so I picked up a relevant job instead.

How long have you been working for Wellington City Council?

I've been at Wellington City Council for about four years now. I started as the senior park ranger for Parks and Gardens. I was really keen to make sure that I knew how things worked on the ground and that I hadn't lost touch and locked myself in some mystical ivory tower. I then had the opportunity to move to the Open Space Planning unit as the ecology and biodiversity planner – or eco-planner for short. Most recently I've been given the opportunity to temporarily fill a position as acting manager for Community Engagement and Reserves for Parks and Gardens.

What do you do in Community Engagement and Reserves?

I manage a team responsible for managing the biodiversity of Wellington City Council Reserves. This includes working with community groups and volunteers, animal and plant pest control, urban forestry, and planning issues – for example landowner consents.

What do you do during a normal working day?

The great thing about my job is that there's no such thing as a normal working day. When you mix biodiversity with passionate communities, an urban environment and around 3000 hectares of open space, the day is filled with mental gymnastics from making decisions about whether an event is appropriate in a reserve, to conditions on resource consents, to park upgrades, to how to best control pests, to working with community groups.

Who do you work with – do you work in a team, with community organisations, politicians?

All of the above! The Community Engagement and Reserves team work closely with the rest of Parks and Gardens, including the asset management team and operational staff – weed sprayers, lawn mowers, track builders and arborists. We also work closely with the rest of council, from the urban planners and designers, to the resource consents team, to the infrastructure unit. We liaise with our councillors and local body politicians who represent their respective communities. And where would we be without the fantastic community groups and volunteers? We work directly with over 40 community groups, working with them to restore streams and reserves. We have close relationships with other relevant organisations, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society.

What's the best thing about your job?

The greatest thing about working in local government is that you can see policies and decisions come to life. The greatest thing about my job, in particular, is that it is an opportunity to make a positive difference to my hometown's natural areas and Indigenous biodiversity.

What role do community groups play in affecting government policy?

I think community groups play a bigger role than many people realise. On the statutory side, I'm always, always impressed by the amount of time community groups put into submitting on plans and policies. This is a hugely important, albeit bureaucratic, process. But community groups can also apply a huge amount of pressure before the submission stage. They can influence decisions on whether a policy is needed in the first place, or they can lobby their local politician which can also be very effective. There are also loads of really practical examples of communities protecting local biodiversity values. In my experience these community groups are always in for the long haul and achieve truly amazing work.

What has been your most interesting career experience?

Each career experience has been interesting – except for perhaps some data entry work. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. It's early days for me in my current role, but I would say there's definitely potential for this to be one of the more interesting roles. For me, this is because of the breadth of the job, the issues, and the passions that are part of this.

In your opinion, what's the most important environmental issue facing society at the moment?

In my opinion, I think biodiversity loss is still our most critical issue. It is less tangible than climate change, which is why I think it has always been the poor cousin in terms of media attention. But when you think about biodiversity as the variety of life, then the constant pressure on this variety, and the constant chipping away at it, is having implications beyond our wildest dreams. It's more than a matter of the last double-eared-red-winged-godwit-bat disappearing off the face of the earth forever. Water is no longer drinkable in many places – if it's there at all, fish stocks are being depleted, and even the air we breathe is no longer clean. So, just like climate change, we do what we can for the environment and work within our sphere of influence. Which is the cue for applause for the community groups; hard at work in their local environment, in their local reserve, or even in their own backyards.

What is your advice for people who are interested in working to help the environment?

I don't think that volunteer work is essential, but what is important is having the ability to show that you are keen and passionate. Also, a willingness to move around to where the work is can be helpful; in the last 10 years I've worked in six different locations over the length of the country. It can also be helpful to think beyond typical conservation providers too – there are increasing opportunities to work in the environmental field, and I can definitely vouch for local government as being a challenging and rewarding area to work in.

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