The Federated Mountain Clubs thinks the Crown should buy a whole high country property, reports David Williams

Like any divorce it’s fraught. Then again, it’s a divorce like no other.

Lawyers for the Crown and the Innes family – pastoral lessees of the 12,300-hectare South Island high country station Dunstan Downs – have helped to draw lines on a map for a potential carve-up under the controversial tenure review process.

From the Ahuriri River, the 30-kilometre-long, relatively narrow property meanders south along, and between, the Wether, Dunstan and St Bathans mountain ranges, including some mountain faces along the highly photographed Lindis Pass.

Under the preliminary proposal, 77 percent of Dunstan Downs will go into conservation, with the rest freeholded. Various blocks will be subject to grazing concessions and conservation covenants.

It has taken 20-odd years to get to this point and things are tense.

The Crown points to significant inherent values in need of protection – among them the property’s impressive mountainous landscapes, which are home to rare and threatened plants, and birds. The station is strategically important, too, as parts of it can link to existing conservation areas, for public access.

The Innes family, which has lived at Dunstan Downs for 100 years, feels cornered and mistreated, despite, as farmers, being the backbone of the country. On one hand they’re praised for farming the land conservatively, keeping large areas of the property in excellent condition. But there’s little credit for that. In tenure review, conservation values take priority over providing jobs, exporting wool, and the future viability of their farming operation.

“The whole process along the last 20 years has been pretty much take, take, take on the Government side and they just don’t listen to us,” Charles Innes says. “There’s no experts on their side in farming, they’re all conservationists and all they see is the conservation side of things.”

In this divorce, however, there’s a third party – the public is now having its say on the proposal. As Innes must have suspected, two conservation groups, at least, are unhappy with what’s proposed.

“The audacity of running such a poor process is just breathtaking.” – Jan Finlayson

Created in the 1940s and 1950s, Crown pastoral leases grant exclusive occupation and the right to graze, under an 11-year cycle of rent reviews and 33-year, perpetually renewable terms. If the lessee and Crown agree, they can end the lease through what’s known as tenure review by restoring some areas to Crown ownership and other areas being freeholded.

The most controversial part of tenure review is the on-selling of this newly freeholded land, often to foreigners, for windfall profits. Research by University of Canterbury senior lecturer Ann Brower shows one-fifth of freeholded land, or 74,000 hectares, was sold at a median sale price of about 500 times what the Crown was paid by leaseholders.

Dunstan Downs is one of five properties to have a so-called preliminary proposal advertised, part of a rush to push properties through before tenure review ends.

(There were originally 303 pastoral leases, of which 165 Crown pastoral leases remain, occupying 1.2 million hectares of the South Island high country. According to LINZ’s website, 133 leases have completed tenure review, with five purchased outright. Another 27 – including the controversial Simons Pass Station, in the Mackenzie Basin – are in various stages of tenure review, while 138 sit outside.)

Submissions on the Dunstan Downs preliminary proposal closed on Tuesday, and are not expected to be made public by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the Crown’s land manager, until early next year.

However, Federated Mountain Clubs, the recreation group representing 22,000 members in 90 clubs, has provided Newsroom with its submission. It says LINZ has relied on old, incomplete or absent reports, a “severe flaw in terms of the review’s foundational evidence and process” which might leave the review open to legal challenge.

“The audacity of running such a poor process is just breathtaking,” says FMC president Jan Finlayson, who wrote the submission. “We’ve got 12,000 hectares-plus of remarkable country and only one-and-a-half pages of reporting on animals, and that doesn’t include invertebrates at all.”

The information gap needs to be filled, the submission says, perhaps by urgently commissioning additional reports and updates, or by properly factoring in existing information.

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird agrees.

West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink says the proposal is based on out-of-date reports and information, that needs to be refreshed. The so-called conservation resources report was written in 2005. “They’ve got a lot of conservation land proposed in there but we would be quite concerned about the freeholded bit, especially if it went unencumbered without further surveys done on it.”

However, FMC says enough is known of Dunstan Downs’ values to suggest greater protection is needed than what is proposed.

Finlayson has urged the Government to consider full Crown ownership or control of Dunstan Downs – minus the station’s homestead and curtilage. If that’s not acceptable, perhaps more land could be protected by reducing the freehold area or by using concessions and covenanting.

Going completely the other way, the submission says the tenure review should be discontinued if the purposes of the Crown Pastoral Land Act can’t be met.

LINZ deputy chief executive of Crown property Jerome Sheppard says in an emailed statement the Commissioner of Crown Lands will consider feedback from Federated Mountain Clubs and other submitters to develop a substantive proposal. However, it’s difficult to say how long that proposal will take to develop and agree. “There is no guarantee it may even reach this stage – as tenure review is a voluntary process, the Crown and the lessee have the ability to withdraw at any point.”

