A $2.6 million Mackenzie Basin project abandoned its business case, lacked oversight, and achieved little. David Williams reports

A drive for greater protection in the fragile South Island high country turned into a “complete disaster”, according to a review ordered by Department of Conservation senior managers.

The external review report, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, says the $2.6 million Mackenzie Basin project announced in the 2018 Budget had “no formal governance”, the partnerships section of DoC running it did not have “formal project management skills”, and external partners and stakeholders were “disillusioned and have heavily criticised the project”.

Some external parties, such as private landowners, hadn’t been contacted for nearly two years. Relationships with mana whenua were described as strained “at best”.

External reviewers Tregaskis Brown, a Wellington consultancy, ran the project through an analysis tool known as DICE (for duration, integrity, commitment and effort), which rated it “a complete disaster”. “In its current form it has no chance of success.”

Conflicts of interest went unidentified and unregistered. One person was “relieved of all related responsibilities”. The original project manager, Jeremy Severinsen, and his boss, deputy director-general Kay Booth, have left the department.

While reviewing this project, the Tregaskis Brown team bumped into problems in other areas of DoC – what it called “projects and project managers in ‘name only’”. These were operational activities being led by managers without any formal training or experience in project management.

Serious implications could follow, the report warns. DoC might be under much greater scrutiny at Treasury’s next investor confidence rating review, and its rating might be reassessed if material improvements aren’t made.

DoC acknowledges the Mackenzie project was not up to its expected standard. Lian Butcher, the partnerships deputy director-general, says the review recommendations have been accepted and the department is moving swiftly to implement them as a high priority. (In saying that, it’s yet to finish a post-review stocktake.)

Former Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage is reluctant to criticise her former department. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In 2018’s Budget, then Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced $2.6 million for “better protection of the unique landscapes and biodiversity of the Mackenzie Basin”. What she wanted was a drylands park.

DoC approved an indicative business case for the project, known as Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, and money released in April 2019.

Early last year, DoC’s senior leadership team had concerns about the project, and the initial manager, Severinsen, was replaced. (Newsroom revealed in 2018, Severinsen doctored ministerial advice on the Mackenzie. In April, he established environmental consultancy Mana Motuhake. He couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Sage expressed her own disquiet earlier, in October 2019, sending an excoriating email to DoC director-general Lou Sanson.

An independent quality assurance review was ordered. Tregaskis Brown, engaged last August, reviewed more than 80 documents and interviewed 18 people. Its report, completed last December and released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, reveals the project was a mess, internally and externally.

The business case was “abandoned” – “with 70 percent of the project budget spent, less than 10 percent of the project outputs had been achieved”. None of its specified outcomes or benefits had been completed.

Concern was raised about two unapproved items: $350,000 for pest control work in Te Manahuna/Mackenzie Basin – costs that have since been re-assigned to operational budgets – and part-funding a salary for a manager of the Mackenzie Basin Agency Alignment.

There was confusion about what the project was meant to achieve.

“We found the approach of the project to date has caused significant relationship damage to the department and is placing the department and its staff at considerable professional risk,” the Tregaskis Brown report said.

Part of the problem was an unachievable business case and unrealistic timelines.

Its aim was to increase, by 45 percent, the area of threatened ecosystems protected. The eventual objective was to protect the habitat of 110 species within a specified and contiguous area, or park, of 155,000 hectares.

Two options were listed to achieve that: the “approved” option of utilising protection measures to be “actioned immediately”; or finding $10 million to $15 million for full protection of some areas.

However, tenure review negotiations – the soon-to-be-ended process for ending Crown pastoral leases by privatising some land and setting aside the rest for conservation – drag on for years, and mana whenua were in no hurry either, saying they had spent “seven generations of being alienated from agreements like this”.

Remarkably, the report noted mana whenua – rūnanga at Arowhenua, Waihao and Moeraki – and external parties indicated if the project improved they were still keen to work with the department.

“With the project receiving direct ministerial oversight, we formed the view that these pressures translated internally into executive pressure ‘just to get things done’.” – Tregaskis Brown report

Project “co-design” with mana whenua was ad hoc – “doing it as we go” – an approach which led Māori to express “frustration and disillusionment”, feeling they’d been partnered to design something that was a fait accompli. If material changes weren’t made to the project they were prepared to walk away. The success to date was “still being here”, rūnanga representatives said.

