Foot-dragging by the Department of Conservation frustrates one of New Zealand’s top botanists. David Williams reports

High drama and tension were in the air during a sunny June day on the West Coast last year.

Dozens of protestors turned out to support Haast farmer John Cowan, who wanted to renew a cattle grazing licence in the Haast River valley, on public conservation land.

Protest organiser Brett Cummings, now a West Coast regional councillor, told Stuff it was time for Coasters to fight their battles together.

“The new Minister for Conservation Eugenie Sage wants to put an end to mining and farming on conservation land. If John Cowan loses his rights, they’ll come after the next one. Many jobs will be lost.”

For his part, Cowan said he his family was “fighting for our lives, basically”, while son-in-law George Ivey said grazing cattle was part of South Westland’s heritage.

At the hearing, held in Hokitika, opponents of the grazing licence excoriated the Department of Conservation for its poor monitoring, and allowing grazing cows to cause damage in the adjacent Mt Aspiring National Park. The licence, they said, was contrary to the Conservation Act and the national park’s management plan.

“It is entirely inappropriate for DOC to be facilitating the presence of cattle in the Haast River on public conservation land, and within a national park and UNESCO World Natural Heritage Area, while central government is simultaneously pursuing regulations to ensure stock is excluded from freshwater,” the Environmental Defence Society’s submission said.

“We’re all pretty disgusted that nothing’s been revealed yet.” – Sir Alan Mark

Then, after the hearing’s drama, nothing.

Weeks turned into months, and dragged into a year, with no sign of a result, despite the previous licence expiring on December 31, 2017. It’s now 17 months since the hearing and it’s still unclear exactly when a decision will land. (DoC deputy director-general Kay Booth says it’s “imminent”, and she hopes to make a decision before the end of the year.)

The situation has frustrated eminent botanist and conservationist Sir Alan Mark, of Dunedin, who opposed the licence renewal. He and other submitters have complained to Minister Sage, and DoC director-general Lou Sanson, about the delay. They’ve been told a decision will be made “in due course”.

“We’re all pretty disgusted that nothing’s been revealed yet,” Mark says.

The Cowan licence isn’t the only example of an inexplicably long wait for a decision. It has been more than a year since DoC heard an application to build an upmarket lodge in the Fiordland National Park.

(It also took five years for a decision to be made on Westpower’s proposed $100 million hydro-electric power station on the West Coast’s Waitaha River, near Hokitika. Sage transferred the decision to Environment Minister David Parker, who, in August, declined the application.)

Mark: “It’s an indictment on the department that they can’t reach a decision within a reasonable time.”

Delay a deliberate ploy?

Cummings, the organiser of last year’s protest, reckons delaying the decision is all part of DoC’s game plan. There’s a bevy of new Government policies in the pipeline, such as action plans to clean up waterways and improve biodiversity. By the time the policies are enacted, Cowan – a friend of Cummings – won’t be able to meet tougher environmental standards, he says. (Cowan couldn’t be reached for comment.)

The waiting is taking its toll on Cowan, he says, as well as the Haast-based Nolan family, who graze in the Cascade Valley, and the Sullivans, of Fox Glacier, who also graze animals on public land. “He’s like the test case, he’s the first one,” Cummings says of Cowan. Meanwhile, the Nolans and Sullivans, old families that have farmed the West Coast for years, are waiting anxiously to see what happens.

“You’ve got to have people in these little rural places paying the rates to keep the place alive,” he argues. If the Nolans left Haast, that’s four families gone. Tourism isn’t year-round, Cummings says, so who’s going to pay rates to keep the water taps running in these small places, or pay the electricity lines charges? “At the end of the day, if DoC want the stewardship land they should pay rates on it.”

Newsroom put to Cummings that Cowan has other business interests, that the grazing wasn’t a big money earner, and taking it away wouldn’t mean a massive financial hit for him. Yes, Cowan has fishing quotas and his wife has oyster quotas, Cummings says – his friend is “well-heeled”, and has “got a bit of dosh”. “That shouldn’t really come into it. The Nolans don’t have that. And the Sutherlands don’t have that.”

Everything Cowan’s done has gone towards buying farmland, Cummings says. “It’s his passion, it’s his love.”

Fundamentally, though, should cattle be grazed on public land? “Should we be playing rugby on public domains?” Cummings blusters. “Because they chew it all up, too, don’t they? They cause pugging? Should we have freedom campers parked on the sides of the road, shitting and dumping all the rubbish? Should we allow that? I’d sooner have cattle on a paddock.”

Treading carefully

DoC might think it has good reason to take ample time to get the Cowan determination right, after being pulled up for previous missteps.

In 2014, the Ombudsman said the department was wrong to approve a two-thirds increase of one company’s guided walkers on the Routeburn Track. (In his decision, Ron Paterson said allowing such a major increase “drives a horse and carriage” through the Mt Aspiring National Park management plan, and he described as “nonsense on stilts” DoC’s justification for finding exceptional circumstances.)

Then, last year, Ombudsman Leo Donnelly ordered DoC to cancel a “trial” which allowed helicopter operators to land on the Ngapunatoru Plateau thousands of times more often than allowed by the Fiordland National Park management plan.

Mark, emeritus professor at Otago University, says: “DoC’s reputation in terms of decisions they make, and the time they take to make decisions, are pretty unsatisfactory, really.”

Newsroom asked deputy director-general Booth why there has been such a delay and whether she has all the information she needs.

She replies, via email: “I’m still evaluating all the information and hope to make a decision before the end of the year. Because a decision is imminent it’s not appropriate for me to discuss matters in the media.”

The Cowan decision is clearly sensitive: it’s been bumped up to Booth from DoC’s West Coast operations director Mark Davies.

Bracing for backlash

There might be a feeling that rejecting the licence will add to growing anti-Government sentiment on the West Coast – underlined by a huge rally two Sundays ago, at which Westland Mayor Bruce Smith called a proposed national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity an attack on Coasters.

While the department has, in recent years, seemingly been fixated on compromises, it isn’t there to be popular. It has a mandate in the Conservation Act, and a cascading array of plans, including those for managing national parks. It beggars belief, however, that a well-functioning organisation with more than 1800 staff can take this long to make what is, on the face of it, is a reasonably straight forward decision.

Federated Mountain Clubs executive member David Barnes – another opponent of the grazing licence – says it appears the decision has been put in DoC’s too hard basket. But it shouldn’t be. “It’s not ideal that something that, really, should have been phased out a long time ago is still being allowed to drift on by default because they haven’t made a decision.”

Barnes, of Wellington, says tourism is a major industry on the West Coast and there’s backlash from some overseas tourists that what they’re seeing in some places isn’t clean and green – the country’s marketing image. “They’re seeing a bunch of Herefords defecating in the Haast River, that’s not really a good fit with that, is it?”

Jen Miller, conservation and advocacy manager for lobby group Forest & Bird, says the wait for a decision on the grazing licence – which Forest & Bird has asked to be declined – has been unacceptably long. “The department needs to be much more timely in the way they deliver decisions on matters that are causing considering damage within a national park, let alone on the water body.”

Booth’s decision – whenever it comes – could spark another West Coast protest or another complaint to the Ombudsman. Given the proximity to next year’s general election, it’s likely Minister Sage, her Green Party, and the ruling coalition will be watching closely.

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

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