When Lukas Travnicek flew over Canterbury’s Mt White Station he’d done his research.

The Czech Republic native, and New Zealand resident, knew the average rainfall of the Crown pastoral lease property, which borders the Arthur’s Pass National Park, and factored its 40,000 hectares (about a quarter of Stewart Island) into his development plans, should he buy it.

“I saw it from the chopper, the very first time and they didn’t want me to land because they said that it would be disturbing for the manager and you’re not sure if you really want to buy it. But I made the pilot land.”

Lukas Travnicek, whose family made its money in textiles, enjoys ultra-running in his spare time. Photo: David Williams

Under previous owners the Turnbull family, Mt White had just four workers – the manager, his wife, one full-timer and a part-timer. It ran about 8500 sheep, 580 cattle and nearly 400 deer. Given the right care, and investment, it seemed ripe for development.

Fast-forward to today – two years after the ink dried on Travnicek’s purchase of the lease – and while the backdrop is still high country paradise, the backing track is the hammering and high-pitched whine of construction.

At the cluster of farm buildings, about 30 kilometres from the Mt White bridge along a gravel road, new structures are sprouting in the shadow of the property’s eponymous peak.

Developments at Mt White, as seen from Lake Hill. Photo: David Williams

A shiny new cookhouse is complete; a five-bedroom shepherd’s quarters and new shearers’ accommodation are on the way. Behind the shearers’ quarters, the beginnings of an orchard have been planted, and there are plans for an edible garden with a tunnel house, cellar, and berry cage.

New stables will feature self-contained accommodation. Up the hill, two new houses will be built for senior staff with families.

Livestock numbers are up, too. Travnicek estimates there’s now about 700 deer, 400 cattle, and 15,000 sheep. After two backcountry huts are built and a horse-trekking operation established for tourists, the staff list should swell to about 20.

The first few years have been special, says Travnicek, who spends roughly week-about between New Plymouth – where his wife, Somjai, a Thai-born New Zealand citizen, and their three daughters live – and Mt White.

“On the outside you can see it’s busy because of the building, and all infrastructure and development of the fields and the new roads. And also from the inside, there’s a totally new team. We’re bringing new people in, trying to get some community feel and cohesion.”

The groundwork is being done for Mt White Station’s new honey facility. Photo: David Williams

To further diversity the farm, Travnicek’s company, Southern Ranges Ltd, is building a new honey-processing and packaging facility. (Beside that is where the builders are living, in a Portacom village.)

Bees will bring another income stream, on top of wool, meat, and potentially tourists, an important hedge for Travnicek who says traditional farms are financially “not doable anymore”.

“There is such a huge potential in honey here. I think we are obliged to do it because that gives you a really good prospect for the future and in not so good years with the wool or with the meat, you have something to stand out.”

However, a threat hangs over the farm station as the Government moves to resolve a thorny, more-than-century-old issue.

A wash of light green signifies farm development on the Riversdale Flats. Photo: David Williams

As you turn off State Highway 73 – the road through Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast – and cross the Mt White bridge, over the Waimakariri River, Mt White Station begins at what’s known as the Riversdale Flats.

About 1000 hectares of the flats were set aside as a reserve for national park in 1901 but, somehow – “erroneously”, one 2002 report to the Government said – they have continued to be included in the pastoral lease. (Another 337 hectares are freehold land.)

Controversially, the matter wasn’t resolved when Travnicek bought it.

(And Land Information New Zealand, the Crown land manager, retrospectively approved work by the station’s previous owners to fence part of the reserve land, clear indigenous plants and put it in pasture.)

Now, the Commissioner of Crown Lands Craig Harris, who oversees pastoral leases, has written to Southern Ranges to say the Riversdale Flats section of the station – known as “Reserve 3535” – will be excluded from the Mt White lease when its 33-year renewal comes up at the end of next year. The other 38,340 hectares are unaffected.

The passing over the Reserves Amendment Act in 1996 prevents Riversdale from being included in the lease, Harris wrote. Technically, it was never Crown land.

The lessee could still access the reserve, but that would require a concession from the Conservation Minister.

Harris says in an emailed statement: “The status of Riversdale Flats is not related to the lease transfer or any associated Overseas Investment Act conditions.”

Further farm development on the other side of Lake Hill from Lake Letitia. Photo: David Williams

The situation is a political hot potato.

Newly installed Land Information Minister, Damien O’Connor, confirms he’s been briefed. “As there is an active consideration underway, I will not be commenting further at this time.”

