The Conservation Minister puts a brave face on moves to protect the Mackenzie Basin. David Williams takes a look.

ANALYSIS: Credit must be given for concessions won to create what’s being called a conservation area in the Mackenzie country. But such praise should be tempered with the realisation this is a diminished version of what was envisaged, and a dose of reality about how much has been lost in recent years, and why.

Last Saturday morning, Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage announced 11,800 hectares of land had been legally protected, a “step towards” the protection of drylands in the Mackenzie Basin. The catch-all name is Tū Te Rakiwhānoa Drylands – but the cloak has to be spread far and wide, as the areas are far apart, inhabiting different parts of the Basin.

Much of the land is at lower altitudes, habitat for rare native plants and wildlife. But many more of these vulnerable and threatened areas remain unprotected, and exposed to potential destruction.

An important part of the announcement was the involvement of manawhenua, represented by rūnanga at Arowhenua, Waihao and Moeraki, who gifted the name.

(A Department of Conservation blog explains: “Tū Te Rakiwhānoa was on a quest to restore the waka Aoraki and he used his hamo to clear the debris away from the waka. A taniwha by the name of Koiro Nui Te Whenua was causing havoc amongst the people in the area. Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, with the help of his cousins – Kahukura and Marukura – used the debris cleared from their waka to bury the taniwha.”)

Some concessions have been won.

On the face of it, the biggest appears to be 3132 hectares of the controversial Crown pastoral lease at Simon Pass Station, at the southern tip of Lake Pukaki, to go into Crown ownership, through tenure review. That’s 56 percent of the lease. The Crown’s portion in the preliminary proposal was only 1265 hectares.

Sage thanked Simons Pass’s leaseholders, Murray and Barbara Valentine, and pastoral lessees at Twin Peaks Station, near Omarama, for “agreeing to transfer such a significant amount of land to the public conservation estate to be protected for generations to come”. (Under the tenure review deal, the Valentines will get 2400 hectares of freeholded land, an area more than 14 times bigger than Auckland’s Hobsonville Point development.)

The Crown will get 1631 hectares of the Twin Peaks lease, only slightly more than the 1615 hectares originally proposed. The leaseholder will get 1800 hectares of freehold land. Crucially, the new conservation land will connect the Killermont and Oteake conservation areas. Simons Pass’s owners also agreed to the purchase of an extra 1200 hectares along the Pukaki and Tekapo rivers for conservation land.

The Nature Heritage Fund has bought 1792 hectares of Ōhau Downs from Kees Zeestraten, who has battled for years to turn part of the 5200-hectare station into a large-scale, irrigated dairy farm. In addition, the Defence Force has agreed to manage 15,000 hectares of the Tekapo military training area, including controlling wilding pines and predators.

Where the spin emerges, in terms of the tally of new legally protected land, is counting 4100 hectares of Tasman riverbed, transferred from Land Information New Zealand to DoC’s control, in the 11,800 hectares. While this re-designation might make sense, it has always been public land.

Pulling together disparate tenure review proposals from different parts of the Basin, tens of kilometres apart, under one umbrella, is also a sign of how degraded the idea of a drylands park or area has become.

On Saturday, green groups acknowledged the gains, but characterised the announcement as a good start, and positive progress. Forest & Bird’s Nicky Snoyink says: “It will be critical to get further protection for this area before more of our unique plants and animals are lost.”

Choosing to do the right thing

Sage said in a statement: “Tū Te Rakiwhānoa Drylands is looking for a less combative way forward in which the people and stakeholders of the Mackenzie Basin can choose to do the right thing for nature while at the same time doing right by each other.”

This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It has echoes of the Mackenzie Agreement, which has burbled along for seven years and, despite the creation of the Mackenzie Country Trust, has produced little. All the while, the greening of the Basin has continued through more pivot irrigation and approvals for intensive farming, including dairying.

It’s also hard to know how hard-won the concessions for Tū Te Rakiwhānoa are.

As Newsroom has previously reported, beyond the initial tenure review proposal, Simons Pass had already agreed, in a court settlement with Forest & Bird and Mackenzie Guardians, to set aside another 2550 hectares and not farm it. At Ōhau Downs, Zeestraten said in 2014 he intended to protect by covenant 3000 hectares – although this was meant as a quid pro quo for the approval of intensive dairying.

