Emails released to Newsroom show the pressure applied to a regional council chief executive, who overturned staff advice to approve a controversial extension to a Queenstown skifield. David Williams reports.

On a Saturday morning in March, Otago Regional Council chief executive Sarah Gardner sent a brief email to two key staff, requesting a meeting.

The previous evening she’d received a desperate email from NZSki’s chief executive Paul Anderson about the tourism company’s plans to extend the learners’ slope at a Queenstown skifield. Anderson told Gardner that her senior staff wouldn’t return his messages or phone calls about the company’s consent application. “We are on the verge of needing to cancel a significant project for both The Remarkables Ski Area and the region.”

After apologising to Anderson for the “lack of service”, Gardner called a meeting with planning director Tanya Winter and consents manager Chris Shaw to discuss their response. Winter replied that afternoon – “As always, there is another side of the story”. She explained that when Anderson called she hadn’t read the relevant background information and hadn’t quite managed to call him back.

Gardner replied, hours later: “I fully expected you would have it in hand.”

Yet within a week, after sustained pressure from Anderson, Gardner drafted a consent decision approving the work – a decision that contradicted staff advice. The regional council approval relied heavily on an endorsement from the Department of Conservation (DOC), the public voice for nature. It turns out Gardner was also swayed by a last-minute site visit by council staff.

Huge investment

The Remarkables skifield, which opened in 1985, is found over the back of the dramatic western face of the Remarkables range seen from downtown Queenstown.

The skifield’s terrain includes exposed rock faces, alpine grassland and, pertinently, wetlands – dubbed “the kidneys of the earth” by DOC. The skifield is in the Rastus Burn recreation reserve and operates under a DOC concession.

The Remarkables’ parent company, Trojan Holdings, owned by rich lister Sir John Davies, has spent tens of millions of dollars on upgrades in recent years – building a new base building, installing a new chairlift and sealing most of the winding 13km road.

NZSki, which also operates Queenstown’s Coronet Peak and Canterbury’s Mt Hutt skifields, applied for its latest upgrade at The Remakables last November. It wanted to extend the learners’ slope, install two surface escalators, and build track access to an area known as Shadow Basin. The works covered about 27,500 square metres – almost the same size as Christchurch’s yet-to-be-built metro sports centre.

Heavy machinery would cut into the bank and recontour the slope. A casualty would be a 100 square metre wetland – NZSki changed its original proposal to avoid disturbing two other wetlands.

The regional council considers all wetlands found above 800m above sea level “regionally significant”. An ecological assessment for NZSki argued the type of wetland under threat was “abundant and widespread” within the Rastus Burn and Remarkables range. The E3 Scientific report concluded “reinstatement of wetland habitat or species is not realistic”. NZSki told the regional council it would be “lost entirely”. But the ecological report concluded the ecological impact would be “not more than minor”.

“Unless we’re able to resolve this in the next couple of days, we will be forced to cancel the project for this year.” – Paul Anderson

Prior to Gardner stepping in, a legal debate, over whether NZSki’s work was “nationally or regionally important infrastructure”, had stalled the regional council consent process.

Correspondence released to Newsroom under Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show that NZSki provided a specific legal opinion and requested a meeting to “expedite a decision from ORC”.

The council’s legal opinion – “for another applicant”, NZSki boss Anderson noted – gave its staff pause. It was considering enforcing its policy on this fresh interpretation.

To break the deadlock, Anderson, a former senior manager at the Christchurch City Council, wrote to Gardner on March 9. He told me: “We were concerned at the length of time it was taking, so I escalated to the CEO.”

Gardner, who only started at the regional council in late January, is a resource management veteran; a former general manager at the Environmental Protection Authority. On March 12, she told Anderson the council’s assessment would be completed by the end of the week, she said, and NZSki would be updated by early the following week, at the latest. She expected the result would be “either a decision to decline or a call for further information”.

Anderson wrote back within 15 minutes, wanting to “get around a table” instead of waiting for legal letters to be exchanged. He told Gardner: “Unless we’re able to resolve this in the next couple of days, we will be forced to cancel the project for this year.” (Anderson tells me he was genuinely concerned about the looming “drop-dead date”. “We would’ve pulled the pin, for sure.”)

By Thursday morning, March 15, Anderson’s wish for urgency hit another bump. He’d tried to ring consents boss Shaw but was told he was on indefinite leave. (It was reportedly bereavement leave.)

