*This story was first published on July 20, 2021*

A Conservation Department staffer warns: “The continuation of the licence without any measurable action from us is being watched.” David Williams reports

The meeting near New Zealand’s tallest mountain was about cattle in a river valley some 50km away, over the Southern Alps.

It was April 22, 2021 and Department of Conservation boss Lou Sanson visited Glentanner Station, 18km from Aoraki Mt Cook Village, on the shores of Lake Pukaki, to speak to farmer George Ivey. The topic was a controversial grazing lease in the Haast River valley held, somewhat tenuously, by his father-in-law, John Cowan. (Ivey married Cowan’s daughter, Catherine.)

Last year, Sanson’s deputy director-general Kay Booth granted a three-year licence to Cowan, allowing him to graze 60 cattle, and up to 50 calves for up to six months, over 736 hectares in the upper Haast, above the Roaring Billy Falls. Ivey, on Cowan’s behalf, asked DoC to reconsider the strict conditions, including fencing, at the farmer’s cost, to keep the animals from the Mt Aspiring National Park.

What do you think? Click here to comment.

Sanson’s two-hour meeting at Glentanner in April was wide-ranging. Ivey tried to impress on him the licence was about more than a relative handful of cattle, it was about 120 years of river grazing in the South Westland. The fencing was expensive and impractical, he said – something an independent DoC contractor had confirmed.

(On the other side, conservationists had been arguing the grazing licence was an anachronism, allowing continued environmental damage, and was contrary to the department’s own policies and public commitments.)

Later that same day, DoC permissions manager Judi Brennan wrote to Sanson, to advise she was preparing a response, on behalf of Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan, to a letter from Conservation Authority chair Edward Ellison. It showed the steepness of the mountain Ivey was trying to climb.

Brennan wrote: “It is important to understand and note the inaction of the applicant (Mr Cowan) to give effect to managing the site any differently since the licence was approved, regardless of the one condition he didn’t like.”

Ellison was forthright in his March letter to Allan. The decision by Booth, who has now left DoC, had been “heavily dependent” on compliance with conditions, including the costly, and impractical, fencing.

The authority, a statutory body charged with providing policy advice to the minister and DoC, was strongly opposed to Sanson varying the lease conditions in his reconsideration decision, Ellison said.

He noted of the last 21 years Cowan’s cattle had grazed in the upper Haast – “within” the Mt Aspiring National Park, contrary to the park’s management plan and the West Coast conservation management strategy – “only three years have been under a legal grazing licence”.

“The lack of regulation by the department over the past two decades has resulted in considerable damage to the environment and to the authority’s trust in the department’s regulatory practices,” the authority chair wrote.

Returning to Brennan, the DoC permissions manager, she wrote to Sanson on April 22: “The continuation of the licence without any measurable action from us is being watched.”

The cancellation of the lease was announced by Sanson on June 1.

The press statement said the DoC boss sympathised with the family, but fencing was not practical, and there were no alternative practical methods to contain stock in the licence area. “Without fencing, grazing is now inconsistent with the Conservation Act and other statutory planning documents that DoC must abide by.”

Eminent botanist and conservationist Sir Alan Mark, who opposed the licence, said cancellation was the only legal decision the department could make. Even so, he and about half a dozen others wrote to Sanson to ensure he was aware of the department’s obligations.

DoC was also pressured by farmers, including dozens of Cowan supporters who protested at the Cowan licence hearing in Hokitika in 2018.

Newsroom asks Ivey if the cancellation will be appealed. He replies: “I’m not really interested in doing an interview, I’m sorry.”

But does the family want to put their side, particularly about the process DoC followed? “I’m not interested in doing an interview, I just told you that,” Ivey says.

Newsroom asked DoC questions about the Cowan decision but it didn’t provide comment by publication deadline.

“I also don’t believe fencing within a national park fits with NZers views of what a national park should be.” – Lou Sanson

Despite Ivey’s reluctance to comment, Sanson’s email, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, provides insight into the reasons for the reconsideration bid.

According to Sanson’s summary of the meeting – which noted “Mr John Cowan is no longer involved” – Ivey said fencing the river’s true-right side, as demanded in Booth’s decision, was “not practical”. Three families were employed at the Haast farming operation, and the loss of the grazing “will precipitate further loss of people from an already impacted Haast community and associated mental health issues”.

