A shake-up might be on the way for the management of Crown-owned high country farms, in the wake of a controversy involving a Mackenzie Basin irrigation pipeline. David Williams reports.

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage refuses to rule out reining in the Commissioner of Crown Lands after an irrigation pipeline for a massive dairy conversion was carved across public conservation land.

Sage’s silence comes as Newsroom reveals details of a Department of Conservation investigation into the Mackenzie Basin pipeline, which found the original easement conditions were breached but the commissioner gave so much leeway to the developer it became difficult for DOC to enforce.

A $100-million-plus dairy development is planned for Simons Pass Station, on a mix of Crown-owned and privately-owned land in the Mackenzie Basin, with about 4500ha to be irrigated to accommodate about 5500 cows and 10,000 other stock animals.

To serve the development, an eight-kilometre-long pipeline, which crosses several Crown-owned properties is being built between Simons Pass and hydroelectricity canals near Lake Pukaki.

The industrial scar hacked through high-value conservation land reflects years of battles waged – and lost – by DOC for protection of Crown-owned land in the Mackenzie Basin.

Former Commissioner of Crown Lands David Gullen granted Pukaki Irrigation Company an easement for the pipeline in January 2016, when the Irishman Creek pastoral lease was in the final stages of tenure review. Part of the property came under DOC control last year. However, the department was powerless to stop the pipeline being built, despite raising concerns over many years about the damage it would cause to land considered to have high ecological and landscape values.

Conservation and Land Information Minister Sage, a Green Party MP, tells Newsroom that in the wake of the pipeline saga she’s made it clear to Land Information New Zealand that it needs to give more weight to advice from the Department of Conservation about significant inherent values on Crown-owned land.

“It is certainly a lesson. I had raised what happened with both agencies and the deficiencies in the process under the last government, and I think they’re both very aware.”

Sage notes the commissioner position – occupied now by acting commissioner Craig Harris – is independent and it’s not someone she can direct. Asked if that independence needs to be reined in, the Minister says: “We are doing policy work looking at what are the issues in the management of pastoral leases in the South Island high country, now and in the future.”

Does that mean restrictions on the Commissioner’s independence are being considered?  “I can’t comment,” she replies.

Sage is a former Canterbury Regional councillor and long-time environmental activist, who worked for Forest & Bird for 13 years. As minister, she’s taking a close look at high country issues. In February, Sage’s briefings included one on the Simons Pass pastoral lease, another on the tenure review “state of play” and a report on “options for acquiring pastoral leases outside tenure review”.

National Party MPs Louise Upston and Mark Mitchell, both former Land Information Ministers, did not respond to Newsroom’s query about whether they thought it was appropriate for an irrigation pipeline to be built across publicly owned land.

Pipeline work on The Wolds pastoral lease, in an area that is set to become public conservation land later this year. Photo: DOC

Sage says non-government organisations have highlighted “major failings” in the way decisions have been made in the Mackenzie Basin. That includes the failure of agencies like LINZ, Environment Canterbury and the Mackenzie District Council to consider the cumulative impacts of granting discretionary consents.

It was pressure from one such NGO, the Environmental Defence Society, that prompted DOC’s investigation earlier this year into the irrigation pipeline work.

Official documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show that EDS wrote to Sage, LINZ’s chief executive Andrew Crisp and DOC director-general Lou Sanson, alleging “likely” unlawful activity on Simons Pass Station and adjacent Crown land. DOC’s investigation focused on whether easement conditions were breached on the Irishman Creek conservation area.

The easement limited pipeline work to a width of 30 metres. And easement conditions stipulated the company had to cause “as little damage or disturbance as possible” and restore the land as closely as possible to its previous condition.

DOC ranger Cody Thyne visited Irishman Creek on March 14. His report said the pipeline work’s average width over an 830m stretch at Irishman Creek was 36.5m, and was as wide as 49.5m at one point. However, Thyne said the breach was “not excessive and did not appear reckless”.

Thyne’s site visit came just a week after that of Christchurch-based DOC ecologist Nicholas Head, who told his bosses in an email that a two-kilometre-long swathe, that “weaves like a meandering stream”, had caused a mess on public conservation land. “It appears the entire route has been completely bulldozed, which has caused maximum destruction.”

(Simons Pass lessee Valentine, who is also Pukaki Irrigation’s sole director, tells Newsroom it’s “rubbish” the Pukaki Irrigation pipeline contractors caused more damage on public conservation land than on private land. “They’re doing the same all the way through and they rehabilitate afterwards.” He says officials from Environment Canterbury, Mackenzie District Council and LINZ are “absolutely impressed” with the rehabilitation work done to date.)

Thyne’s official investigation report, penned on March 23, said conversations with LINZ revealed the Commissioner of Crown Lands allowed some “on the ground” flexibility for Pukaki Irrigation, to accommodate practical issues, such as rocks and topography, and for workers’ health and safety. No offence under the Conservation Act could be proved, the report said, and there were no grounds to lay charges. “There is no evidence that demonstrates a clear intent to breach the easement conditions.”

DOC also felt it was hamstrung by its lack of communication with Pukaki Irrigation’s contractors. In November, the lead contractor Monadelphouse Engineering emailed a staff member in its Dunedin office, notifying the department it was going to access The Wolds pastoral lease for the pipeline work. DOC didn’t respond and the department’s Te Manahuna/Twizel office wasn’t notified of the work.