Anderson wrote to Gardner again. “Your legal team has now had our legal advice for eight working days,” Anderson said. Without a decision by the close of business the following day – 74 working days, by Anderson’s count, after the application was submitted – the company would have to cancel the project “because of this unjustified delay by ORC”.

Gardner decided it was time to step in. “Sorry you have had the run around,” she told Anderson. “I am getting into the detail myself and will make contact early tomorrow morning with progress.”

“The ecological values are of significance and the impact on these values is high (irreversible loss of habitat) and ongoing loss and modification to the area.” – Brian Rance

In February, NZSki gathered four written approvals for its proposed work. They came from DOC, Otago Fish and Game Council, and two iwi groups, Aukaha and Te Ao Marama Inc.

DOC’s approval, signed by Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen, was crucial on two fronts. The regional council’s consent for the work, signed by Gardner, would place “significant weight” on DOC’s approval as “the Crown’s custodian of the wetland”. The council also said because NZSki had approval from “all potentially affected parties”, the application didn’t need to be publicly notified.

The DOC approval attached conditions to try and save the wetland. NZSki agreed to remove the “substrate and plant material” and store it in buckets, to prevent them from drying out, before the diggers rolled in.

Water flow through the area should be sustained, DOC said. Once the trail had been cut out and shaped, the substrate and plants would be returned to the site in a “flattened depression or wetland area”.

If the wetland could not be re-established, DOC said the plants should be transplanted into previously disturbed and recovering wetlands with similar attributes.

DOC manager Owen’s approval came after a scathing assessment from its ecologist Brian Rance.

Rance, who pushed for public consultation, said E3 Scientific’s report had “deficiencies”. The DOC ecologist strongly disagreed with E3’s statement “the impact of clearance on the ecological values is considered to be not more than minor”. Rance: “The ecological values are of significance and the impact on these values is high (irreversible loss of habitat) and ongoing loss and modification to the area.”

‘Major’ impacts

The ecological impacts of NZSki’s proposal were “major”, the report said, but that didn’t justify declining the application. It was important, however, to ensure the damage was minimised and “appropriate mitigation/offsetting” was sought.

He said the department could ask for up to $50,000 from NZSki, which could be used to pay for a local predator control programme or additional DOC conservation project. While DOC hadn’t asked NZSki for an offset payment before, Rance said. “However the scale of impact is sufficient that now is an appropriate time to do so.”

Owen’s approval didn’t demand an offset payment. It proposed mitigation such as revegetating the cleared slope and reinstating the wetland.

DOC southern South Island acting operations director Caroline Rain dismisses the wetland as small and modified. She tells Newsroom that Rance initially identified ecological concerns. But after further consultation and analysis with an independent monitor “both concluded that with the right mitigation, the environmental impacts would be minimised”.

The independent monitor, Dawn Palmer, has more than 10 years’ experience monitoring skifields. Her role, however, is paid for by NZSki.

(DOC’s been under pressure as former staff criticise the department for a corporate culture being pushed by management which is seemingly at odds with its core function to advocate for conservation.)

Renowned botanist Sir Alan Mark, who has published scientific papers on wetlands, says of the replanting scheme: “It seems to me pretty naive, if they were going to maintain any semblance of the original wetland, to change its topography, flatten it out and clearly then change its water-holding properties.” A plan to sow seeds collected from the area was probably a “forlorn effort”, he tells Newsroom, as alpine plants are slow to establish.

Council’s rapid response

March 16 was decision day – the day Anderson said NZSki would pull the pin if the regional council didn’t approve consent.

CEO Gardner had two key staff absent, so asked Scott MacLean, the director of environmental monitoring and operations, to help Winter with a “rapid response” to NZSki’s concerns.

(In an interview with Newsroom, Gardner rejects an assertion she acted because of pressure from NZSki. “I could not see any legal reason why we were holding up making a decision.”)

After looking at the consent file the previous night, Gardner decided the last piece of the puzzle before making a decision was a site visit. On Friday morning, one of MacLean’s compliance monitoring staff visited the Queenstown skifield and took photographs.

Gardner says it was MacLean’s advice that it was “questionable around whether it’s a wetland or not”, and its significance was down to its altitude. The council staffer who conducted the site visit wasn’t a botanist. But Gardner says there are “different levels of advice and experience – and in a court, either is relevant”. The monitoring staff, she says, are “arguably the most familiar staff with the Otago landscape”.

