It was earmarked for inclusion in the national park, but riverside reserve land on a Crown-owned high country station has been fenced and turned into pasture. David Williams reports.

Just as the country’s second-biggest Crown pastoral lease was being touted for sale, riverside reserve land on the farm was converted to pasture without permission to boost its prospects.

It was December 2015 when the Turnbull family’s Mt White Station lease, over a sprawling 40,000-hectare Canterbury high country station, near Arthur’s Pass, came on the market. Ben Turnbull explained in a press statement from real estate company Colliers that none of the family were working on the farm so it was time to pass the baton. “It has been a privilege for the wider family to be caretakers of this wonderful chunk of New Zealand high country for the past 91 years, and it still has huge potential that is yet to be realised.”

As the marketing campaign launched, a roughly 100ha block of Mt White was fenced, and some of it cleared of indigenous plants and put into pasture. Half of the area to be cleared was on a freehold title owned by Mt White, but the other 50ha was reserve land. Government officials didn’t know about the work until two months later, when Mt White sought retrospective permission.

The 50ha of reserve land – about two-thirds the size of Auckland Domain – is part of the 1000ha Riversdale Flats reserve, an area earmarked for inclusion in a national park since 1901. Despite the fact Mt White borders the Arthur’s Pass National Park, the reserve is part of the Mt White lease. Its care, therefore, is in the hands of the lessee, with Government oversight.

The Crown land manager, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), retrospectively approved Mt White’s reserve land work – against advice from the Department of Conservation (DOC) and without punishment of the lessee.

“The land should be part of Arthur’s Pass National Park.” – Eugenie Sage

Environmental lobby group Forest & Bird says LINZ didn’t do its job. In fact, it accuses LINZ of rewarding Mt White, in a way, by approving a wider development over 1000ha of non-reserve land.

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury-West Coast manager Nicky Snoyink, of Christchurch, is calling for development work at Mt White to stop until the Riversdale Flats issue is resolved. “It’s not acceptable that native vegetation and native animal habitat is passed over for farm development.”

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage tells Newsroom she’s disappointed about the unconsented spraying, clearance and destruction of vegetation on Riversdale Flats, “under the previous Government”, and that officials chose to retrospectively approve the work. But she refuses to step in, calling it an operational matter.

“Agencies are well aware that as minister I want the Riversdale Flats issue resolved. The land should be part of Arthur’s Pass National Park.”

Last year, while in opposition, Sage urged the then-government to “immediately” withdraw the Riversdale Flats from the proposed sale. Yet, when she became minister, that didn’t happen. The sale and transfer of the Mt White lease, announced two weeks ago, was decided by officials.

Sage, who has been under pressure on several fronts this year, including for approving an expansion of a Chinese water bottling firm’s New Zealand operations, says discussions about the Riversdale reserve land’s future are “progressing well” with the Mt White lease’s new owner, Czech-born businessman Lukas Travnicek. Travnicek, who is thought to be in the Czech Republic, couldn’t be reached for comment.

From complexity to confusion

Mt White is the gateway to the closest national park to Christchurch. The high country station is a splendid mix of tussocky river flats, river terraces and beech forests that open up into the park’s mountainous valleys. Trampers, fishers and hunters pass through Mt White to reach the Hawdon, Esk and Poulter valleys.

But the pastoral lease is complex. The Riversdale reserve land isn’t continuous – it’s broken up by blocks of freehold land. To make matters worse, the roads don’t correspond with the lines on planning maps. It’s this complexity that allows officials to claim that Mt White’s grab of reserve land is one of “confusion”.

LINZ’s deputy Crown secretary of Crown property Jerome Sheppard says once officials were notified of the unauthorised clearance work and fencing in February 2016 they investigated. Mt White was visited by its “service provider” and DOC ecologist Nick Head.

DOC’s advice was submitted in April. It said the portion of riverside flats “proposed for development” had depleted ecological values, but it was a highly visual landscape bordering the national park. Head wrote: “It is my view that the development of this area is likely to cause considerable impacts on the landscape values present.” North Canterbury operations manager Kingsley Timpson recommended that the Riversdale reserve part of the application be declined.

