A fundamental rethink, and perhaps even ministerial intervention, is needed in the Mackenzie Basin, a new report says. David Williams reports

The Mackenzie Basin’s glacially carved landscapes need urgent protection, an environmental group says.

This morning, the Environmental Defence Society releases a report – commissioned by government agencies Department of Conservation and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) – about landscape protection in the Basin/Te Manahuna.

It’s an area changed by agricultural intensification. Giant, green pivot-irrigation circles have appeared in landscapes best known for being brown and open, across undulating glacial moraines and the river-smoothed, braided outwash plains, near bright turquoise lakes.

The EDS report highlights a recent history of “agency neglect”, or at least inadequate performance, which has been overly permissive of agricultural intensification and farm irrigation. More is in the pipeline, with plans for what the report says could be “the largest dairy farm in Australasia”, and a potential tripling of the irrigated area.

One of the most alarming findings is inadequate planning protection for about 38,500ha – an area bigger than some of the country’s national parks – in the portion of the Basin governed by the Oamaru-based Waitaki District Council.

The report’s lead author Raewyn Peart says an urgent fix is needed for the council’s plan.

“It’s a glaring hole in the planning framework and so, as we said in our report, we think that’s one of the most urgent things that needs to be done.”

Despite being identified in the Canterbury regional council as “outstanding natural landscape”, that huge area, much of it on the Basin floor, isn’t designated as such in the council’s district plan. The failure to protect this important land against inappropriate subdivision, use and development also appears to breach resource management law.

The lack of protection has serious implications, not just for landscapes but for biodiversity. Indigenous plant-life are home to an impressive array of fauna, many of which are endangered.

Progress on an updated Waitaki plan has been glacial. A discussion document was released a year ago, after five years of work. Critics say the proposals contain a surprising lack of environmental protection against pastoral intensification.

A proposed Waitaki plan might be released later this year, but that’s not quick enough for Peart, who says the gap needs to be addressed more urgently.

One way to do that, she says, is to notify revised rules and seek to make them immediately operative. The Environment Minister, David Parker, could “call in” a proposed plan, or plan change, putting it on a procedural fast-track.

“The thing is to get a holding pattern, something notified now, and then you can fix it up, deliberate it, and refine it later, to stop any further damage.

“There’s been a lot of landscape value loss in the Waitaki because of this, sadly.”

This gap in planning safeguards is now being considered by Mackenzie agencies – DoC, LINZ, Canterbury’s regional council, and the Waitaki and Mackenzie councils. As reported in February, Conservation and Lands Minister Eugenie Sage has offered financial and technical support to help the natural environment aspects of its plan review.

An aerial view of the Mackenzie’s changed landscape. Photo: Raewyn Peart

Problems in the Mackenzie are well-known.

They include the soon-to-be-ended tenure review process leading to the freeholding of land with significant ecological values, intensive farming developments on Crown pastoral leases being approved by the Commissioner of Crown Lands against DoC advice, and a kilometres-long irrigation pipeline being approved across land earmarked to be added to the conservation estate.

The genesis of these problems is “free water”, Peart says – a promise of irrigation water made when productive land was flooded in the 1960s for the hydro scheme.

The previous, National-led Government was pro-development, and that theme seemed to seep into decision-making, despite the commissioner being independent and having a statutory duty to protect the environment.

Meanwhile, tiny councils, with small rating bases and relatively few staff, were tasked by central government with protecting nationally important landscapes, with little help.

“It’s just a chronic case of policy misalignment,” Peart says. “And we can’t expect little councils to be protecting this stuff in the national interest when we’ve got, essentially, central government running these policies that are driving in the totally opposite direction.”

She says of LINZ, the agency that houses the commissioner’s office: “I think the agency went down a track of really wanting to support intensification of farming and not really looking to protect the values that were there. Why that happened, I don’t know.”

There have been significant losses of landscape and ecological values in the Mackenzie – with more permitted changes yet to happen. (Improvements are also being made, including the Mackenzie-based agencies working together and a government review of high country management.)

Problems in the Basin were many and varied.

Agencies making decisions in isolation. A major push for more intensive farming. A Crown management regime weighted towards farmers. Inadequate monitoring and enforcement – something that continues, the EDS report notes.

“Where was the check and balance?” Peart asks. “Where’s the oversight? Where was the minister? Where was anyone?”

A lack of agency presence in the Basin has to be addressed, she says. Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, and the Waitaki council, have no physical presence there, while the Mackenzie council, which has just 38 staff to serve a population of 4300, has a small service centre in Twizel.

“We’ve got all these agencies doing stuff up there. Well, if you actually put them all together, and had a multi-agency team up there it would be very cost effective – because five agencies would be chipping in.

“You need to be on the ground seeing what’s happening, actually forming relationships with the landowners up there, knowing what’s happening, having your ear to the ground, and making sure things work.

“I can’t see how you could possible get very far without that.”

Another unwieldy problem is splitting the Basin between the Waitaki and Mackenzie districts. “It’s hopeless, really,” Peart says. “Ideally the Basin should be managed by one council.”

A sprawling dairy ‘node’ at Simons Pass Station. Photo: Raewyn Peart

Much of the EDS report makes grim reading for the environmentally minded – a powerful reminder of the perils of fragmented agencies being bested, or befriended, by powerful vested interests and, in some cases, paying scant attention to their legal duties.

It adds to the Basin’s early history, marked by the loss of land by mana whenua, the introduction of rabbits, extensive pine planting, and construction of the country’s biggest hydro-electric scheme.

Existing tools and policies could be used more effectively to protect the Mackenzie’s landscapes, the EDS report says. But it also floats some new ideas.

A drylands protected area could form the core of the already-mooted Tu Te Takiwhanoa Drylands area. The report suggests the use of a new “heritage landscape order”, with oversight provided by an independent body, perhaps even to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, under expanded responsibilities.

(More detail’s expected in another EDS report on protected landscapes, due to be released next month.)

Peart says DoC urgently needs more Basin land added to the public estate – land that’s marginal for farming but high in ecological values. That could be through something like the Nature Heritage Fund or, perhaps, a post-Covid recovery fund.

“I would have thought there were deals to be done, to swap land and actually get it into the public estate, or buy it.”

One loose thread in the Mackenzie story is that of Simons Pass Station, which is undergoing a $100-million-plus dairy development, as the high country station enters the final stages of tenure review.

Peart is reluctant to say much about it – EDS is involved in a High Court battle over the status of the consents needed to finish the development. “There are a lot of values still remaining on that land,” she says. “Tenure review is an opportunity … for some of that land to come into the conservation estate.”

It seems Simons Pass, near the southern shore of Lake Pūkaki, is reflective of the state of the wider Basin. Despite huge, highly visible changes, the Mackenzie still retains some incredible landscape and biodiversity values.

“It’s not too late,” Peart says. “We’ve lost a lot but we haven’t lost everything, and it’s really important we protect what’s left.”

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

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