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird is pleased at the “long-awaited steps” to acknowledge the land’s reserve status and retire it from the lease.

“Dryland river terraces like Riversdale Flats are woefully under-protected,” Canterbury and West Coast regional manager Nicky Snoyink says via email. “These important river terraces are habitat for rare braided river birds like banded dotterels and black fronted terns, and are a vital addition to the Arthur’s Pass National Park.”

Snoyink notes livestock grazing isn’t permitted in national parks.

However, Department of Conservation Eastern South Island operations director Nic Toki says no decision has been made about Riversdale’s future management. Her emailed statement didn’t answer Newsroom’s question about whether DoC advocated for the reserve’s removal from the Mt White lease.

The loss of Riversdale is a blow for Travnicek, who originally confirmed he’d received Harris’s letter. “It’s our place where we keep the stock over the winter, that’s one thing. So it’s really important.”

Southern Ranges was asked by LINZ and DoC to prepare a proposal for the Riversdale, which it did, out of a cooperative attitude, he says. But the answer – Harris’s letter – was “quite shocking”.

The start of Mt White Station, on Riversdale Flats. Photo: David Williams

“I’m engaging lawyers,” a disappointed Travnicek says, “because it’s a huge threat for the farm. If we don’t have the Riversdale we probably can’t farm here.”

He says the Government had a huge chance to resolve the issue when he bought the lease. “But they didn’t, and they signed it. And after a relatively short time, they are now coming back and saying, oh, actually, we are going to take it away from you.”

That he says, is a breach of ethics. “There’s probably a breach of leasehold, but that’s not up to me that’s up to lawyers to look at it.”

(In our 2018 story, former Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage agreed Southern Ranges could be due compensation if Riversdale was removed from the lease.)

Papers haven’t been filed in court, Travnicek says, but his company is “preparing our ground”. “It’s a very complex issue and we have to be ready for it. I don’t know where this will be leading, it’s too early, but I’m still hoping that this can be solved in a way that we would avoid a [court] dispute.”

It’s tough, Travnicek says, because of the fact he has to work with the government departments to develop Mt White. “It’s very hard for me to treat these people as partners for the future, because there is a loss of trust.”

His tongue clicks. “But we’ll see.”

Lukas Travnicek de-saddles his horse at Mt White’s stables. Photo: David Williams

Our interview with Travnicek occurs during a three-hour horse-ride at Mt White.

We clip-clop around (and over) matagouri bushes, spy gullies with native trees, and pause for a quick drink at streams – looping from the farm buildings to terraces overlooking the Esk River, and up and over Lake Hill, overlooking Lake Letitia.

Mountains are all around. To the south is the Torlesse Range, and to the east, the Puketeraki Range, which can be seen from Christchurch, home to Newsroom’s South Island headquarters.

“You’re a million miles away from it now, though, eh?” quips Heather Harrington, a Mt White staffer and horse guide, as we ride.

Travnicek says the investment in Mt White to date has been more than expected, “but not significantly”. The isolation means transporting the materials, and people, from other places.

The obstacles, in their many forms – the building project problems, human resources, or different government bodies – are things to be resolved, he says.

“It’s a bit of a struggle because you always see this enormous amount of work in front of you, every challenge coming, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying it very deeply.”

Views back go to the Waimakariri River, from Mt White Station. Photo: David Williams

During his last Mt White visit, Travnicek took farm manager Richard Smith’s truck and went into the backcountry by himself. His whole family stayed at the station in the last school holidays. “They love horseriding, so we always take the horses overnight, stay at the hut.”

That’s how you build an attachment to a place, he muses.

“The more I stay here the more I discover the place, and the more you know it, the more you fall in love with it. So this is very, very beautiful for me.”

Travnicek gets even more philosophical. In this shaky world, it makes sense to invest in the land, in buildings, in tangible things. Things you can hold.

And then there’s the human side. When he’s at Mt White he mucks in, helping to plant shelterbelts, or helping with livestock. He’s there so often, he’s no longer just “the man with the money”.

“They start not to be scared, you know? There’s always respect in them, because they don’t know me, but once you’re part of the team it’s just the perfect way to build a community.”

Without sounding pathetic, Travnicek says he doesn’t feel like Mt White’s owner. Sure, he’s got a company and the company’s building the houses on the station, so legally speaking it’s private ownership. (He’s a trained lawyer.)

“But with such land, I think the concept is ownership is just ridiculous, because in a few years’ time I will be gone, and the trees will stay here.”

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

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