The department also suggested authorisation might be needed under the Reserves Act and a Selwyn District Council consent was required. (The council’s regulatory manager Billy Charlton says: “No consent was sought or granted.”)

“In this case, we believe it was a misunderstanding.” – Jerome Sheppard

LINZ approved the consent in May. Sheppard says: “Retrospective consents are rare and usually result from a misinterpretation of what a lessee can and can’t do. In this case, we believe it was a misunderstanding in terms of the size and precise location of the freehold block, which the lessee interpreted as being within the fenced paddock.”

However, it’s hard to reconcile Sheppard’s explanation with Mt White’s February 2016 application. It says of the approximately 100ha of flat land already fenced, “half the area is freehold”. There’s even a helpful map (below) which shows the fenced area sits outside the freehold block.

LINZ’s approval, signed by portfolio manager Mike Sherman, makes no mention of DOC’s opposition. It says granting the consent “will make it easier to use the land concerned for farming purposes”. Any potential adverse effects on inherent values “will be minimal over approximately 100 hectares”.

The Mt White development progressed in spring, which was when Timpson’s staff noticed a greening of tussock and brown-top grassland that hadn’t been previously developed. Mt White’s farm manager told DOC staff the development was on what it understood was freehold land owned by the station.

A DOC investigation uncovered what Timpson said was “confusion” over the land status of the fenced and developed area – again, in spite of what Mt White stated in its application.

The station was being marketed for sale, but Mt White’s February retrospective application revealed problems with the farm business. “The station has poor stock performance and this work will provide high quality summer feed for lactating ewes and cows.” (As to the adverse impacts, the application says: “There are no significant conservation values and a robust clover based pasture will help protect the soil.”)

A map supplied by Mt White Station in February 2016, showing a fenced-off area on Riversdale Flats.

Given the state of its business, and perhaps emboldened by its success in securing a retrospective consent, in June 2016 Mt White Station applied for a much larger development. Huge swathes of native vegetation, including matagouri thought to be hundreds of years old, would be cleared and new farm tracks would be built. The affected areas include river terraces on the Esk and Poulter valleys.

While official documents don’t quantify it, the area of development approved by LINZ in December 2016 is thought to be about 1000 hectares.

This application, approved by LINZ six months later, said: “Mt White urgently needs development to become sustainable and economically viable.” Adverse impacts were assessed by Mt White’s farm consultant as “negligible”.

LINZ took DOC’s advice about excluding the Riversdale Flats from the development. That decision’s now at a re-hearing. However, Minister Sage says she’s advised Travnicek is yet to confirm if he’ll continue challenging the restrictions placed on the previous owner’s proposed farm development.

LINZ deputy chief executive of policy and overseas investment Lisa Barrett says Travnicek’s company Southern Ranges Ltd advised the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) of the proposed development and re-hearing process. “This information was not relevant to the OIO application assessment because it was made under the residency pathway of the Overseas Investment Act.”

Important habitat

The Upper Waimakariri is an important habitat for threatened bird species that nest in riverbeds, such as the black-billed gull, the black-fronted tern, the wrybill and the banded dotterel.

Several important planning documents – the 2016 Canterbury Conservation Management Strategy and 2007 Arthur’s Park National Park management plan – urged action to extend the Arthur’s Pass National Park onto the Riversdale Flats.

Forest & Bird’s Snoyink says the Riversdale Flats are incredibly important. While they’ve been grazed and contain exotic grasses, she says, they haven’t been intensively farmed. Dry river terraces, like those at Mt White, are poorly represented in national parks, Snoyink adds.

(DOC’s Timpson notes a wetland area and stream running through the freehold portion of Riversdale Flats was fenced in 2016 and the stock removed. The legal status of the altered reserve land is unchanged, he says.)

A 2002 due diligence report on Riversdale Flats, completed as part of the tenure review process, said the land had “been erroneously included in the lease by virtue of it being reserve for national park by New Zealand Gazette 1901”.

Snoyink says: “If it was mistakenly put into the lease, can’t they just rectify the mistake?”

Unfortunately, undoing 117 years of apathy would likely involve taxpayers paying compensation to the new lessee. Given the many demands on the Government purse, from paying nurses more to free tertiary education for first-year university students, one wonders if there’s the political will to do so.

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

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