New research challenges the Government to halt inappropriate agricultural intensification in the Mackenzie Basin. David Williams reports.

Crown decisions are allowing greater agricultural intensification in the Mackenzie Basin, new research has found.

The study comes to light as Canterbury’s regional council confirms irrigation is about to start on a controversial dairy development near Lake Pukaki, without all resource consent conditions being met.

The academic research, published last week in the Journal of NZ Grasslands, and funded by the business ministry, reveals two-thirds of intensive development in the Mackenzie since 2003 has been on Crown-owned land or land freeholded through tenure review. (Tenure review is a voluntary process which allows farmers to buy a portion of a Crown-owned pastoral lease, with the balance added to the conservation estate.) That reversed the trend before 2003, when almost two-thirds of intensification was on land that was already privately owned.

A big factor in the increase in farm developments was discretionary consents issued by the Commissioner of Crown Lands on pastoral leases.

Given Eugenie Sage is minister of both Land Information and Conservation, the article says it’s clear who has the power to make enduring and effective changes, to protect vulnerable land. “It is the Crown itself that can change its patterns of decisions to alter the trends in intensification. The choice and the power reside with the Minister of Land Information.”

(However, the commissioner has wide discretion and acts at arm’s length from the minister, something the minister is keenly aware of. Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor calls the commissioner “the most unaccountable civil servant in New Zealand”. Forest & Bird’s general manager of conservation advocacy Jen Miller, meanwhile, says the law needs to be tightened to give the commissioner better guidance and get more ecologically driven decisions from tenure review.)

Sage tells Newsroom her officials are working on policies to improve the management of Crown pastoral lease lands, including possible changes to tenure review, and on ways to progress a drylands park in the Mackenzie Basin.

“I have no timeline for making any policy announcements and won’t be commenting further on them at this point.”

The Minister points to the establishment of a High Country Advisory Group as one improvement. (Sage’s supporters also point to a shake-up within LINZ, with a new chief executive, Andrew Crisp, appointed in October 2016 and a new commissioner, Craig Harris, confirmed in August.)

Two weeks ago, Sage announced a $4.5 million project to create a predator-free area known as Te Manahuna Aoraki, near the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, taking in about 310,000 hectares.

“Once you allow pastoral land to be irrigated, say, it’s pretty hard to unirrigate.” – Ann Brower

The Journal of NZ Grasslands article’s lead author is the University of Canterbury’s Ann Brower. It’s the second piece of research co-authored by Brower in 12 months to question bureaucratic decision-making in the Mackenzie. Last year’s paper said tenure review was only half-heartedly protecting landscapes and biodiversity and, bizarrely, the more rare and threatened the ecological values of the land, the more likely it was to be freeholded.

The book-end for Brower’s latest research is 2003, the year the first tenure review was completed in the Mackenzie. Her study compares satellite imagery to assess land-use changes, and catalogues them by ownership.

The research found the greening or intensification of the Mackenzie had more than doubled in size since 2003, from 20,000ha to 45,000ha. Brower: “A fair bit of that was on new freehold land but a surprising and significant chunk of it is on current pastoral land, to which the Commissioner [of Crown Lands] has granted discretionary consents to cultivate in some way.”

Of the roughly 25,000ha intensified since 2003, about 12,000ha was on new freehold land and 5000ha on Crown-owned pastoral leases. Another 8000ha was on land that was already freehold before 2003. Development on pastoral leases seemed to accelerate in the three years to the start of 2017, the study says, which raises question over discretionary consent decisions.

The near-term effect of more intensive farming in the Mackenzie is the obvious physical change, like kilometres of pivot irrigators lining highways and the greening of areas known best for tussocky yellows and browns. But what’s not obvious, Brower says, is the long-term impact – protecting that land from the “encouragement of conservation”, as she puts it.

“Once you allow pastoral land to be irrigated, say, it’s pretty hard to unirrigate. And so when you irrigate or fertilise or topdress or oversow, you lose those rare plant species and you lose the ecological values that would be desirable for conservation – you lose a whole lot of conservation values.”

She summarises: “You’re chopping conservation off from the knees.”