The dramatic mountains of Dunstan Downs dwarf State Highway 8. Photo: Tim Whittaker/DOC

Snoyink says tenure review needs to strictly protect inherent values at Dunstan Downs.

“From our perspective it’s really strategic for joining up the ecosystems and conservation land, and also from a landscape perspective as well, I think it’s really important as a gateway to the Mackenzie.”

Finlayson, meanwhile, worries about some areas earmarked for freeholding.

She points to the mountain faces at Lindis Pass – “of very skimpy pastoral benefit” – which would be freeholded, when they’re arguably of national importance. Another area proposed for freehold is along the Ahuriri River bank. “It would privatise its arguably very high public values.”

Protection is proposed for many areas of Dunstan Downs that deserve it, Finlayson says. “But I think all of the process is poor and some of the proposal is very poor. But there are ways through it, and they need to be looked at genuinely, carefully.”

Innes, upset at having to discuss a tenure review submission he won’t read until LINZ makes it public, hits back. The riverbank land is one paddock about 200 metres to 300 metres-long, used for grazing rams but fenced off from the river. As for the Lindis faces, that’s young sheep country, he says. “Without those faces the place is useless.”

The arguments about old conservation reports don’t wash with him, either. “The plants are still there – sheep don’t eat those alpine plants.” He adds: “There’s still lizards running around, there’s still grasshoppers hopping around, the sheep don’t catch them.”

Ultimately, the specialist reports are LINZ’s issue, he says, “but I think a 2005 perspective is still fairly accurate as now … not much has changed.”

Innes doesn’t want to discuss a whole-of-property purchase and says if the process is stopped to gather more information, it won’t be able to start again because tenure review is ending.

(That’ll be done through the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill, which is before the Environment Select Committee and open for submissions. The Bill also proposes changes to how pastoral leases are managed. Newly minted Land Information Minister Damien O’Connor says: “I will be taking interest in all submissions to ensure the balance aimed for in the Bill will be workable.”)

“You can’t just keep locking up thousands and thousands of acres of land for the sake of conservation,” Innes says. “That land needs to make an income. The country needs its exports. For the sake of conservation, you can’t go around saving every single bird and beetle. You’ve got to be realistic.”

Legislative underpinning

Finlayson harks back to the Crown Pastoral Land Act, which sets the framework for tenure review.

It’s not a bargaining process, she says. Tenure review’s purpose is to promote ecologically sustainable management, and, once that’s done, to free other areas from management constraints overseen by the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

Significant inherent values should be protected, the legislation says. Then it’s easier to secure public access and dispose of other areas as freehold.

Snoyink, too, frames the process in terms of an “objective perspective”. “The landscape and the biodiversity values are stunning at that place,” she says. She adds: “It’s a testament to them, they’ve obviously managed it really, really well over the years. It’s weed-free. It’s a special place.”

This is where divorce gets difficult. How do you divorce a family, with its history and physical attachment, from what happens to that (publicly owned) land?

Charles Innes’s great-grandparents, Thomas and Violet Wigley, took over the Dunstan Downs lease, known as Run 201A of the old Omarama Station, in 1920.

It’s been tough of late. Sheep prices have been depressed for about 20 years, and with Covid-19, international tourists have disappeared. The station’s backpacker accommodation, which is usually full at this time of year, stands empty. There’s been little Government help, Innes says.

Tenure review presents a chance for more certainty, more financial control over Dunstan Downs with freeholded land, away from paying “overpriced” rents on land of low production value.

Innes, who has two children, reckons tenure review will also increase the chances of his family staying on the land.

“If we go then that all goes with us, you know? There’s no one here to tell those stories. And those stories are what New Zealand is built on – she’ll be right, and number 8 wire and insulation tape-fix.”

Tenure review’s been stressful, he says. The family pulled out of the process five-to-10 years ago, but decided to try again. The Department of Conservation hasn’t been the easiest to deal with, he grumbles.

Even the deal on the table isn’t the best. It’s the “deal we could strike”, Innes says, but gives no long-term guarantees for grazing.

You need “scope” to run sheep, he explains – areas you can graze for two-to-three months each year, over summer, to take the pressure off the “front country”. Areas that might now go into conservation land, with an uncertain grazing concession. Areas to be “locked up”.

“As Forest & Bird or whatever have said, we’ve looked after it, so why can’t we keep doing what we’ve been doing?”

The land is already protected, Innes argues – “we are the protectors”. “We’re not wrecking it. We let people walk and hunt and everything like that at certain times of the year, we don’t stop people doing mountain biking, horse riding, hunting – we offer it all.”

Now, he’s not sure what’s going to happen. The clouds seem big, dark and heavy. They’ll just plan and budget as normal, and see what tomorrow brings.

“You just get on with it, I suppose, and find things to do that make you happy – go shooting, ride motorbikes, keep your mates close.”

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

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