Botanist Mark says the wetland had been partly disturbed by the previous development of a ski trail. “It probably wasn’t pristine, but nevertheless it would have it recovered to an extent had it not been further disturbed.” He thinks the regional council and DOC managers have acted “rather casually” by approving the work and not adopting staff advice.

Staff recommendation rejected

Just before 3pm on March 16, Gardner received an email from principal consents officer Peter Christophers, summarising his advice and that of consents officer Natasha Pritchard. Both believed the expansion of the learners’ slope was not nationally or regionally important infrastructure.

Pritchard had told NZSki the previous day: “My recommendation is that the current application is withdrawn and proposals considered to see if the activity can be undertaken whilst avoiding adverse effects on any regionally significant wetland.” Christophers told his bosses: “I agree with these comments.”

Yet, by 4.16pm, less than 90 minutes later, that advice had been discarded. Gardner “jotted some thoughts” in an email to Winter and MacLean about granting the NZSki consent.

Gardner told her managers she wanted a consents staffer to draft the decision “with this assessment as a guide”. “I am very happy to talk it through with staff,” she wrote. “If at all possible I would like to get this out next week.”

NZSki’s work was regionally important infrastructure, Gardner wrote. “The regional significance of skiing activities appears to have weight.” She adds: “Can’t ignore the fact that we have granted consent for like activities in the past.”

Pritchard and Christophers, who recommended the consent be withdrawn, drafted the decision and Gardner signed it. A week later, after a phone call, Gardner personally emailed Anderson a copy of the consent.

Legal threat

Forest & Bird got wind of the controversial consent. It wrote to the regional council in May, “appalled” it would grant consent and not publicly notify it. The environmental group was “considering legal options”, the letter said. Forest & Bird regional manager Sue Maturin tells Newsroom it’s still considering whether to take legal action.

The May 22 letter, written by Maturin and lawyer Sally Gepp, said: “The primary issue of concern is that the council’s regional science unit concluded that the permanent loss of a regionally significant wetland ‘has to be considered more than minor’, yet the notification and consent decisions are in direct conflict with that finding, stating that ‘it has been determined that the effect of the proposed activity are no more than minor’.”

Forest & Bird demanded an urgent written response. But it wasn’t until June 19, almost a month later, that Gardner emailed Winter and the council’s legal counsel, Peter Kelliher, asking for a meeting about how it would respond.

The story broke in the Otago Daily Times two days later.

A day after that, on June 22, Gardner wrote to regional councillors, attaching a copy of the consent report and assuring them she’d discuss the issue with them in detail the following week.

She pointed out several aspects. Consent conditions required wetland plants to go back into the ground within three days, with tall tussock replanted later. Also, NZSki had to ensure the same amount of vegetative cover was established “in the vicinity” before the consent expires. Gardner told councillors: “In simple terms the consent provides for no net loss of vegetative cover.”

Wetland work complete

NZSki’s Anderson tells Newsroom that the work’s predominantly done. “There’s a bit of finishing work to finish off over the coming summer. The work that modified the wetland is complete. And we’ve created the learners’ trail to about 50 to 60 percent of the width that it will eventually be.”

The environmental monitor has overseen the work, he says. Will the wetland still grow, and function normally? “Absolutely it will.”

The learners’ slope extension has cost NZSki between $1 million and $2 million and is important to take pressure off an area that can get quite congested, he says, especially in school holidays.

“Every piece of work we do on the mountain’s important – we don’t do these things lightly,” Anderson says.

Something else that’s under pressure is the Otago Regional Council itself. It has also been criticised for planning to build a new multi-million-dollar headquarters in Dunedin, while environmental issues, like wilding pines and lake snot, seemingly pile up.

Newsroom’s been told some staff involved in the NZSki decision have since left the council. Gardner dodges the question of whether there was staff disquiet at being overruled by their new boss. While she doesn’t want to speak about individual staff, she confirms that some people involved in the NZSki consent have left. However, that was because of a “separate” redundancy process, she says.

It’s not the only time Gardner’s involved herself in consent decisions – but it’s the only one she’s personally signed.

“I am very comfortable with the decision,” she says. “The decision is the decision. It’s one of those situations where sometimes you need to get involved if you don’t have key staff available to help.”

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

Leave a comment