Despite the rise of intensive farming, the Mackenzie Basin has a "critical mass" of connected natural ecosystems and landscapes in need of protection. Photo: Google Maps

Embarrassingly for the Department of Conservation, a scheduled ministerial announcement last year was postponed. David Williams reports.

A much-delayed project to better protect the Mackenzie Basin’s stunning landscapes and bolster biodiversity has a new boss.

In the 2018 Budget, Conservation and Lands Minister Eugenie Sage announced $2.6 million to find ways to protect areas of the mountainous South Island basin.

But the Department of Conservation’s Mackenzie programme, headed by former tenure review manager Jeremy Severinsen, has been beset with delays, starved of funding for property purchases, and become seemingly mired in negotiations with local rūnanga. Question marks hang over its central focus – a proposed Mackenzie drylands heritage area.

Kay Booth, DoC’s deputy director-general of partnerships, confirms Severinsen is on an unspecified period of leave and partnership director Barry Hanson is now leading the project.

“This has no effect on the timeline,” she says, adding: “We have yet to confirm timing of any announcement.”

That’s curious. Last year’s main goal for Severinsen and his team was a scheduled drylands area announcement by Sage in November.

(The previous year, soon after becoming minister, Sage wanted a drylands “park” established in the Mackenzie – though that language has since softened to a more loosely defined “area”. Department of Conservation director-general Lou Sanson said in January last year that Sage had set the department a target of having a park in place “within a year”.)

But after Sage was briefed by officials in September, the announcement was postponed to April 1, a fact revealed in ministerial briefing documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act. Severinsen, who doctored scientific advice to Sage in 2018, said in a written statement a fortnight ago DoC was ready to engage with “key stakeholders and the community”.

The main reason for delays appear to be ongoing negotiations with rūnanga over the project’s “co-design” – something flagged in DoC’s internal updates since late 2018. However, there are likely several other factors, including unfinished tenure review proposals, a yet-to-be-received, taxpayer-funded case study by the Environmental Defence Society, and late delivery of an indicative business case.

DoC’s Mackenzie programme has already cost taxpayers $735,000, between July 1, 2018, and November last year, with just over half spent on personnel costs. (Some staff time also goes to the so-called Mackenzie agency alignment.)

There’s a lot at stake. Sage has signalled the Government will end the controversial tenure review programme and shake up management of Crown-owned land in the high country – in a part of the country that, in the main, is unlikely to vote for Labour or Sage’s Green Party.

Greenpeace’s agricultural campaigner Gen Toop says the Government has done some good things in the Mackenzie but she’s disappointed by the delays in establishing a long-awaited drylands area.

“There’s no drylands heritage park, there’s no new rules that would stop new dairy conversions happening, there’s nothing being done about the dairy conversion currently happening at Simons Pass Station, so they really do need to do more.”

“We’ve been through tenure review, it’s freehold land, and all of a sudden here they want another fight? Do they expect us just to give it up and walk away?” – Simon Williamson

Severinsen said two weeks ago a draft vision for the drylands heritage area has been “co-designed”, including “Treaty-based co-governance”.

(Moeraki rūnanga upoko David Higgins couldn’t be reached for comment.)

By email, Sage says giving effect to the Treaty partnership is an important part of any new drylands area. A 100,000ha goal for the area, enshrined in the 2013 Mackenzie Agreement, “remains a goal”, she says.

Sage didn’t respond to a question asking if she was frustrated by the slow pace. But briefings show she asked probing questions of project managers late last year. The Minister says: “Work is progressing and has been constrained by the Nature Heritage Fund being over-subscribed with applications, compared to its available funds.”

An announcement about the drylands area has been re-scheduled to April. If that’s the case, it better move fast.

Rose Austen-Falloon – wife of Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon – is the general manager of the Mackenzie Country Trust, described by DoC as a “critical partner” for a drylands area. (The trust was suggested by the Mackenzie Agreement but was only created three years later and has attracted little Government support, from whatever political stripe.)

The vision for the drylands area is a work in progress, Austen-Falloon says, adding: “It’s still very, very early days.”

Because of uncertainties, the trust hasn’t applied for $2 million from the Provincial Growth Fund, as it said it would last year.

Austen-Falloon says she understands DoC has been focusing on building a positive relationship with rūnanga and Ngāi Tahu. “Whilst they’ve been doing that, which is understandable and a good thing for the Crown to be doing, we have just been waiting.”

She’s not the only one.

Simon Williamson, the chair of Federated Farmers’ high country industry group (branded “a critical stakeholder” by DoC), says there’s been no discussion about the drylands area with the rural sector. Incentives for voluntary protection on private land in the Mackenzie will have to be very enticing if Williamson’s reaction is anything to go by.

