The Government’s big shake-up of the high country has upset farmers and green groups. David Williams drills into the detail

Across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown, at the sprawling Mt Nicholas Station, Kate Cocks and her family seem sheltered from the ill winds of Covid-19. 

Yes, the catamaran that used to bring tourists over for farm tours isn’t running, and the public road running through the almost 40,000-hectare station isn’t packed with tourists riding the Around the Mountains cycle trail. 

But Mt Nicholas still has certainty. It has long-lasting contracts with US-owned clothing company Icebreaker and Italian textiles company Reda for the wool from its 29,000 merino sheep, and also runs 2300 Hereford cattle. 

Cocks, a member of rural lobby group High Country Accord, now takes aim at a potential new source of uncertainty: proposed changes to the management of Crown pastoral leases, which had their first reading in Parliament last week. They’ll increase costs and paperwork, she fears, and could hurt their financial viability. She also has a crack at the Government over consultation.

The changes include the end of the controversial tenure review process, which ends a lease and divides a station into freehold and conservation land. “I haven’t got a major issue with that,” Cocks says. Mt Nicholas is almost entirely pastoral lease and has never entered the controversial lease-ending programme. Leaseholders’ property rights are strong, Cocks says, and it’s a successful way to farm. 

“I think we all want the same thing for the high country. All high country farmers are really passionate about the environment that we live and work in, and we strive every day to protect and nurture these environments. At the same time, you’ve got to be able to carve a living in what’s often a really challenging environment to operate in.”

Some criticisms of the proposed changes appear to be wide of the mark, however. And in Parliament the debate has already descended into hyperbole and hysteria. On the other side, environmental groups are also unhappy with the wording, saying it reinforces the existing regime and won’t adequately protect the environment. 

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage might get credit for introducing the bill, 17 months after releasing a discussion document that garnered more than 3200 submissions. But she’ll know the danger of introducing such a controversial change so close to an election, leaving the outcome to a new government. 

Even if the Green Party remains in the ruling coalition, there’s no guarantee she’ll remain minister. The environment select committee (not the primary production committee, pointedly) is yet to start its work, and loud rural voices are yet to really fire up to lobby for the status quo.

The Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill has had a shaky start.

What does it say?

The bill affects 169 Crown pastoral leases covering 1.2 million hectares, or about 5 percent of the country’s land area. These aren’t fenced paddocks, in a patchwork quilt of farms like the Canterbury plains – these properties, stretching the length of the South Island, are some of our most dramatic and rugged landscapes, with beautiful beech forests, tawny tussock lands, and soaring mountains, home to native, and sometimes rare, plants and animals.

Leaseholders have rights – the leases are perpetual, and they have the right to quiet enjoyment and pasturage. They own any improvements. But their activities are limited and any soil-disturbing farm developments need permission from the independent land manager, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. They also have to undertake weed and pest control.

Sage said in Parliament last Thursday the single-most important change in the bill is ending tenure review. (Leases at the substantive proposal stage will still progress.)

Work by University of Canterbury academic Ann Brower shows that since 1991, more than 400,000 hectares have been freeholded at high country stations, with leaseholders paid $65 million, or $176 per hectare. By on-selling 74,000 hectares of that, farmers received a further $275 million. The median sale price is about 500 times what the Crown was paid for their portion, which many felt was perverse.

More intensive farming of former high country land has been highly visible, especially the greening of the Mackenzie Basin, and has sparked public concerns. A paper co-authored by Brower in 2017 suggested laws were being ignored in the Mackenzie, with scant protection for important landscapes and threatened habitat going into private ownership.

A year later, another Brower paper showed discretionary consents issued to leaseholders by the commissioner were a significant factor of farm intensification in the Basin.

The new bill is designed to tighten that consent process. The Government says it’ll be clearer, more transparent and accountable. Decisions will be more focused on environmental effects, a summary says.

