The election of a new Government in 2017 was meant to unshackle the Department of Conservation, freeing it to advocate once again for the natural environment in resource management hearings.

However, questions are being asked about DoC’s role in an important plan change in the Mackenzie district which deals with the protection of vulnerable indigenous vegetation, including on private land.

District council hearings for plan change 18 began before independent commissioners yesterday in Fairlie, about 185km by road from Christchurch, and continue today. Green groups Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and Forest & Bird will give evidence this morning, while DoC has an afternoon slot.

The plan change is the last piece in the jigsaw of protection for the Mackenzie District Council’s part of the Mackenzie Basin, after its landscapes were protected from inappropriate development in a series of Environment Court decisions. Now the focus turns to ecological values, which are significant and nationally important.

Ahead of this week’s hearing, EDS and Forest & Bird secured the expertise of consultant ecologists Susan Walker and Nick Head (a former DoC staffer), but DoC’s evidence comes from its resource management (RMA) planner, Amelia Ching.

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor is surprised and disappointed.

“You’d have thought that on something as important as this, in a nationally important area, that DoC would have been able to do what we managed to do, which is to hire a competent ecologist.”

Eastern South Island operations director Nicola Toki says the department stands by its approach. DoC’s Canterbury-based ecologist with expertise in the Basin’s botany was on leave, and others with specialist knowledge were either already engaged or unavailable.

(The plan change was publicly notified in 2017, with the first round of submissions closing in March 2018.)

DoC’s planning evidence leaned heavily on a technical report from Mackenzie council-engaged ecologist Mike Harding, and issues were discussed with its in-house ecologist.

“The [planning] evidence supports the identification and protection of significant indigenous biodiversity in the Mackenzie Basin,” Toki says in an emailed statement.

The department has in the past been criticised for leaving it to environmental groups, without the power and resources of the state behind them, to fight for nature, such as in the case of the proposed Ruataniwha Dam in Ruahine Forest Park. DoC made a one-paragraph, neutral submission, and indulged in a controversial land-swap with the dam company.

Following a big boost for DoC in the 2018 Budget, the then Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage called for greater RMA advocacy “for DoC to have a stronger presence in front of councils when native species and habitats on private land are affected”.

The Budget Day press release also earmarked $2.6 million for better protection of the unique landscapes and biodiversity of the Mackenzie Basin. Sage’s ambition for the establishment of a dryland park in the Basin was fumbled by the department, however, leading to the minister scolding its director-general.

In plain sight

The greening of the Mackenzie Basin, especially in the Waitaki District Council portion, through intensive farming has been plain to see, with hulking irrigators stalking green pastures and skirting herds of cows along state highways.

Plan change 18 was prompted by council concern about the clearance of indigenous vegetation – which wasn’t halted by ambiguous definitions and exemptions in the district plan, which became operative in 2004, or a regional policy statement that came into force nine years later.

So concerned was the council about a gold rush of vegetation clearance under existing exemptions, it went to the Environment Court in 2017 to suspend applications with immediate effect.

At issue in the plan change is the preservation of native plants – some threatened and at-risk – that have adapted to climatic extremes and survived the effects of human settlement, development, and introduced pests, to provide crucial habitat for the likes of banded dotterels, black stilts, the Mackenzie Basin spotted skink and robust grasshopper. All of this in an internationally recognised, wide-open landscape, with extensive, largely intact sequences of glacial landforms.

For many ecosystems, plants and animals – now somewhat fragmented by development – the poorly protected Mackenzie Basin is a stronghold. But relatively rapid intensification has re-shaped, and re-coloured, the Basin, putting its fragile ecology perilously close to a tipping point, EDS has warned.

Its evidence from four years ago says the area of indigenous vegetation and ecosystems directly lost to land-use changes between 1990 and 2017 was greater than 68,000 hectares, or 22.5 percent of the Basin floor. Half of that loss happened after 2008, and accelerated in the final three years.

Many factors have been to blame, including bad Crown decisions, planning loopholes, and poor monitoring and enforcement action – something councils have been justifiably criticised for.

Plants are losing the battle in the Mackenzie. Between 2013 and 2018, threatened species listed there increased from 29 to 36. Over the same period, “at risk declining” plants leapt from 26 to 38.

EDS’s ecologist Walker, who works for Crown research institute Landcare Research (Manaaki Whenua), says: “Continuing to whittle away extent and connectivity will compound the rate at which remaining natural areas are already being modified, and the degree to which the indigenous species they now support will be lost.”

