An historic South Island farm station near New Zealand’s highest mountain has been sold – and is staying in Kiwi hands.

Mount Cook Station, a sprawling 2600-hectare property on the eastern shores of Lake Pukaki, near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, was owned by the Burnett family for 151 years, after its establishment in 1864.

The Mackenzie country farm was subsequently run by a charitable trust. But a High Court judge removed the trustees last year, during a bitter High Court challenge to the $4.7 million sale to the local Gould family, and management was passed temporarily to the Public Trust.

Marion Gould, of Lake Tekapo, confirms to Newsroom the sale has now settled.

“It has gone through. It has been purchased by the family.”

She adds: “It went through about a month ago.”

Gould was reluctant to give details of the family’s plans, leaving it to daughter Alana Miles and son-in-law Clint, a pilot for Tekapo Helicopters.

“They’re dealing with the day-to-day stuff.”

Neither of the Miles could be reached for comment yesterday. But in March last year they told The Press newspaper they intended to farm beef cattle and deer at Mount Cook. Their first job was to get on top of the runaway wilding pines.

“We’re pretty excited to take it on,” Alana said. Her husband said: “We’d like to do our best to be able to make it a very iconic part of New Zealand in the future for generations.”

(This afternoon, Public Trust’s general manager of legal and risk Liz Style confirmed the sale was completed on September 22 and the objectives of the charitable trust are protected by covenants registered against the title. The purchase price is confidential. “We are pleased this has been brought to a conclusion which meets the objectives of the trust, and it is a positive step forward for this iconic station,” she said in an emailed statement.)

Donald Burnett ran Mount Cook Station for 69 years. In 2000, he was presented with the inaugural World Challenge Trophy, for being the world’s leading merino woolgrower. Burnett died, aged 95, in 2010 and his sister, Catriona Baker, continued to live on the farm until her death in 2014. Ownership then passed to a charitable trust.

Given the farm’s perilous financial state – it was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – and a wilding pine infestation to deal with, the trust put the farm on the market in December 2015.

Groups like Federated Mountain Clubs lobbied the Government to buy the station. Then attorney-general Chris Finlayson agreed the sale shouldn’t be permitted. However, the Department of Conservation, which had already negotiated public easements in the tenure review process, did not want any other part of the station.

In March last year, the sale to the Gould family was announced in a blaze of publicity. But the sale stalled after a High Court challenge by Baker’s friends Janine and Linda Sundberg, trustees of Baker’s estate. They argued a private sale wasn’t legal because the station’s beneficiaries were named as the “general public of New Zealand”. During a High Court hearing in September last year, they said Burnett and Baker were adamant the farm shouldn’t be sold.

But, in November last year, Justice David Gendall ruled the sale could proceed, so long as the purchasers agree to an encumbrance registered against the property’s title “requiring the purchaser and subsequent owners to specifically adhere to and fulfil the charitable objects of the trust”.

Mount Cook Station includes a six-bedroom homestead, built in the 19th century. There’s also a farm manager’s three-bedroom home, two sleepouts and other buildings. Since the opening of the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, in 2013, various buildings have been offered as farm-stay accommodation to cycle tourists.

In April last year, it was revealed the Gould family had sold the 3550-hectare Guide Hill Station – near Mount Cook Station – to offshore investors for $16.5 million. The new owners, Blue Lake Investment, owned by Hong Kong’s Ka Kit “Peter” Lee and United States-based Sek Yin Li, plan $5.6 million on new developments, including adding visitor accommodation and establishing a new crop research facility with Lincoln University.

Lee is the eldest son of Dr Lee Shau Kee, Hong Kong’s second-wealthiest person, worth an estimated $US29 billion ($NZ42 billion). The Goulds continue to manage sheep, beef and deer at Guide Hill.

High-profile farm sales to foreigners have been making headlines for years, but especially since 2012, when the so-called Crafar Farms, in the central North Island, were controversially sold to Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin.

Another controversial issue is tenure review, a Government review of high country leases through which parts of Crown-owned farms can be freeholded.

For years, Lincoln University senior lecturer Dr Ann Brower has been studying land sales after tenure review.

Since 1991, the Crown has freeholded just more than 400,000 hectares at high country stations. For that, the leaseholders paid $65 million, or $176 per hectare. Roughly one-fifth of the freeholded land, or 74,000 hectares, has been on-sold for $275 million. The median sale price is about 500 times what the Crown was paid, Brower says.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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