A LINZ manager, whose name is redacted, tells DOC non-notification of Pukaki Irrigation’s (PIC) intentions to access Irishman Creek was a “minor technicality”. The manager says DOC was notified of the work through a 2011 deed of agreement, as well as a mention of the easement in the LINZ substantive tenure review proposal and a caveat on the Irishman Creek land title.

After receiving Thyne’s investigation report, DOC’s director of operations for Eastern South Island Andy Roberts concluded there were no breaches of consent conditions – both written and verbal. He writes to Twizel operations manager Sally Jones on March 26: “I would encourage you to work with PIC to see if remediation of the land can be managed to best protect and enhance the natural values of the conservation land in question.”

A month earlier, Roberts told DOC’s director-general Sanson that any compliance investigation into the pipeline would face “a considerable struggle” to find possible breaches of the Wildlife Act – basically proving that dead protected creatures, like lizards, were killed by pipeline contractors. He added: “My own early view is that Simons Pass is too far advanced to halt and we would make better progress by quickly advancing moves to establish further drylands protection.”

DOC pipeline investigation report by David Williams on Scribd

For threatened plants in the Mackenzie, and habitat for rare and vulnerable species nestled in some of the country’s most scenic landscapes, it has been death by a thousand cuts. LINZ has handed out discretionary consents for agricultural intensification that has degraded and, in some cases, destroyed ecological values, appalling conservationists. On the other side, farmers argue the land is riddled with heiracium and the topsoil is blowing away.

The controversial tenure review process was meant to be the saviour. It allowed for slices of pastoral leases to be carved off and protected, and less valuable areas to be freeholded to farmers. The dream for conservationists, and some DOC staff, was the creation of a continous drylands park in the Mackenzie, spanning several pastoral leases. But given DOC’s budget cuts and a pro-development attitude in Wellington, environmental groups feared a brutal carve-up, with thousands of hectares being privatised and irrigated.

The pipeline easement could be seen as a continuation of the last Government’s agenda, to back irrigation and increase farm exports.

Environmental groups are united in their condemnation, painting a picture of Crown complicity in Crown-owned land being sacrificed for irrigation and dairying.

“It is an ecological and landscape disaster,” EDS executive director Gary Taylor says from the United Kingdom. He describes former commissioner Gullen’s approval of the pipeline – with easements across Irishman Creek, The Wolds and Simons Pass stations – as a “very bad deal”. “[It] enabled the destruction of nationally important indigenous tussock and grassland.”

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Jen Miller says the pipeline approval served the interests of a few landholders who want to irrigate.

In this year’s Budget, DOC was given an extra $2.6 million towards protecting the Mackenzie Basin. But Miller says DOC and LINZ already know what needs to be protected. “It is beyond time that they stopped ignoring the advice of the DOC experts and manage pastoral leases in a way that protects the values, not give lessees the right to destroy them.”

EDS’s Taylor says Sage and LINZ’s new executive team are trying to prevent a debacle like the Pukaki Irrigation pipeline happening again. “We need to move swiftly to create the drylands park that was agreed between all parties.”

“I just find it very, very tough that people can just come in, right at the end, and say that we’ve just got to start from the start again.” – Murray Valentine

Pukaki Irrigation’s pipeline has now been laid end-to-end and remediation work has started. There are already cows on Simons Pass as the dairy conversion progresses.

Asked by Newsroom if it’s appropriate for a private development for private gain to be undertaken across conservation land, Pukaki Irrigation’s Valentine says the pipeline is dug into the ground and that, no, the land is not the same as before “because we’ve cleared all the wilding trees”.

(In a story earlier this year, Valentine said: “We will destroy some native plants and some native lizards and stuff. And, yeah, the habitat of birds will have to shift to other places.” That prompted DOC to send him a letter reminding him that some species are protected under the Wildlife Act and encouraging him to apply for a permit for the pipeline work. Sage asked to be told if an application was lodged, which it was.)

He asks if opponents are arguing pipelines shouldn’t be allowed to be built across public land. “The Crown have got money for what I’ve done. So they’ve been paid for it.” The easement agreement reveals the sum was $120,000 plus GST, if applicable.

Simons Pass has been in tenure review for more than a decade, but he doesn’t think the process is flawed and says LINZ does a pretty good job. “Had we done the deal, which we could’ve done in half an hour at the start, we would have ended up a whole lot more land than we’ve got now because we’ve made the decision to set aside more land for conservation than was originally proposed.”

Valentine says he’s been dealing with the Commissioner of Crown Lands and gathering approvals for his farming operation since he bought the pastoral lease in 2003. He seems mystified by the eleventh-hour objections. “I just find it very, very tough that people can just come in, right at the end, and say that we’ve just got to start from the start again.”

DOC’s Twizel manager Sally Jones met with Valentine recently. Jones is “part of our community”, Valentine says – as are staff from bodies like LINZ, ECan and the Mackenzie District Council. “They’re doing a job to make sure that when we apply for consents they deal with them in the correct way. But they’re being put under enormous pressure from people like EDS and Greenpeace.”

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

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