A Mackenzie Basin farm is again the battleground for two seemingly opposed arms of Government – one trying to protect conservation values and the other happily approving agricultural intensification on Crown-owned land. David Williams reports.

The Department of Conservation had “grave concerns” last year about an irrigation pipeline which is being built across Crown land in the Mackenzie Basin.

As reported last month, the department (DOC) was investigating whether conservation values on conservation land were affected by the eight-kilometre irrigation pipeline being built between a Tekapo hydroelectricity canal and Simons Pass Station, at the foot of Lake Pukaki.

In a strongly-worded letter penned in January last year, Sally Jones, DOC’s operations manager of its Te Manahuna/Twizel office, said it strongly opposed the easement application which allowed the pipeline across the Simons Pass pastoral lease and “the whole route should be reconsidered”.

Three months later, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the Government agency that manages Crown land, granted the easement. It’s unclear if changes were made to the pipeline route to address DOC’s concerns.

DOC’s advice exposes long-held tensions with LINZ over Crown pastoral lease land, not only over discretionary consents – for agriculturally intensive activities like clearing indigenous vegetation and planting exotic species – but also tenure review. In fact, Jones’s letter raised particular concerns over the fact the Simons Pass lease was in the final stages of tenure review, and trenches for the pipeline would be dug across land that was likely to become public conservation land.

“It is hardly desirable for the very values the ‘Crown’ is seeking to protect are modified or destroyed in any way,” the letter said.

A month after the irrigation easement was granted, LINZ advertised the preliminary proposal for Simons Pass, which is to freehold 4310 hectares of the Crown pastoral lease’s 5575 hectares.

‘These habitats cannot simply be recreated’

Jones’s January 24, 2017, letter – sent to Dunedin-based LINZ contractor Landward Management – outlines years of argy-bargy between DOC and LINZ over the Simons Pass pipeline.

Despite DOC’s opposition, LINZ gave approval for the original pipeline layout in 2013. Layout changes were requested in 2016, which DOC said should be declined. Jones wrote last year: “While we are aware that the easement route has now been clearly defined, the department still has grave concerns about this proposal and can only reiterate our earlier advice.”

The latest easement application, lodged in December 2016, was LINZ’s chance to “revisit a matter that is of regional if not national significance”, Jones wrote.

“The inherent values or significant inherent values are such that under the tenure review process much of the land through which the pipe line will pass will, in all likelihood, become public conservation land.”

Cultivation, the letter said, “will destroy and permanently remove habitat for threatened species, remove vegetation on acutely threatened land environments and naturally rare and threatened ecosystems”. Jones said the changes would lead to species demise, adding: “These habitats cannot simply be recreated.”

The company applying for the easement, Pukaki Irrigation, appears to have stated the pipelines disturb only 4.83ha across a vast property, but Jones pointedly wrote that “is not a good reason for ignoring conservation advice”.

The easement deed for the pipeline, signed on April 13 last year, shows the consideration paid by Simons Pass lessee Murray Valentine to the Commissioner of Crown Lands was $16,000, plus GST “if any”. The deed mandates Valentine’s company, Pukaki Irrigation, store topsoil separately “for use in restoration”, while any removed vegetation would be replaced with “an appropriate pasture species”. The company was tasked with ensuring “as little damage or disturbance as possible is caused to the surface of the servient land and that the surface is restored as nearly as possible to its former condition”.

(Valentine didn’t want to comment yesterday on DOC’s advice to LINZ. He says the pipeline work is “pretty much under control” and areas were being rehabilitated. LINZ had been “more than” rigorous on the Simons Pass applications, Valentine says.)

But Jones’s letter says restoration is “impossible”. “The soil profile along with the geomorphological structure can never be reinstated. Nor can the inherent values that exist along the easement line. These irrigation pipelines in the Mackenzie Basin can never be hidden from view, except when the land is resorted by the intensive use of exotic species, which is undesirable in this instance.”

Simons Pass had been in tenure review since 2006 and, in January last year, the preliminary proposal was about to be advertised. Jones said it would be “inappropriate” to make land use decisions that would negatively affect land that is proposed to become public conservation land, or land the department has previously identified as having inherent values.

Newsroom asked LINZ if it made changes to the Simons Pass pipeline route to address DOC’s concerns. LINZ deputy chief executive, Crown property, Jerome Sheppard, says LINZ reviewed and analysed advice from DOC and service providers before deciding to grant the easement. “Most of the possible adverse effects noted in the advice were associated with the laying of the pipelines, wheel tracks from centre pivots, and planned irrigation on Simons Pass. These activities were not the subject of the easement application.”

DOC advice ‘unequivocal’

Simons Pass has been a lightning rod for national debate, especially as an emblematic clash between farm development and environmental protection efforts. More widely, academic research published last year suggested the law controlling tenure review was being ignored in the Mackenzie Basin, leading to land with rare and threatened ecological values being freeholded.

Forest & Bird Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Jen Miller, of Christchurch, says DOC’s advice on Simons Pass was unequivocal. “When you consider the values that are outlined, their national importance and their rarity, then look at the work on the ground it’s really hard to reconcile the advice with the actual work that’s being carried out.”

In Canterbury, the freeholding of land through tenure review had contributed to the loss of values, she says. But an equal contributor to those losses – and possibly more, she says – has been through discretionary consents to Crown pastoral lessees.

In February, Lincoln University honorary professor of agri-food systems Keith Woodford said there were two stark options for Mackenzie farms. The first was grazing sheep, adding fertiliser and grasses, and nitrogen-fixing legumes to the soil. The second was to remove livestock and turn parts of the Mackenzie into a conservation and recreation park.

“Regardless of the chosen option, or combination thereof, there is a need to recognise that this land will not look after itself,” Woodford wrote. “Wilding pines continue to march like triffids across the landscape, and hawkweed (hieracium) is already the dominant land cover in big areas. As for rabbits, they may be subdued but they are never beaten.”

Between 1990 and 2017, some 68,000 hectares of indigenous vegetation in the Mackenzie Basin – about 22.5 percent of the basin floor – was destroyed. More than two-thirds of that loss had happened since 2014, raising questions about land management. Those figures prompted Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage to state, last month, she’d inherited “a shambles” in the Mackenzie.

* This story has been updated with comment from LINZ.

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

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