The seeds for this week’s debate over public access to Hunter Valley Station were sown 60 years ago, and have nothing to do with foreign ownership. David Williams reports.

Matt Lauer’s New Zealand lawyer started writing to interest groups about public access before an Overseas Investment Office application was made to buy Hunter Valley Station.

On March 6, 2016, Queenstown lawyer Graeme Todd wrote to the Upper Clutha Tracks trust on behalf of the disgraced American TV host. Four days later, Todd wrote to the Department of Conservation (DOC), Walking Access Commission, and Fish and Game.

The message was essentially the same: that Lauer’s purchase was a salve for what had become an old and scabby wound.

Todd’s letter-writing was a methodical plan designed to take the heat out of a long-running and prickly battle that pitted the local council and recreational groups against the station’s existing lessee, the Cochrane family. (Under the Lauer deal, the Cochranes would stay on as farm managers.)

If the sale to Lauer was approved, Todd wrote, the American’s company, Orange Lakes (NZ) Ltd, promised to pay for the transfer of land to form a legal road, giving permanent access to a lakeside DOC camp, and an easement for a nearby walking track would be formalised. Orange Lakes would also waive the roughly $30,000 in fees from the Contact Epic cycle race.

But the company baulked at providing public access along the 40-kilometre-long Hunter Valley Station Road. It’s not a public road, Todd told interest groups – it’s isolated, without mobile phone coverage, has regular steep drop-offs, four river crossings, and many blind corners. That created issues of safety and proper control of farm animals.

The interest groups, including Federated Mountain Clubs and DOC, hit right back, saying better public access was needed to the Hāwea Conservation Park, 40 kilometres up that road.

Thus the seeds were sown for this week’s public debate and hyperbole.

A change of Government last year, voted in on a platform of restricted foreign ownership of land, seems to have ushered in a change of mood. Somehow, the issue of public access to Hunter Valley Station has become framed by a supposedly “unreasonable foreign landowner” who is demanding millions of dollars from taxpayers for public access. Not so, says Lauer, who claims he’s demanded nothing and access is being provided, where possible.

And while politicians are happy to blame the previous government’s “shoddy” decision for the mess, officials admit that public access has improved under Lauer’s ownership and he’s complying with Overseas Investment Office (OIO) conditions attached to the sale. Proponents of greater access, meanwhile, struggle to name anyone who’s been denied access.

The debate still seems to be about fairness, but in two divided camps. One side is pushing for what it believes is fairer public access to Crown-owned special places. Lauer, meanwhile, says it’s unfair to unwind a previous government’s decision to allow unfettered access that would disrupt his new farm – and reduce the property values he has paid millions of dollars for.

Tracing the source

The source of the access battle can be traced to what some describe as an administrative error.

In 1958, Lake Hawea was raised 20 metres to provide for the massive Clutha hydro generation scheme. It flooded Hunter Valley Station’s legal road. The replacement was an informal farm track, never given legal status.

After buying the Hunter Valley lease in 1976, the Cochrane family sometimes denied public access from the main highway. The main sticking point was a four-kilometre stretch of road over leased land – very near The Neck, the sliver of land between Lakes Hawea and Wanaka – that led to a DOC camp on the shores of Lake Hawea. Access was often denied in October and November, during lambing and calving. Sometimes a locked barrier would be extended across the road.

The problem became more acute when, in 2008, Hāwea Conservation Park was created. The local council tried to step in. When it became clear the Cochranes wouldn’t give up the land voluntarily, in 2015, the council gave notice it would take it under the Public Works Act.

That looming legal battle was trumped by Lauer’s offer to buy the station, later that year. (In March 2016, a council lawyer wrote to the OIO about Lauer’s proposed ownership, stating: “The council would support any means by which the dispute can be resolved at no further cost.”)

“If the Overseas Investment Office was to impose a condition requiring an easement such as that proposed to be granted, then my clients would withdraw from the purchase of the property.” – Graeme Todd

In June 2016, a few months after Todd’s letter-writing binge, the interest groups were invited to visit Hunter Valley Station. The Walking Access Commission called it a “limited” field inspection, which went nowhere near the Hunter River valley. The parties held a six-hour meeting in Wanaka later that month, run by Christchurch barrister and mediator John Hardie.

The access groups said they were primarily after a legal easement to the top of the station for vehicles, pedestrians, horse-riders, hunters and cyclists, under a strict management regime. Todd and the Cochranes, however, had significant reservations of how that would affect day-to-day management of the farm and “the financial viability of the farming operation”.

DOC and the Walking Access Commission continued negotiating, but talks broke down. The easement was the problem.

In July, Todd wrote to DOC and the commission: “If the Overseas Investment Office was to impose a condition requiring an easement such as that proposed to be granted, then my clients would withdraw from the purchase of the property.” What appeared to be proposed, Todd said, was uncontrolled pedestrian and non-motorised cycle access, and permitted vehicle access, managed by a DOC office some 50 kilometres away, “but at the risk of the owner”.

He suggested Kiwis should feel fortunate the OIO would impose access conditions, if the sale was approved. Under a New Zealand owner, he said, no access regime would be formalised and public access could be restricted or refused. Todd’s parting shot was: “If it is not broken, why does it need to be fixed?”