There’ll be a greater level of monitoring, and fines for rule-breakers. Māori have to be consulted, as does the Department of Conservation. To make it easier for farmers, some activities will be classified as permitted, some discretionary, and others prohibited.

Sage says: “It seeks to ensure that Land Information New Zealand, or LINZ, and the Commissioner of Crown Lands, administer this land in a way that maintains and enhances its ecological landscape, cultural heritage, and scientific values for both present and future generations, while providing for ongoing pastoral farming.”

Mt Nicholas Station overlooks Lake Wakatipu, near Queenstown. Photo: Mt Nicholas Station

Cocks, of Mt Nicholas, launches numerous attacks on the bill, but not all punches appear to land. 

She describes a looming “bureaucracy and paperwork and box-ticking” as “scary”. But she agrees that, under existing law, soil disturbance requires consent. The key difference, she says, pivoting quickly, is a hierarchy putting environmental values above farming values. 

“If the commissioner’s always got to put the environment first it’s going to be very difficult to continue to farm on an ongoing basis,” Cocks says. (Mt Nicholas is in an odd position, because it negotiated a 20-year farm plan with the commissioner, which Cocks worries will not be possible under the new regime.)

What the bill actually says is decision-makers must seek to achieve: “maintaining or enhancing inherent values across the Crown pastoral estate for present and future generations, while providing for ongoing pastoral farming of pastoral land”. Some low-impact, day-to-day activities won’t need permission, but others, that are destructive, such as draining or ploughing wetlands, are banned.

It’s true, though, the bill says decisions on discretionary consents can’t take into account the financial viability of farms, or the economic benefits of the activity.

Stations like Mt Nicholas aren’t divided into pasture and native plants, Cocks says, it’s a mixed system in which grazing happens within areas of indigenous biodiversity. She raises concerns native vegetation might, over time, overtake grazed areas, squeezing the farm operation, without the ability to control regeneration. 

Taking the bill’s wording on its face, “maintaining inherent values” seems more concerned with wholesale clearance rather than gradual encroachment, and indigenous vegetation clearance is listed as a discretionary activity – meaning permission must be sought but it’s not banned. (Offsetting clearance, say, with protection of another important natural feature, however, can’t be considered in a consent decision.)

Cocks criticises the Government for a lack of consultation. As a party to a contractual relationship, she says leaseholders should get a greater say in this process than “any Joe Bloggs public”. “When it came to actually what was going into the legislation it was quite secretive,” she says. “We asked and asked to be included in conversations around legislation but basically all of those requests were denied.”

Sage sternly defends that point. She says beyond the extensive public consultation, there were detailed discussions with other groups. “I met with the Accord and the High Country Advisory Group during the bill’s development.” She says it’s not usual practice to share the final bill until it’s been agreed by Cabinet and tabled in Parliament.

Cocks says invitations to the minister to visit pastoral leases, and understand the practical implications of the changes, were “met with a brick wall”. The minister responds, lukewarmly: “I have visited a number of pastoral leases and enjoyed the hospitality of leaseholders prior to becoming minister. I welcome the invitation from the Accord and am happy to accept that invitation when my diary permits.” 

“Without considerable changes to the bill, I don’t think that very much is going to change, in terms of the environmental outcomes.” – Susan Walker

Last year, three top ecologists warned the Government its high country package, as outlined in the discussion document, wouldn’t work. Susan Walker, Nick Head and Mike Harding said in a joint submission, written in a personal capacity, the proposals were too vague, leaving too much wriggle room, and no public input or accountability. 

They wanted a public process for decisions, with appeals to the Environment Court.

Walker, again speaking personally, says the bill reinforces the power of the commissioner, putting decisions in the hands of the same officials, within the same agency, that led to environmental degradation on Crown pastoral land. (The submission with Head and Harding pointed to 15 examples in which, they allege, farm work approvals led to the loss of nationally important ecological values.)

The bill is a balancing act between development and environment, she says, with ambiguous criteria. “Without considerable changes to the bill, I don’t think that very much is going to change, in terms of the environmental outcomes.”