“We’ve been through tenure review, it’s freehold land, and all of a sudden here they want another fight? Do they expect us just to give it up and walk away?”

Those words find accord with Rosalie Snoyink, of environmental lobby group Mackenzie Guardians, who’s also in the dark. She says the success of the proposed drylands area comes down to money. “This is never going to work until there’s funds to purchase properties. They’re just not going to give it up, are they?”

Environmental urgency

A June 2018 briefing to Sage for a drylands “park”, as it was then, shows the environmental urgency for the project.

As little as 2 percent of the country’s dryland zone – about 19 percent of our land area – is legally protected for conservation purposes, and the Mackenzie drylands are at an ecological and landscape tipping point, the briefing says.

Its network of braided rivers, lakes, single-channel rivers, wetlands and ponds is a haven for threatened birds, such as kaki/black stilt, black-billed gulls and black-fronted terns. Meanwhile, the fens, bogs, marshes kettle holes and swamps provide important habitat for threatened freshwater fish, whitebait and invertebrates.

The floor of the Basin “supports the greatest area and variety of historically rare ecosystems of any part of New Zealand”, the briefing says. “The Mackenzie Basin stands out as the largest and most diverse of the dryland basins.”

(In 2017, alarmed at the rapid loss of large areas of significant inherent values, an Environment Court decision on the Mackenzie District Council’s landscape-protecting plan change 13 called for an immediate moratorium on the freeholding of further land – particularly those on “outwash gravels”.)

Another briefing, from September 2018, says: “The Mackenzie Basin contains an outstanding complex of naturally rare, glacially derived, dryland indigenous ecosystems which, globally, are not represented elsewhere. These ecosystems are the habitat for dozens of threatened and at-risk taxa.”

Generally, threatened and at-risk species in the Basin are sliding into higher threat categories.

What was suggested was a core protected area, led by the Crown – the “park” – to help solve the “biodiversity crisis”. Protection on private land – the “heritage area” – was a wider vision.

Crown land the core

Easy gains, without the ructions of negotiating with private landowners, were noted. Transferring land from other government agencies would “secure improved conservation outcomes”. (Last year, about 4000ha of the Tasman riverbed was transferred from the Crown’s land manager, Land Information New Zealand, to DoC.)

Discussions were initiated with the Defence Force, which has land in the proposed park area. (A memorandum of understanding has been mooted, but it’s not clear if it’s been signed. The Defence Force hadn’t responded to our questions by yesterday evening.)

Conservation values have been depleted or lost through the Commissioner of Crown Lands issuing consents to pastoral lessees, but DoC and LINZ agreed to “comprehensive guidelines” for the identification and assessment of inherent values on Crown pastoral land.

However, a September 2018 briefing said the protection of key conservation and landscape values can’t rely on the outcome of pastoral lessee consents or councils’ district plan provisions. Also, some Crown pastoral lease land in the proposed park area was not in tenure review.

“Without targeted funding, the protection of conservation values on the remainder of the Mackenzie inter-montane Basin floor will rely solely on planning and regulatory frameworks and a continuation of tenure review outcomes. These mechanisms have not adequately secured resilient, connected ecological and landscape values elsewhere on the Basin floor.”

Work started on an indicative business case for the park, which, it was estimated, would take four weeks. An internal project update in November 2018 noted: “The need to allow sufficient time for genuine co-design with our Treaty partner will impact upon the project’s schedule.”

Timeframes start slipping

The estimated four weeks for the business case stretched into March and then April. A communications strategy that was supposed to be completed in March was still being developed in October. A year ago, the drylands area’s launch was set down for November – “at developed visitor site”.

Reasons for the delayed business case included recruiting for a Ngāi Tahu requested role – known as Kaitūhoto Mātātoa Te Manahuna – and “reprioritisation”, explained as “prospecting co-funding opportunities”.

An internal DoC update from July last year showed how a lack of money was a problem for creating a drylands heritage area (DHA). “Should further funding become available a change in project scope would lead to an increase in the benefits delivered by the project (eg: an increased number of hectares of land receiving enduring and certain protection, with an associated increase in the coverage and diversity of threatened native species.)”

Last September, that became: “Our preferred approach is to immediately progress land protection options that can be delivered in the absence of additional funding for land acquisition.”

The focus also seemed to shift from landscapes and ecology. “Giving effect to DoC’s treaty partnership is the primary objective for the DHA project,” the update from last July said. By then, undertaking “genuine and meaningful co-design with our Treaty partner” had been a “priority activity” for nine months.

Two months later, the minister was told: “Out of all the strategic initiatives the DHA project is creating the greatest level of transformation of the Crown’s Treaty relationship with mana whenua in the Mackenzie.”

Announcement postponed

With little progress to trumpet, officials searched for other successes.

