The Government says eight high country properties have a binding tenure review contract. David Williams names them.

An area of Crown pastoral land the size of 153 Hagley Parks is still likely to be privatised under tenure review, despite the Government announcing it will scrap the process.

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage was forced to confirm the cancellation of the controversial scheme last Thursday, after Newsroom revealed the move that morning.

Tenure review is a voluntary scheme to break up a Crown pastoral lease, by apportioning areas for conservation and freehold in a single transaction that, bizarrely, can lead to a Government payment to farmers. Several high-profile Crown pastoral blocks that have been privatised have been sold and carved up for exclusive housing developments, like Closeburn and Wyuna Preserve, near Lake Wakatipu.

(Beyond tenure review, conservation groups have been bewildered at the intensive farming allowed on pastoral leases at the discretion of the Commissioner of Crown Lands.)

Sage released a consultation document yesterday, giving the public eight weeks to submit its views on how the South Island’s high country should be managed.

In the document, Land Information New Zealand confirmed there are 34 leases in tenure review and, of those, eight leaseholders had accepted a “substantive proposal” by the Crown. “Once accepted by a leaseholder, a substantive proposal is a binding contract and creates an obligation on the commissioner to implement a tenure review.”

Sage tells Newsroom those eight lessees have a legitimate expectation that tenure review will continue. But she gives no comfort to the 26 others, which are at various stages of the process. “As the document also notes, it is a voluntary process; either party can pull out at any time.”

Is eight enough?

Sage suggested Newsroom find the names of the eight properties on LINZ’s website – so we did, from a tenure review status report compiled last November. Most are in Otago and Canterbury, with several near lakes.

The properties, according to LINZ, are Happy Valley, west of Clyde, two stations at Huxley Gorge, north of Lake Ohau, Longlands and Mt Dasher, inland from Oamaru, Morven Hills, in the Lindis Pass, The Wolds, adjacent to Lake Pukaki, and Marlborough’s Middle Hill Station.

(Simons Pass and Ferintosh stations, two Mackenzie Basin properties that conservation groups are watching closely, are not in the lucky eight.)

According to the substantive proposals for the eight properties, 25,380 hectares of those leases will be freeholded – an area about 153 times the size of Christchurch’s Hagley Park. The biggest parcel is 10,560 hectares to be privatised at Morven Hills.

On the other side of the ledger, 25,822 hectares will become conservation land.

One of the Huxley Gorge runs accounts for more than half of that, at 13,674 hectares. As part of the agreement, though, the former run-holders will be allowed to expand and diversify their existing tourism activities. The guiding business’s 20-year concession in the new conservation area covers “walking, tramping, climbing, rock climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking, horse trekking, ATV and 4WD touring, guided ground based hunting, guided fishing, scenic snow landings, and aerial positioning of recreationists and guided parties”. There’s also a grazing agreement and access easements.

“It is the minister who signs off whether funding should be allocated.” – Eugenie Sage

With the public consultation now under way, Sage is giving little away.

She says some lessees have previously pulled out of tenure review when the areas of land earmarked for conservation and freehold couldn’t be agreed. “It may be that others pull out but I can’t predict that. They’ll be carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis, as LINZ’s resources permit.”

But does she want the Crown to pull out of the other 26 tenure review negotiations?

“Those are in a legal process in the moment and they’ll be carefully considered.”

Sage confirms it’s the Commissioner of Crown Lands who will consider those negotiations. “But it is the minister who signs off whether funding should be allocated.”

The National Party’s land information spokesman David Bennett reckons the Government will pull out of the remaining 26 negotiations, and those lessees should feel aggrieved at Sage’s “unilateral actions”.

Meanwhile, Simon Williamson, the chair of Federated Farmers’ high country industry group, says Sage has assured him those properties already in tenure review will continue, on a case-by-case basis. “That’s all we asked for.”

He says Government needs to honour the people who have entered the system voluntarily.

But there’s the rub. Given it’s a voluntary system, can’t the Crown could pull out right now if it wants to? That’s right, Williamson says. But he adds, without much conviction, that if the Crown stands to gain land that the Department of Conservation (DOC) deems valuable, “why would you pull out?”

Sage answers that question directly. She says better safeguards for important high country land is at the heart of ending tenure review, as well as ensuring economic resilience and sustainable farming on those properties. Crown pastoral leases should not just be turned into a hilly version of the Canterbury Plains, she says. “Which is what has happened in the Mackenzie, where you’ve just seen a patchwork of intensification, bright green grass, pivot irrigators, and the complete destruction of the indigenous vegetation.”

Controversial exit

The National Party ministers who devised tenure review noted in 1994 that it cost about $2.4 million a year to administer the leases, while only $1 million was collected in rental and permit income.

When the Crown Pastoral Land Act passed four years later, there were 303 Crown pastoral leases. There are now 171 left, covering 1.2 million hectares, or nearly 5 percent of New Zealand. It used to be double that area. Since 1998, 346,000 hectares has been freeholded through tenure review, 53 percent of the total disposed of. From the land added to the conservation estate, five new parks were created. Some leases have been bought wholesale.

Tenure review has survived changes of Government. In 2007, then Land Information Minister David Parker, of the Labour Party, banned lakeside leases from tenure review, to protect them from inappropriate subdivision and development.

But it was just a policy. The National Party overturned it in 2009 at a stroke of the pen – while, at the same time, ordering officials to reach “an appropriate balance between relevant economic, environmental and cultural considerations”.

Sage won’t make Parker’s mistake. She intends to make law changes, to make it harder for a government of a different stripe to change direction – quickly, at least.

The Crown Pastoral Land Act will be changed to “ensure clearer outcomes”, Sage says, and to define ecologically sustainable management. Proposals in the consultation document include strengthening the discretionary consents system, getting lessees to cover the cost of discretionary consents, ensuring more transparency about decisions, and getting the commissioner to issue guidelines for leaseholders and the public.

Sage: “Another significant change is ensuring that the commissioner is making his or her decisions on applications for discretionary consents with good technical advice.”

Consent concerns

LINZ has read the political tea leaves and is already changing its approach to high country management. Even so, many in DOC will be relieved that tenure review is ending, considering how often its recommendations were overlooked.

The real concern now is about discretionary consents, another process in which DOC’s expertise has been belittled or ignored. While Sage is confident the policy work has been done and the changes will lead to better results for landscapes and biodiversity, others are worried. The Government has to ensure its language is clear, and its officials are forced to adopt its directions.

The Environmental Defence Society believes the Government should have axed the “unaccountable” commissioner’s role. The society has previously questioned the legality of past tenure review decisions, saying they preferred economic values to environmental ones. Even so, executive director Gary Taylor says the problem was with the system’s implementation and, if run properly, it would still be a useful tool. Federated Mountain Clubs, which advocates for public access, has also questioned the move.

Yet the National Party isn’t promising to reinstate tenure review, if re-elected. Farmers aren’t threatening to march in the streets. The policy appears to have run its course – and will end, it seems, with little more than a whimper. The real battle is likely to start once the Government decides where it will draw the line on existing tenure review negotiations and the extent of its law changes.

Sage says the consultation document doesn’t contain any political trade-offs. “This move to end tenure review is strongly supported by all three parties in Government.”

Submissions on the Government’s discussion document close at 5pm on April 12.

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

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