Three top ecologists with decades of experience in the South Island’s high country say the Government’s proposed improvements to Crown high country management won’t work.

Mike Harding, Nick Head and Susan Walker made a joint submission to Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage’s consultation on plans for the Crown to take a “stronger enduring stewardship role” on pastoral leases, of which there are 171 left.

The trio of ecologists – speaking personally and not necessarily for their employers or clients – say the proposals “embed the failings of the past system”. Those failings, the submission says, have caused drastic change to landscapes and indigenous biodiversity. Commensurately drastic changes are needed to ensure the system’s faults aren’t repeated.

“A primary ecological concern is that very little, if any, additional Crown pastoral land could now be developed without significant and permanent loss of ecological values,” the submission says.

Harding tells Newsroom there’s not enough in the Government’s discussion document to guarantee that “enduring stewardship” of Crown pastoral lease land will result. “It would be a very optimistic view of what’s been proposed.”

Myriad views are set out in the 3165 submissions to Government land manager Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). Newsroom’s handpicked sample includes submissions by the High Country Accord Trust and Federated Farmers, which raise concerns that property rights are being “unlawfully” eroded. Such language echoes a 2007 debate when the Labour-led Government pulled lakeside properties from tenure review and triggered controversial rent adjustments. John Key’s National-led coalition swept to power the following year.

Fifteen reasons why

The most high-profile change mooted by the current Government is the end of the controversial tenure review programme. (Sage told RNZ the final straw was dramatic landscape changes in the Mackenzie Basin, with the loss of landscape values, indigenous vegetation, and habitats for threatened species.)

Other changes include a framework to guide Commissioner of Crown Lands decisions, improving Crown “performance”, and making decisions accountable and transparent.

But Harding, Head and Walker say proposed management changes are too vague, there’s still too much discretion, and no public input or accountability. Their submission paints a picture of an in-house, behind-closed-doors, unchallengeable system run by unaccountable officials, often using pro-development contractors who make decisions, at times, on advice provided by inexpert officials.

Their submission highlights 15 examples of approved farm work that, they allege, led to a loss of nationally important ecological values, including at high-profile properties like Simons Pass and Mt White stations.

For example, at Otamatapaio Station, in North Otago, native shrublands in a threatened land environment were cleared but local Department of Conservation (DOC) staff “advised LINZ that there were no inherent values present”. Exotic lupins were allowed to be planted at Sawdon Station, near Lake Tekapo, and proliferated through the braided Edwards River, a rare ecosystem.

At Canterbury’s Mt Oakden Station, near Lake Coleridge, old growth shrublands were cleared on an outstanding natural landscape and in an area recommended for protection. “The clearances breached district plan rules for clearance of indigenous vegetation. DOC’s advice to LINZ permitted clearance.”

“The current proposal neither addresses, nor fixes, the causes of the problem.” – Ann Brower

The trio of ecologists suggest abolishing the Commissioner of Crown Lands and hand decision-making on discretionary consents – all publicly notified – to independent commissioners, with appeals to the Environment Court. Natural heritage’s primacy should also be written into legislation, they say.

Harding, Head and Walker suggest a new independent body, similar to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, be established to oversee long-term pastoral lease management.

Some sentiments expressed by the ecologists are backed by University of Canterbury academic Ann Brower, whose work has focused on land sales of newly freeholded land after tenure review, as well as the environmental effects of Crown decisions.

Her submission says the existing system gives more power to the Commissioner of Crown Lands, LINZ and Department of Conservation officials than to the public. She suggests doing away with the office of the commissioner or give the public notice, accountability and appeal rights for the office’s decisions.

“I am concerned the present proposal will perpetuate many of the ecological and landscape-level mistakes we have witnessed over the past several decades. The current proposal neither addresses, nor fixes, the causes of the problem.”

Possible betrayal: Feds

Farmers also see a storm on the horizon, in a different way.

Federated Farmers’ high country group, which has more than 430 members, warns the Government against scrapping tenure review. “The only reasons we can see for such action is blind ideology and a pre-determined agenda,” the submission, written by Timaru policy adviser Bob Douglas, says.

Despite assurances to pastoral lessees of a degree of certainty of tenure, Douglas writes that the discussion document “hints at a possible betrayal of this trust”. The submission points to a proposed change for environmental, cultural and heritage considerations to be given primacy over farming. There are worries over the Crown referring to a “fair financial return”.

Federated Farmers was involved in the preparation of the High Country Accord Trust’s submission. It says only a small number of the 127 completed and implemented tenure reviews have led to inappropriate subdivision and farm intensification.

The trust’s submission was penned by chairman Philip Todhunter, of Lake Heron Station, in the Ashburton Lakes. But in a sign of the legal heft behind it, Mark Dineen, a partner in Christchurch law firm Tavendale & Partners, is listed as one of the submission’s contacts.

Todhunter – who was not available for comment last night – says pastoral leases are a bilateral contract between the Crown and lessee, not with iwi and the public.

The submission says the Minister admits she’s deliberately trying to make farming subservient to conservation values. “As such there is a fundamental unilateral shift of the bundle of rights originally alienated by the Crown under the pastoral lease back to the Crown,” the trust says. “This is contrary to the rule of law.”

“To the extent that there are problems with the current system, they stem from a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, inadequate staff resources, and lack of timely decision-making.” – High Country Accord Trust’s submission

Sage told RNZ last month that pastoral lessees have the right to graze the land and to so-called “quiet enjoyment” on leased land.

However, the High Country Accord’s submission says the Crown has “locked in place an enduring contractual relationship”. Leaseholders have the rights to exclusive possession and pastoral farming, Todhunter says, but also, crucially, responsibility for land stewardship.

“To the extent that the Crown seeks to change that role by creating a new ‘regulatory’ framework it is inherently varying the terms of the contract.”

What’s needed, Todhunter writes, is not mandated processes with “centralised control”, but informal discussions with “meaningful engagement”.

The submission paints a picture of property rights being appropriated, which could reduce farm investments, including environmental work. “To the extent that there are problems with the current system, they stem from a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, inadequate staff resources, and lack of timely decision-making. These are all matters which can be fixed without legislative change.”

But it seems likely Todhunter and his trust will be disappointed. LINZ says the public will get further opportunity to comment on potential changes “when a Parliamentary select committee considers a Bill”. Time will tell whether that triggers further discussions with its lawyers.

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

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