Moeraki rūnanga upoko David Higgins says he knows there were hiccups with the project – “I’m reluctant to comment because I don’t know much about the issue.” Arowhenua rūnanga chair John Henry couldn’t be reached for comment.

Tregaskis Brown said an identified project bottleneck was the “unorthodox” move of bringing mana whenua into DoC. While this was seen as a good way of genuinely partnering, after 12 months the roles “have become compromised and conflicted”.

One “resource” in the project team prevented internal staff, private organisation and individuals – including the review team, initially – from direct contact with mana whenua. (This was requested by several regional mana whenua but wasn’t unanimous.)

An interesting aspect of the Tregaskis Brown report – written by associate David Wallace, a project management and assurance specialist, and signed off by then DoC deputy director-general Booth – is its critique of a ministerial announcement of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa last September. (That’s something Newsroom did, also.)

After reviewing the business case, the report said: “We found it hard to map the achievement of creating the park to outputs listed in the case, which were meant to be part of the park’s establishment.”

Concern was raised about the $350,000 spend on pest control in the Basin “without involvement of the Treasury or an associated plan, forecast or decision-making framework”. Two other items claimed as a success were the transfer of 4100 hectares of Tasman riverbed from Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the Crown’s land manager, to DoC, and support for the acquistion of 1792 hectares of Ōhau Downs Station by the Nature Heritage Fund.

“The associated areas of land did not appear in the specified area for protection,” Tregaskis Brown said. (Former minister Sage, a Green MP, says of those two announcements: “When opportunities like that arise you action them.” She also says spending money on pest control was “quite valid”.)

A co-management agreement with the NZ Defence Force for its Tekapo military training area was “reported as complete”, the review report said, but was based on a letter of understanding. A memorandum of understanding is yet to be signed.

The project report says: “With the project receiving direct ministerial oversight, we formed the view that these pressures translated internally into executive pressure ‘just to get things done’, as was indicated in several internal interviews.”

Tregaskis Brown told senior DoC executives a “pause and a cup of tea” might help repair damaged relationships in the region.

Recommendations included relieving compromised roles and resolving outstanding conflicts of interest, beginning to repair damaged relationships, and a pause to assess the project’s status. The business case should then be reassessed, Treasury approached with financial findings and funding intentions, and the project re-established.

Project being reset

Butcher, the DoC deputy director-general, says in a statement the department employed an independent contractor to solve conflict of interests but “the staff members involved resigned, so this was not concluded”.

A project reset is underway, including shifting it from the partnerships group to operations. Oversight comes from a formal taskforce group “at senior level”. A separate report from February said about $1 million of project money was left.

“We remain committed to working closely with mana whenua and our stakeholders and progressing protection for this unique place and the special native species found there,” Butcher says.

Nicola Toki, DoC’s Christchurch-based Eastern South Island operations director, says a new project manager was appointed in January. “She’s been working through where are we at now, what is remaining to be completed, and how are we going to make that true – so how are we going to pick up from here and deliver that work?”

The next move is formal discussions with mana whenua. “We’re starting to have those conversations now, but I would prefer that we come together in an acknowledgement of the next phase, and then from there … we’ll engage with the broader community.”

Sage, the former minister, is reluctant to criticise. She won’t even say she’s disappointed – despite her 2019 email to Sanson showing she was.

“It was always going to be a challenge,” Sage tells Newsroom. “The way this project operated was not good but I think the department has now put in place measures to actually ensure that it does progress well.”

It’s critical the work continues, she says. “It must do because we’ve lost so much of the Mackenzie.”

One attempt to bring competing interests was the 2013 Mackenzie Agreement, an ambitious document setting out areas for protection and development, overseen by National Party Conservation Minister Nick Smith.

The Mackenzie Country Trust was subsequently created but has never been properly funded to try and fulfill some of the agreement’s aims.

