Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

National Vegetation Survey Databank (NVS)

How do we know how much carbon was stored in our forests back in 1990 for our Kyoto Protocol calculations? How much timber could be sustainably logged from an indigenous forest?

The NVS databank, an invaluable record of New Zealand's vegetation extending back over 50 years, helped provide answers to these questions and continues to inform decision making about our natural environment, as this 2007 case study for the Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit (CCMAU) explains.

Scrubland. Image – Jim Coleman.

Scrubland. Image – Jim Coleman.

The NVS (National Vegetation Survey) databank is a world-leading repository for New Zealand's plot-based vegetation data describing plant species occurrence and abundance, vegetation structure, and environment. Most of New Zealand's vegetation data collected over the last 50 years can be accessed from NVS (Wiser et al. 2001). Sourced from >14 000 permanent and 50 000 temporary plots these data conservatively represent a cumulative investment of over $100m of irreplaceable historical records.

End-user links

Data are both deposited in and requested from NVS by a wide range of users including DOC, Crown Research Institutes, universities, regional councils, iwi organisations and private individuals. This diverse range of end-users helps establish NVS directions. User input is solicited via periodic workshops, and through day-to-day interaction. Setting directions for NVS has also involved end-user surveys on data entry, analysis, and retrieval needs (Burrows et al. 2004; Richardson et al. 2005).

DOC is both a major contributor to and user of the NVS databank and requires all newly collected vegetation data that supports its inventory and monitoring systems to be deposited in NVS.

User benefits and national impacts

NVS data are used for many different purposes. Since 2002, 1646 datasets have been requested from NVS for applications ranging from basic ecological research to evaluation of management decisions. Traditionally NVS data have been used mostly to monitor progress in achieving or sustaining ecological or environmental outcomes. Examples include temporal changes in the composition and structure of vegetation, the impacts of introduced animals, and the progress of weed invasions. Data obtained from NVS for this and other research have been described in more than 50 scientific papers and conference presentations.

A growing benefit from the long-term collection of NVS datasets is the ability to answer unanticipated issues at a national scale. Examples include the use by MfE of forest plot data to calculate estimates of carbon stored in New Zealand forests in relation to the Kyoto Protocol, assessing the impacts of climate change on indigenous ecosystems, and setting restoration goals in areas since degraded. At the regional scale, territorial authorities have incorporated NVS data into their databases that guide land management decisions.

A secure historical record

In the past five years 689 new datasets have been deposited in NVS. Data owners can deposit data with NVS in the knowledge that it is archived securely and accessible for future needs. At the same time, the interests of data owners are protected through written agreements that determine access rights to specific datasets within NVS, sparing them the substantial costs of establishing and managing their own repository.

A case study — the sustainable harvest of indigenous forest

NVS was used recently to provide MAF with models to calculate sustainable harvest levels of New Zealand's indigenous forests for timber production.

Data from over 1000 plots were used to provide size-specific estimates of tree growth, mortality, and recruitment for major indigenous timber species in those regions of New Zealand where sustainable management plans and permits are being implemented (with the potential to increase the size of the industry from $50m to $350m annually; MAF 2006). It is imperative that estimates of volume are as accurate as possible for a species and a region (MAF 2007). Rates of growth, mortality, and recruitment, however, vary substantially around New Zealand, and accurate calculations require the use of data relevant to the size structure of the specific tree population.

The economic value to this project of the NVS records of tree growth, mortality, and recruitment in permanent plots is estimated to be at least $4m 1 - the opportunity cost had the Ministry needed to establish and monitor plots in order to acquire these data. The NVS data assisted managers to construct species- and site-specific management plans and permits and, in conjunction with data from other sources (e.g. MAF 2007), enabled ‘national coverage' to be achieved.

International applications

NVS is increasingly recognised internationally and used for analyses of global vegetation patterns. Landcare Research expertise in the development and management of NVS has been sought for working groups for Vegbank (the repository for plot-based vegetation data in North America), and the International Association for Vegetation Science (IAVS) Ecoinformatics Working Group, and data standards workshops run by the Taxonomic Data Working Group (TDWG) and the ARC-NZ Network.

NVS data can also be used to support legal requirements under New Zealand's Resource Management Act, and international reporting obligations to such agreements as the Convention on Biological Diversity, Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Montreal Process (MAF).

Funding and support

NVS is funded primarily by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST); ten Landcare Research staff are involved in its ongoing development and maintenance. Recognising the value of NVS data, FRST accorded the databank the status of a Nationally Significant Database in 1998. FRST funding currently comprises $254,000/year for 12 years and one-off funding ($131,000) for technological developments.

Additional funding has been obtained through the Department of Conservation (DOC), the Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System Programme (TFBIS), the UK National Environmental Research Council via the University of Cambridge, and Australian Research Council and New Zealand Network for Vegetation Function (ARC-NZ Network). Annual infrastructure costs for housing and maintaining NIVS amount to $50,000.

Sources of information

Information used to compile this report was taken from records of data usage, monthly and annual reports and surveys of data requestors, published articles and unpublished contract reports.


Burrows L, Cooper J, Wiser S, Spencer N 2004. Facilitating data entry and retrieval from a national biodiversity database - the National Vegetation Survey databank example. Landcare Research Contract Report LC0304/091, prepared for DOC TFBIS Programme.

MAF 2006. The indigenous forestry industry in New Zealand. Wellington, Indigenous Forestry Unit, MAF.

MAF 2007. Standards and guidelines for sustainable management of indigenous forests. Part IIIA Forests Act 1949. MAF Policy, Wellington.

Richardson S, Wiser S, Cooper J, Spencer N 2005. Adding value to NVS: development of software tools for the analysis of vegetation data. Landcare Research Contract Report LC0405/073, prepared for Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System Programme, Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Wiser SK, Bellingham PJ, Burrows L 2001. Managing biodiversity information: development of the National Vegetation Survey Databank. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 25: 1-17.


1 Estimated cost of establishment of NVS plots: $2,100 per plot. Estimated cost of monitoring of NVS plots: $1,800 per plot. Monitoring cost per site decreased by 30% in this exercise to account for costs of obtaining other samples in monitoring.