An April 2019 briefing to the minister said the drylands area was just one of a number of strategic projects: “including Te Manahuna Aoraki and agency alignment, and a multi-agency strategic approach to managing visitor pressure”. The drylands area, the briefing noted, was a “key component” of a forthcoming tourism strategy.

DoC had chipped in an extra $300,000 to control wilding pine trees, which went down well with farmers jittery about the end of tenure review and a looming shakeup of high country management.

The Environmental Defence Society was contracted by DoC and LINZ to explore overseas models of landscape scale private land protection, with the Mackenzie as a key case study.

In October of last year, Sage was told the drylands area had “strong synergies” with Te Manahuna Aoraki – a collaboration between mana whenua, DoC, philanthropic funders, and landowners, which aims to create a 310,000ha predator-free mainland “island” in the upper Mackenzie and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. “The two initiatives are complementary.”

Deadline pressure eventually told. After the minister was briefed in person last September, the drylands area announcement was postponed until April of this year.

Third party co-funding options were being explored “to support a future expansion of the work programme”, a written October briefing said. Formal land protection requires funding, and there was “limited” money available from the Nature Heritage Fund and a “low likelihood of other Crown funding”. A potential source was the international visitor levy, collected off most overseas arrivals to this country.

On Tuesday afternoon, DoC couldn’t say if it was confident of meeting the new April deadline for a ministerial announcement. A Christchurch-based communications adviser said the department would endeavour to get answers to Newsroom’s questions by the end of the week.

“I didn’t think the whole of the park would turn up in one strategy, that this is something that would happen over time.” – Snoyink

In his written statement, Severinsen, the former DoC Mackenzie manager, said wider feedback would be sought on the drylands area this year “as we continue to make progress towards protecting the outstanding landscapes and threatened species of the Mackenzie Basin”.

Snoyink, of the Mackenzie Guardians, is itching for the department to get cracking, to announce something to “give us a bit of hope”.

“What I wanted to see was the start of a park or an area, a nucleus that could be built on. I didn’t think the whole of the park would turn up in one strategy, that this is something that would happen over time.”

Minister Sage says the Mackenzie Agreement didn’t require protected areas to be in a contiguous area. (However, a briefing to her in June 2018 said reserve design, based on “sound science-based international principles”, should be based on “scale, connectivity and buffering” to get the best ecological integrity and resilience.)

There’s an opportunity, the Minister says, to “look at how best to protect biodiversity and landscape values in an integrated way across a wider area in the Mackenzie Basin”, including on land outside the public conservation estate. “That requires different ways of thinking and new tools and partnerships with landholders.”

(A briefing to Sage in September last year said dryland protection was being approached “through the use of current tools and resources, while exploring alternative funding solutions for land acquisition”.)

Protection won’t be imposed

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says its Mackenzie case study should be completed by the end of next month. “Hopefully that will provide some guidance and clarity around our views on how this should proceed. It’s a question of what the Government thinks.”

He doesn’t think a protection regime will be imposed on freehold or leasehold landowners. Rather they’ll be invited to join the drylands area in exchange for tangible benefits “including some financial support to manage that land in a way that’s sympathetic with the heritage area values”.

“Whether that’s done by statute, or whether that’s done by ministerial fiat, or a change to the regional policy statement, or some other sort of device, is something that we’re looking at.”

The original proposition of a core protected area is still alive, Taylor says, but is just slower to materialise than originally anticipated. Further funding could mean the “core area” could be added to by strategic acquisitions over time, he says. “It’s complicated, putting it mildly, and getting something that’s going to resonate positively with the wider community, some of whom will be suspicious of government, is a challenge.”

Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith seems slightly suspicious, especially if land is going to be re-classified and exempted from rates. He’s raised concerns with senior DoC staff. “We don’t fully understand how it’s going to operate, where it’s going to be operated, is it one chunk of land – apparently not. It can be pieces of land here and there, not necessarily joined up.”

A drylands area might be a good idea, Smith says, especially if more money’s funnelled into pest control. Whatever happens, he believes the Basin’s farmers are great caretakers of the land.

“I don’t believe we can wind back Mackenzie to 150 years ago. It is what it is. Some of the finest wool in New Zealand is grown off that country. It’s about managing it and working with the farmers.”

Slow progress towards a drylands area is, at the very least, a bad look for the department, especially considering it was a ministerial directive. It also raises questions about Sage’s sway with Cabinet ministers to get funding for Green Party priorities.

The greatest shame of the delays, however, might be for areas of significant conservation importance identified as being in “urgent need of long-term protection”. As noted in a September 2018 ministerial briefing – prepared with the help of ecological experts – failing to secure protection of values for these areas in a timely manner will result in the “unrecoverable permanent loss of important ecological and landscape values”.

Or, as critics might say, further loss – given government officials’ role in the environmental “train wreck” in the Mackenzie.

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

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