A high-powered advisory group has been established to help the Government achieve more on Crown-owned land in the South Island high country. But David Williams argues there needs to be less talk and more action.

COMMENT: In 2010, I wrote a story about the possibility of five high-country stations overlooking Lake Pukaki being partially privatised. About 31,000 hectares –  192 times the size of Christchurch’s Hagley Park – was proposed to be transferred from Crown ownership into freehold, through tenure review.

The Press article I wrote quoted the Green Party branding the plan “ecocide” and Labour “very short-sighted”. As the Department of Conservation faced funding cuts and a new business-friendly attitude under the ruling National Party, conservation groups were appalled that areas once earmarked for a drylands park could soon be privatised and irrigated.

Farmers, meanwhile, said the land was desert-like and the soil kept blowing away, and it was impossible to farm without irrigation. Small towns pocked through the basin struggled to cope with the increase in tourism.

Today, the issues are the same. Yet the Government has just announced 10 two-year appointments to a South Island high country advisory group. They’ll meet four times a year, with the first meeting in September. Andrew Crisp, Land Information New Zealand’s chief executive, says the advisory group “will see LINZ adopt a new way of working in the high country”.

“The group will provide advice and insights to the Commissioner of Crown Lands and LINZ to enable greater transparency and communication in the management of Crown land in the South Island high country,” the statement says. “They will also look for collaborative projects, identify examples of good practice and recommend activities to support work programmes.”

My question is, what are these people going to tell us that we don’t already know?

It’s an impressive group. I’ve heard good things about Otago’s Edward Ellison, a Ngāi Tahu representative and I have great respect for veteran landscape planner Di Lucas, of Christchurch. Some years ago I had the good fortune to be hosted at Otago’s Minaret Station by Jonathan Wallis, who tragically lost his brother Matthew in a helicopter crash into Lake Wanaka last month.

I’m sure the group members have the best of intentions. The call for nominations, in May, said LINZ wanted greater input into decision-making to get the best use of Crown land in the high country, “particularly in areas such as the iconic Mackenzie Basin”.

My question is, what are these people going to tell us that we don’t already know? I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but if these appointees were given 20 minutes they’d probably write down the same things.

There have been several attempts to get agreement for the Mackenzie, in particular, over the last eight years.

There was ex-Environment Minister Nick Smith’s Mackenzie Agreement, signed in 2013, which took 22 parties two-and-a-half years to negotiate. It recommended establishing the Mackenzie Country Trust, to work with farmers to identify areas for protection, and establish joint management agreements. But money wasn’t forthcoming from Wellington and the trust was only established in 2016. It’s still finding its feet.

And earlier this year, a report by consultants Hugh Logan and and John Hutchings – a report that cost Canterbury Regional Council ratepayers $70,000 – suggested a better way for LINZ, the Department of Conservation, Environment Canterbury and district councils to work together.

Time for action

Pardon me for saying so, but the high country doesn’t need more talking. It’s harder to do, but these agencies need to turn years of talking into action.

This green-tinged Government, under a Green Party Minister of Conservation and Land Information, in Eugenie Sage, is already considering a shake-up in the management of Crown-owned high country farms. If it wants to create a drylands park, that’s what it should do. If there are areas it thinks are appropriate for development, there are plenty of existing maps showing where those areas are. (Although that’s harder now, under tougher council development rules.)

Bringing people together to hammer out agreements is good. But with only loose guidelines and vague ambitions, it’s questionable what they might be able to achieve in two years.

And let’s not be blind to the dangers of well-meaning committees.

Pardon me for saying so, but the high country doesn’t need more talking. It’s harder to do, but these agencies need to turn years of talking into action.

Some people involved in the Mackenzie Agreement told me they held off publicly criticising certain things in the spirit of giving the process a chance. And then one of the key players in the Mackenzie – Simons Pass Station owner and Pukaki Irrigation director Murray Valentine – who has huge development plans, never signed it.

Canterbury’s water management committees have been held up by some as a collaborative success in balancing increased irrigation with better water quality. But in June, The Press reported environmental groups Fish and Game and Forest & Bird had walked away from a farmer-dominated zone committee after only “token consideration” was given to their views.

There was a view, within urban circles at least, that the zone committees were a water grab, set up purely to achieve an increase irrigation on the Canterbury Plains. There might be a similar view in the Mackenzie, that this new advisory group has been set up to establish a drylands park.

Leading is difficult, but essential

No matter. My contention is the issues in the high country are well-known and it’s time for the Government to lead. And that means committing money to big, difficult environmental issues.

If the Minister feels there should be greater transparency she should demand it of officials. If the high country should be managed differently, she should instruct her department to do so.

The provincial growth fund, or one of the many infrastructure funds, should help the high country cope with increased tourism. While it has turned off the tap on large-scale irrigation funding, further Government investment in cycle tourism will encourage more farmers to diversify.

The Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement mentions safeguarding indigenous biodiversity and improving water quality. That’s the platform upon which they were elected. Unavoidably, that includes the high country.

Eight years ago, politicians called the prospect of partially privatising huge tracts of the Mackenzie “ecocide” and “very short-sighted”. Two of those farm stations have been broken up already, with another two late in the tenure review process.

Now they’re in Government, what will Labour and the Greens do about it?

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

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