She says the public are still shut out of decisions, and there’s more chance to influence proposals through the resource management process – through consents required under local council district plan rules. “We can only look at the evidence so far, that influence has been scant. I would expect the trends to continue, for those decisions to favour development over natural heritage because that’s what’s always happened.”

Brower, the University of Canterbury academic, says: “I don’t understand why we, as the public, get less say in what happens to taxpayer-owned land than what happens on freehold land.”

She adds: “There’s no notification, there are no appeals, there are no submissions [other then DoC and iwi] – none of that environmental democracy under the RMA has come into the pastoral estate.”

Stopping tenure review is a step forward, she says. “Whether it’s a huge step depends on how many were in the queue.” 

Environmental protection can’t improve without strengthening permissions for discretionary consents, she says – which, in this Bill, appears to be the “fluff on top”. 

“Except the fluff on top going into the future will be more important than stopping tenure review.”

It’s not the bill that Brower was hoping for – yet. “But it’s still got a long way to go.”

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird said the “outcomes”, as written, “are likely to perpetuate the loss of significant biodiversity, landscape and cultural values”.

Walker says a continuation of decisions like those outlined in her joint submission is effectively privatisation of public land. “Basically it’s development for private profit.”

Fiery, personal, hysterical

The tussle between green groups and farmers has been terse but polite. The political debate in Parliament last Thursday, meanwhile, was fiery and personal. Hopefully it’s not a harbinger of the election campaign’s tone. 

The most bizarre claim, from National’s Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean, is ending tenure review is a “land grab”. But nothing in this bill takes land off pastoral lessees, and their tenure, and lessees’ property rights, are unchanged. To muddy the waters further, in 2007 her colleague, David Carter, who was National’s agriculture spokesman at the time, called the tenure review programme a “land grab”. You would think cancelling it can’t be the same thing.

(There are all sorts of rhetorical echoes. Carter’s 2007 statement ended with: “Labour is intent on driving high country farmers off their land.” Dean said last Thursday Sage and the Government “are absolutely bent on driving out farmers from the high country”.)

The Bill was characterised as making farming harder, but Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor countered that some day-to-day activities will have fewer restrictions. He also seemed to back green groups’ view that there isn’t a hierarchy, and decisions will be a balance.

“The outcome that the bill seeks does not prioritise inherent values above pastoral farming, nor does it prioritise pastoral farming above inherent values.”

On the personal side, Dean labelled Sage a failed Environment Canterbury councillor who hadn’t “shucked off her former close affiliation with Forest & Bird”. She’d “prefer to have no humans on the high country”, Dean said, and claimed the minister didn’t like listening to high country farmers.

“They want to squeeze them off the land so that Eugenie Sage can have her dryland park.”

The National MPs who spoke to the bill all lambasted New Zealand First, and its MP Mark Patterson, for its support. Carter, a former Speaker who will retire at the election, specifically asked for a speaking slot. He called Patterson’s speech a valedictory. “I’m going to spend my campaigning time telling every farmer in New Zealand that New Zealand First voted for this legislation tonight.”

However, Patterson said his party’s support was qualified, out of “genuine concern” for “heavy bureaucratic overreach”. There’s a crowded field for the rural vote.

While the bill seems wrapped in good intentions, as is often the case perceptions can be more powerful.

Government ministers thanked leaseholders for their contributions, including protection of the inherent values at the centre of the bill. They talk of a partnership with leaseholders.

But the maelstrom of regulations facing farmers, including necessary changes to improve freshwater quality and halt biodiversity loss, leads Cocks, of Mt Nicholas Station, to say farmers feel maligned and mistrusted. The bill was disheartening, she says, because it came across as everyone’s “doing it wrong and it needs to change”.

During the Covid-19 lockdown was the first time for years she’s seen positive reporting and sentiment towards farmers. 

“I just want my children to have the opportunity that I’ve had, to work in what is the greatest environment and the greatest job in the world, and that’s being a high country farmer.”

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

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