Simon Williamson, who farms Glenbrook Station, just south of Twizel, doesn’t believe the agreement’s spirit is being honoured. “In the Mackenzie, it’s impossible to develop any ground. Between DoC and Forest & Bird they’ve just objected to everything. I think it’s very wrong and a lot of it’s on freehold land.”

What about kilometres of irrigated green pasture flanking the main highway through the Mackenzie, and the high-profile dairy development at Simons Pass? Well, firstly Williamson says the “little bit of green” adds to the bigger picture of the Mackenzie, with its brown mountains and bright blue lakes.

However, Williamson, immediate past president of Federated Farmers’ high country section, says Simons Pass has had its approvals for a long time – “no one else be able to do that without the backing that they’ve got”. (In 2018, Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, said a dairy farm of that scale wouldn’t get consent in the Mackenzie. But, as Newsroom reported, that obscured the council’s permissive attitude.)

“There’s a balance,” Williamson says. “It’s not all about one or the other.”

“The very people who had the ability to do something failed to do it.” – Jen Miller

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird walked away from the Mackenzie Agreement because it was “lame”, says Jen Miller, its manager of conservation advocacy and communications. Meanwhile, DoC and LINZ continued signing off discretionary consents for further development on Mackenzie pastoral leases.

There was hope after Sage’s 2018 announcement but Miller says Forest & Bird was shut out of the project. Requests for updates were generally ignored. Not that it matters now.

“This is just part of the litany of inaction and incompetence and a complete failure, I would argue, of all of the parties – LINZ, DoC, ECan, Waitaki council, Mackenzie District Council – to protect this really special place.”

(She points to two recent examples – Waitaki’s council pausing work on significant natural areas, and Mackenzie councillors delaying until today a decision on a plan change dictating how to protect native species.)

Nature has paid the price, Miller says, under the watch of people who have a statutory responsibility to protect it. “The very people who had the ability to do something failed to do it.”

In early 2019, LINZ pretty much admitted that. The Crown agency had a “stronger link to farming and economics than ecology”, a self-flagellating report said. Ecological advice for decisions was of “poor or variable quality” and compliance and enforcement had been inadequate.

Add to that, two pieces of academic research that showed the law controlling tenure review was being ignored, at a cost to important landscapes and threatened habitat, and Crown decisions were allowing greater agricultural intensification in the Basin.

LINZ didn’t bother to defend itself last week. Deputy chief executive of Crown property Jerome Sheppard said because Newsroom hadn’t asked specific questions and we had contacted other agencies, a response would come from the Mackenzie Basin Agency Alignment Programme – which takes in all five bodies. (Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said via email although his council’s part of the programme, “we have little influence on the progress of the Drylands Park, though we do support the concept”.)

Katherine Trought, the ECan executive who chairs the programme’s steering committee, acknowledges in a statement organisations like Forest & Bird “may not have seen as much progress as they would like”.

It’s a challenging area to work in, she says, and the programme is committed to continuing its efforts in the Basin. Trought lists the programme’s successes as: “establishment of joint management structures, delivery of several priority projects, and implementation of supporting work such as co-ordination of consenting and compliance activity”.

The Tregaskis Brown report agreed with Trought, somewhat. It says the Mackenzie is “one of the most dynamic and complex project environments we have encountered”, with multiple and distinct pressures, needs, aspirations, and protection requirements.

It also noted strongly held views, with little empathy for the opposing view – including within DoC. The partnerships and operations directorates “emphatically expressed opposing positions on ‘protection versus restoration’, indicating an unmanaged divide within the project and the department”.

Time will tell what that means, now that operations has taken over the project.

It’s worth remembering the purpose of the project – to establish a large, contiguous area of protection for threatened ecosystems and native species, including land on Crown pastoral leases. It’s something Forest & Bird and others have been advocating for for more than 10 years.

It’s not too late. There’s still time for a turnaround by DoC. Forest & Bird’s Miller, jaded by years of “stuff-ups, laziness, incompetence, lack of commitment, and a focus on the development needs of landowners”, has no faith that will happen. Now it’s up to DoC to prove her wrong.

* This story has been corrected to say $350,000 of pest control was spent by DoC in the Mackenzie Basin. It was not related to the Te Manahuna Aoraki project.

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

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