Perhaps some concessions were always on the cards, considering submissions made to the Simons Pass tenure review proposal complained expert evidence was being ignored, as was a DoC recommendation for areas that should have been earmarked for protection.

What is known is Simons Pass lessee Murray Valentine is a shrewd negotiator and developer. Since he bought the station in 2003 he has won dozens of consents and approvals – including from the Government’s independent land manager, the Commissioner of Crown Lands – for a $100-million-plus dairy development.

(Aspects of the development at the station, which is a mix of pastoral lease and freehold land, are being challenged in court.)

Green groups are pleased more of Simons Pass’s lease will be added to the conservation estate, but there is also a tinge of resignation and sadness. Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor said on Saturday: “EDS would have preferred to see the whole pastoral lease on Simons Pass Station returned to the Crown.”

Forest & Bird’s Nicky Snoyink noted, without naming names, that widespread irrigation and dairy conversions have turned drylands into green grass – “and it’s still happening”. More than 70 percent of the Basin’s original drylands have been lost, the country’s fastest rate of biodiversity loss.

It’s unclear what the Mackenzie protection is costing taxpayers. The Nature Heritage Fund won’t release its purchase price because the deal isn’t settled. Details of the substantive tenure review proposals have now been released, but the payments involved have not.

Tenure review, which is being scrapped by the Government, divides land into freehold and Crown ownership, with payments made to settle the lease. Leaseholders can be paid more to be bought out of the lease, than they pay to privatise land. Yet, some of that newly freeholded land has been on-sold for eye-watering sums, to developers.

Jarringly, new conservation land at Simons Pass will adjoin an intensive dairy development, dubbed the “largest dairy farm in Australasia”, and there’s a potential tripling of the Basin’s irrigated area in the wind.

There have been calls for an urgent fix, even an Environment Minister “call in”, for inadequate planning protection for about 38,500 hectares of the Basin via the Waitaki District Council’s district plan, which sets development rules.

Clearly there’s much more to do.

Pivot irrigators on glacial outwash in the Mackenzie Basin. Photo: Raewyn Peart

It’s worth remembering the genesis of the Mackenzie drylands park idea.

Despite centuries of disturbance and depletion by humans, the Basin remains a stronghold for nationally threatened and at-risk ecosystems. It’s a treasure trove of glacial sequences – from existing glaciers to moraines, outwash terraces and plains – and provides critical habitat for endangered wildlife, like the kakī/black stilt, and rare native plants. It’s a high-profile tourist corridor, characterised by wide-open landscapes, tinged with the yellows and browns of tussocks and grasses.

In 2009, in a report on tenure review, then-Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright said a proposed drylands park of about 30,000 hectares would contribute to the range of ecologies in the high-country conservation park network. A month later, concerns were raised about plans for massive irrigation in the Mackenzie, which, DoC said, might clash with the drylands park proposal.

Early in 2010, DoC was accused of giving up on the high country – of pushing for less land under tenure review because it couldn’t afford to manage it, after budget cuts under a John Key-led government. Later that year, environmental groups were up in arms over tenure review proposals to freehold 31,000 hectares under five Crown pastoral leases – including Simons Pass – clustered around Lake Pukaki.

Land on those leases could have formed the core of a drylands park, which was meant to be contiguous. But with DoC starved of funding, and its recommendations for protection often ignored by the Crown’s land manager Land Information (LINZ), development in the Basin got the upper hand, and the greening of the landscapes gathered pace.

Academic articles have tracked the loss of Mackenzie land, often Crown-owned, with significant values.

A 2017 paper said the more rare and threatened the ecological values on high country stations, the more likely it was to be freeholded under tenure review. A year later, research found two-thirds of intensive development in the Mackenzie since 2013 had been on Crown-owned land, or land privatised through tenure review. A big factor was discretionary consents approved for pastoral leases by the Crown’s independent land manager, the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

All the while the drylands park idea stayed alive, but on life support, really, without any funding or government agency support. The 2013 Mackenzie Agreement, an attempt to get consensus from a variety of interests, including environmental and farming interests, endorsed the idea of a 100,000-hectare park, while earmarking areas for irrigated development as a trade-off.