Plan not fit for purpose

As is often the case with planning documents, the battle lines are drawn over a cascading set of policies, objectives and rules. The debate centres on whether they do the job asked of them by planning laws, like the RMA, and statutory documents like the regional policy statement.

Harding, the council’s consultant ecologist, says the district plan’s existing list of sites of natural significance is inadequate and incomplete. Areas of significant indigenous vegetation and important habitats of indigenous fauna need urgent protection, he argues, despite not being formally identified.

Definitions are key.

Right at the pointy end are definitions of “indigenous vegetation” and “improved pasture”, which will control permitted clearances, and the need for consents.

Council-appointed planner, Liz White, has endorsed Harding’s definition for indigenous vegetation as: “a community of vascular plants, mosses and/or lichens that includes species native to the ecological district. The community may include exotic species.”

Rather than broad, Harding prefers the definition to be described as “inclusive”. It will include vegetation at “most remaining undeveloped areas”, he says. “That is appropriate as most undeveloped areas still support indigenous vegetation, most of which is ecologically significant.”

Walker, EDS’s ecologist, says the remaining ecosystems and plant communities on the Basin floor are “irreplaceable”. “Clearance causes permanent loss that cannot be offset or compensated for.”

Research scientist Peter Espie, acting for two high country stations, The Wolds and Mt Gerald, says highly modified communities of plants might retain an “assemblage” of indigenous species, but he argues it’s fallacious to then define the whole community as indigenous.

Johnston, of Federated Farmers, calls the definition of indigenous vegetation too broad and inclusive.

Then there’s the proposed definition for improved pasture – “an area where, as at May 2020, indigenous vegetation had been fully removed and the vegetation converted to exotic pasture or crops” – which together with indigenous vegetation will set the tone for future clearance.

Walker, for EDS, endorses the simpler definition which, alongside the identification of fully converted land, is needed to remove what she calls the contestability that has led to considerable loss of the Basin’s indigenous biodiversity in recent years.

However, Johnston, of Federated Farmers, wonders how anyone can prove clearance happened by a particular date (Harding chose it to pair up with satellite images), and says the definition won’t be of much use without comprehensive mapping.

Relying on existing rules/authorisations

Issues of improved pasture have been debated at a controversial dairy conversion at Simons Pass Station. In his evidence to hearing commissioners, Simons Pass owner Murray Valentine – no fan of Harding – says the definition of improved pasture could result in a significant portion of the costs of constructing an irrigation pipeline “becoming unrecoverable”.

Espie, meanwhile, says the suggested definition is unduly restrictive as it would exclude introduced pasture containing indigenous species.

(Espie and Harding butt heads over many issues, but especially on the causes of biodiversity decline. Harding says land development, grazing, and animal and plant pests are mainly to blame, while Espie points the finger at competition by exotic plants. He adds: “Extensive grazing has no real impact on remaining grassland indigenous biodiversity.”)

Consultant planner White has suggested indigenous vegetation clearance be permitted in certain circumstances, with some consents being considered restricted discretionary activities, meaning the council has to give consent if applicants meet certain conditions.

The controversial suggestion of creating farm biodiversity plans – vaguely explained as providing a more “holistic approach” which “integrates land development” – is still on the table.

Head, for Forest & Bird, writes the plans are not fit for purpose to achieve both development and to maintain indigenous biodiversity – “they are likely to facilitate the ongoing loss of significant indigenous vegetation and fauna habitats”.

However, Federated Farmers senior policy advisor Angela Johnston, of South Canterbury, says the plan change must enable people who live and work in the Mackenzie to continue to do so. Farm plans must be achievable, she says, not overly onerous to get, and be confidential between the council and landowners.

“Farm biodiversity plans are a vital tool to assist with protecting areas of biodiversity significance and allowing for long-term farm planning.”

Meridian’s expert, environmental planner Susan Ruston, says the plan change doesn’t properly recognise the national significance of renewable energy, or adequately provide for the development, operation, maintenance and upgrading of the Waitaki power scheme.

The experts might just be going through the motions in Fairlie this week as it’s expected the decision, whichever way it goes, will be appealed. If that’s the case, the real show will be in the Environment Court.

EDS’s boss, Taylor, says the historical planning deficiencies in the Mackenzie have been out of sight and out of mind for agencies for far too long, leaving it to the small district council to manage intense conflicts over ecological values.

Perhaps that explains why in 2021, 30 years after the Resource Management Act was enacted, the protection of indigenous biodiversity in the Basin is finally coming to a head. Ironically, the hearing comes as the Government works on a trio of bills to replace the Act, and as officials hammer out details of a national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity.

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

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