(Todd tells Newsroom it’s “nonsense” the Hāwea Conservation Park can only be accessed through Hunter Valley Station. He says people can reach the park through the Dingle Burn, and the Makarora and Ahuriri Valleys.)

‘Highly restricted’

The idea access was working well didn’t gel with the Walking Access Commission’s view. In August 2016, operations manager Ric Cullinane told the OIO: “Access to the valley has been highly restricted to date. The creation and formalisation of a range of managed public access opportunities on Hunter Valley Station Road provides a significant and unique opportunity to provde certainty of access into the extensive surrounding public conservation land.”

The opportunity was lost, it seemed, in February last year, when former Land Information Minister Mark Mitchell approved the sale – a decision he “totally” stands by – as recommended by the OIO. Officials pointed to farm improvements of $1.6 million (mostly paid for by Lauer), a plan to build a $3 million house on the station, and improved public access as identifiable benefits to the country.

The OIO decision report, released to Newsroom, imposed conditions on Orange Lakes regarding legalising the road to DOC’s Kidds Bush campsite and supporting an application for an easement over the Sawyer Burn Track. On access along Hunter Valley Station Road, the OIO said the proposal of continuing “informal access” was “sufficient”. Lauer and the Cochranes must “act reasonably” in allowing access, on their terms. (The OIO noted “the terms of the pastoral lease limit the activities and public access allowed”.)

After an initial flurry of public interest, the matter died down. The access arrangement involving a phone call to the station, continued. That is, until November last year, when Lauer was fired from NBC’s Today show over allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

(That same month, the Queenstown Lakes District Council gave approval for Orange Lakes to build a massive 751-square-metre house about nine kilometres into Hunter Valley Station from State Highway 6, roughly 350 metres from the Lake Hawea foreshore. The single-storey, four-bedroom house features a separate, two-bedroom guest suite connected to the main house by a covered walkway, a boatshed, tennis court and swimming pool. But given Lauer’s reportedly impending divorce from his wife, the Amsterdam-born former model Annette Roque, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, it’s unclear if or when the house will be built. According to Companies Office records, Roque remains a director of Orange Lakes.)

Access ‘not well-defined’

The catalyst for the recent spurt of stories is the Walking Access Commission’s application for a public access easement over Hunter Valley Station Road – the very proposal Lauer wouldn’t agree to in 2016.

The commission’s chief executive Eric Pyle admits to Newsroom that under Lauer’s tenure, public access has improved to Kidds Bush, and the American will save the public money by picking up the bill to legalise the road. But a key reason it applied for the easement, he says, is because the Hunter is the only river valley “up into the deep Southern Alps” that doesn’t have well-defined public access. “What we hear is that access has not improved up there.”

Peter Wilson, the president of Federated Mountain Clubs, which has 20,000 members, told RNZ yesterday access issues were pretty much down to the Cochranes.

(In August 2106, Pene and Taff Cochrane told the OIO the station is an “unpredictable and potentially dangerous environment, where people have lost their lives or been at serious risk”. Having bought the lease in 1976, they said the “ONLY” way to confidently assess the valley’s conditions and the safety preparedness of would-be visitors “is at the farm gate”.)

Lauer seems mystified by the public backlash. He told RNZ’s Checkpoint programme this week that out of 100-odd people who have asked for access, only three or four had been refused, and that was because of farm operational issues.

The American has spent the thick end of $1 million on Hunter Valley Station. There was the OIO application process, the office’s re-consideration of Lauer’s character in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations, plus the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” he has spent improving the farm operation, including bringing new land into production and building new hay barns and yards.

Lauer makes it clear he feels the goal posts have moved recently, and he’s got a good idea why. He told RNZ: “I believe the groups that are behind this are in some ways unfortunately taking advantage of some difficult times I’ve been through over the past six months and I think they see me as an easy mark.”

September circuit-breaker

Land Information and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says DOC, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and the commissioner are discussing the proposed easement. She wants to see timely discussion between LINZ, Lauer and his company “to resolve the issue of access through Hunter Valley Station to enable the public to access the Hāwea Conservation Park and Hunter Valley”.

The OIO and Commissioner of Crown Lands come under the umbrella of LINZ. Its deputy chief executive of crown property Jerome Sheppard says Orange Lakes, through the OIO process, agreed to a higher level of public access across Hunter Valley Station than previously existed. The OIO is satisfied the company is “working to meet access requirements”, he says.

Regarding the Walking Access Commission’s easement proposal, Sheppard says the commissioner will take into account the effects on the farming operation. “Compensation is normally paid for any financial impact.”

DOC supports the commission’s easement. But its acting southern South Island regional director Caroline Rain notes the department has not received any complaints about access to Hunter Valley Station this year.

Meanwhile, Todd tells Newsroom he’s arranged for Lauer to meet DOC director-general Lou Sanson in September – and Sanson can invite anyone he likes to that meeting. It could be a useful circuit-breaker for the rising tensions. (Given his large investment, it seems highly likely Lauer would ask a court to overturn an easement, if granted.)

The public mood is on a knife-edge. While there’s widespread support for access to conservation land, it’s unclear who’s being refused access to Hunter Valley Station. And the clamour for change is coming from a tiny Crown entity, with an annual budget of $1.8 million, making some bold claims. CEO Pyle tells Newsroom: “We figure that there are probably thousands of people who are interested in access up into the Hunter.”

It’s time for those silent thousands to start making their presence known.

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

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