Much hope was attached to Sage’s appointment as minister of both conservation and land information, including measures to make agencies in the Mackenzie work more closely.

In late 2017, soon after being appointed, Sage made it clear establishing a park was a priority. “There’s been a major change in the basin and we’ve seen virtually no progress on the dryland park. I want to see that park established.”

A big boost in conservation funding announced in the 2018 Budget included $2.6 million for better protection of the Mackenzie’s unique landscapes and biodiversity. A project management team was created to establish what was then being called a Mackenzie dryland heritage area.

First thing last year, DoC director-general Lou Sanson said the aim was to have a dryland park in place “within a year”. “That’s the target set by the minister that we’re trying to deliver on.”

But through a series of delays and missteps, the minister was let down by her department.

Expert ecological advice to the minister on the Mackenzie was doctored by a DoC manager in 2018 – by the manager who would eventually head the project management team.

The minister’s deadline of late 2019 for an announcement was missed, as was the next date, in April of this year. Beyond the immediate problem of a Covid-19 national lockdown, reasons for delays included negotiations with rūnanga, unfinished tenure review proposals, and the late delivery of an indicative business case. The project team’s manager left and a new boss was appointed.

Coronavirus intervened again in August, with the Otago Daily Times reporting Sage was on the cusp of announcing a purchase of “all or part” of Ōhau Downs Station. That same day, Auckland went into a Level 3 lockdown, and the rest of the country moved to Level 2, after a community outbreak in South Auckland. Sage’s Mackenzie announcement failed to materialise, until last weekend.

(To be fair, given where things were a year ago it’s a feather in the minister’s cap there was something to announce.)

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

A statement from LINZ on Saturday added further detail to that released by the minister.

Jerome Sheppard, the deputy chief executive of Crown property, said it’s understood plans for the construction of  additional dairy platforms at Simons Pass “are no longer being considered”, with the focus now shifting to other forms of irrigated farming. “As a condition of his irrigation consents, Mr Valentine will continue to have a role in the restoration and recovery of some of the land to become conservation land, including an annual contribution of $100,000 towards this work.”

(The substantive proposal summary says one new conservation area contains two partially developed pivot circles, with further development highly likely if the land continued to be farmed. “Conservation advice suggests that indigenous vegetation will re-establish in the absence of further development.”)

These seem to be good concessions but have come at a high environmental cost.

Environmentalists believe the development and approvals at Simons Pass, some of it on fragile land with areas of high ecological and landscape values, is disgraceful. It shows historical weakness, and the pro-development bias, of Crown agencies and councils, who allowed themselves to be divided and conquered – with different bodies approving consents, often behind closed doors, in a piecemeal fashion.

Last Saturday’s announcement can’t, with a straight face, be dressed up as a conservation park or a heritage area.

The idea of a dryland park was to take one of the country’s last opportunities to protect areas at large scale, along contiguous ecological sequences. Right now, nationally significant and, in some cases, internationally significant moraine and outwash sequences, comprising the best of the Mackenzie’s natural heritage, remain unprotected. It might not be Sage’s fault – certainly LINZ and, to an extent, DoC, should share some blame – but it’s hard to see how, in some areas, that longed-for protection can now be achieved.

Hope alone won’t protect the Mackenzie. It will require political will, a razor-sharp focus, and, potentially, a lot of money, including a boost the Nature Heritage Fund’s annual budget of about $2 million a year. Without those things, there seems little chance of anything significant in the Mackenzie being achieved.

A 2017 submission by watchdog group Mackenzie Guardians to the Twin Peaks tenure review proposal still rings true. It notes the whole Basin is an outstanding natural landscape (ONL) of national importance.

“A significant flaw in the current tenure review process is the lack of oversight and strategic direction for the whole of the Mackenzie Country. To continue to address the issues in the current piecemeal way will increase the vulnerability of the fragile and unique ecosystems of the Basin floor, threatening the integrity of the ONL.”

Last Saturday, Environmental Defence Society’s Taylor said the remaining gaps in the regulatory framework need to be plugged, and support provided to landowners, “to ensure that all land in the Basin is managed in a way that protects the area’s outstanding landscapes”.

If political parties, including Sage’s Green Party, are serious about protection in the Mackenzie, it’s time for the real work to begin.

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

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