EDS’s Taylor says Brower’s research confirms, in a scientific sense, what is already known – “that the system was broken”. Forest & Bird’s Miller, a member of the High Country Advisory Group, says: “We’re being told by the Minister and others that change is happening, and this [research] cannot be a more stark example of why that change has to happen.”

A pivot irrigator beside the state highway, near Ohau. Photo: David Williams

Federated Farmers’ North Otago president Simon Williamson, the high country chairman for the national body, says irrigation has saved farming in the Mackenzie. “There wouldn’t be any farming now if we hadn’t have got water when we did.”

Mackenzie production is as good as anywhere in the country, he says. “It’s just that it’s been slower to get developed.”

There “has to be” more irrigation in the Mackenzie, Williamson says, which he thinks will go into higher-value crops rather than dairying.

“The future for the Mackenzie is huge but people have to get their head around it. If they think they’re going to lock it all up they better start getting a bloody crowdfunding page together.”

The Mackenzie has been a lightning rod for environmental debate in recent years, despite the previous Government’s attempt to get agreement on areas that should be developed.

Simons Pass Station, owned by Dunedin accountant Murray Valentine, has been under the spotlight for its intensive dairying and irrigation development, including approval to run an irrigation pipeline across conservation land.

The change of government last year to a Labour-led coalition and national publicity over development in the Mackenzie led five agencies – the Mackenzie and Waitaki councils, Crown land manager Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), Department of Conservation and the Canterbury Regional Council – to work more closely together.

LINZ deputy chief executive of Crown property Jerome Sheppard says past decisions led to land intensification in the Mackenzie – “but have also delivered important gains for conservation”. The five agencies are sharing resources now and meeting regularly, including discussions about consents received by individual agencies. “This ensures a coordinated approach is taken to the consent process and we all know what work is being considered, approved or declined.”

(Speaking about the Mackenzie last week, ECan’s chief operating officer Nadiene Dommisse said: “I feel the majority of the community concern is coming from decisions made in the past, whereas environmental protections in place now are quite different.”)

Sheppard says LINZ is making “operational improvements”, including regular meetings with DOC staff. “LINZ is also making a number of improvements to the tenure review process, including working more collaboratively with other agencies and leaseholders to ensure that we have the best information available when making decisions about the future use of Crown land, particularly in sensitive areas like the Mackenzie Basin where there are important ecological or other special values.”

Mixed views on tenure review

Fed Farmers’ Williamson says tenure review was always flawed because it locked up too much land used by farmers. But he thinks it’s coming to a natural end. “That’s what I’m telling the minister – don’t change anything because tenure review’s almost done its thing anyway.”

Academic researcher Brower, on the other hand, says tenure review needs to be stopped immediately. “It’s way, way, way past its use-by date. Tenure review it’s unfixable – they’ve tried fixing it, it cannot be fixed.”

(Brower’s most prominent public work is about the on-selling of former Crown pastoral lease land. Across the South Island, 436,652 hectares have been freeholded through tenure review. About 74,000ha of that has subsequently been sold for $275 million.)

In April last year, in a decision that was part of a series on the Mackenzie district’s landscape-protecting plan change 13, Environment Court Judge Jon Jackson made special mention of pastoral leases containing what’s known as outwash gravels. He said large areas with inherent ecological and geomorphological values were being “lost quickly”. Pastoral intensification, the decision said, was “often inappropriate”.

Judge Jackson said there was a strong ecological, and economic, case for an immediate moratorium on the further freeholding of land containing such gravels in the Mackenzie Basin, while a comprehensive “all-station” review was carried out. Tenure review has not been halted, however, despite being the Labour Party’s stated aim at the past two elections.

The winds of political change and years of Environment Court decisions over Mackenzie planning rules have led to several decisions that have given hope to environmentalists. They include LINZ refusing to follow through on a controversial sale of Crown land next to Lake Pukaki and planning permission being refused for two large pivot irrigators to be used on Maryburn Station.

EDS’s Taylor hopes the Government’s undergoing a fundamental re-think in the Mackenzie. “I can’t imagine a better configuration of the right people in the right places than we have now. And by that I mean both at ministerial level and within LINZ itself.”

However he adds, with no hint of humour: “If they can’t fix it then we’re basically stuffed.”

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

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