DoC was also criticised. Ivey said the department consistently wanted cattle out of the Upper Haast (above the confluence of the Haast and Landsborough Rivers, presumably), but not what he called the lower Haast, where the contentious licence is located. Ivey made numerous references to “Hokitika files and agreements” made by DoC staff, including promises by former West Coast conservator Mike Slater, now a deputy director-general.

If the grazing licence was cancelled the family would seek compensation, Ivey said.

Central to the claim would be the purchase in 2005, enabled by the Nature Heritage Fund (NHF), of nearby Landsborough Valley Station, and associated grazing leases. As previously reported, NHF chair Jan Riddell said in 2018 Cowan’s licence breached an assurance from the department that no grazing leases would be issued upstream of the Roaring Billy Falls.

Ivey said a claim would be made for DoC failing to advise of a condition agreed to “cancel their lease in [the] same transaction”. He also told Sanson the family wouldn’t pay the department’s $45,000 processing fee until it received a breakdown of costs.

After the meeting, Sanson noted the family phoned Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor “for advice”.

On Anzac Day, Sanson inspected the grazing area with DoC ranger Rachel Norton, and found “comparatively little cattle damage for 60 cows”. (That jars with a report by ecologist Susan Walker from June last year, which said: “The extensive and diverse wetland systems and streams meandering throughout the licence area, in and outside the national park, are undergoing severe damage.” DoC ecologists Jane Marshall and Rowan Hindmarsh-Wall also said in 2018 the cattle were causing adverse effects.)

The same day, Sanson met with former Conservation Authority member Dr Gerry McSweeney, who he described as one of the “key social media campaigners” advocating to remove the cattle. It was McSweeney’s understanding that cancelling the Cowan licence wouldn’t set a precedent, as the rights to graze some South Westland river valleys was preserved when the Mt Aspiring national park was created in 1964.

(Another document, written by McSweeney, suggested DoC had to suspend a “pre-bird breeding season” aerial 1080 operation on the true right of the Haast River in 2019 because the department was “unable to persuade Mr Cowan to move his cows and calves out of the treatment area”. The operation didn’t take place until December, “towards the end of the mohua breeding season”. Newsroom asked DoC for details but it didn’t provide comment by public deadline.)

Sanson distilled his thoughts in the email, written on April 28, to West Coast operations manager Mark Davies. He believed the Upper Haast was a flagship of the department’s predator control programme, Tiakina Ngā Manu. “We should be helping the public with storey [sic] telling of this work,” Sanson writes. “I also don’t believe fencing within a national park fits with NZers views of what a national park should be.”

(A historic survey of park boundaries and a road realignment meant small portions of the park are located on the river side of the Haast highway. A lack of fencing means there’s a risk of Cowan’s cattle, grazing on stewardship land, wandering into the park – although, a 2018 DoC briefing said, “there has not been a significant history of this”.)

Sanson asked Davies for advice for how DoC could exit the lease but enable the three families to retain their jobs – “if this is true” – and contribute to the Haast community.

Intention for transition

Before he sent his email to Davies, Sanson checked some details with Slater – his deputy director-general and former West Coast conservator. It was Slater that, in 2013, went behind the back of the NHF to issue Cowan a four-year, non-notified lease, dubbed a “phasing-out grazing lease”.

He confirmed to Sanson he renewed the licence “with an intent that they were to plan for the transition out of the upper Haast” to below the Roaring Billy. This should be noted on the file, Slater said, while noting the issue had “dragged on” for much longer.

He didn’t think the NHF purchase directly referred to the Cowan lease. “The issue was always more about whether grazing should be authorised ongoing in the national park.”

Slater wasn’t sure about job losses as the grazing lease was a “small component” of the Cowan operation.

McSweeney might be right about the cancellation not setting a precedent, Slater said, but he thought it would send a “very strong message and ripples through the community that will be hard to wind back, ie. The rest of the community simply won’t trust us”.

But what about sectors of the community trusting DoC to follow its policies and plans?

The general policy for national parks states grazing should only continue on land already farmed or grazed, and only where it’s in the public interest. The 2010 West Coast conservation management strategy recognises threats to freshwater biodiversity include grazing of domestic stock in or near waterways.

Mt Aspiring Park’s management plan says damage from grazing should be minimised. This is a problem because portions of the park are affected by the Cowan cattle.

Not least of DoC’s obligations are international: to protect biodiversity, ecological and landscape integrity in Te Wāhipounamu – the UNESCO-recognised, 2.6 million hectare world heritage area, which encompasses much of the south-west South Island, including the Haast River valley. (It’s recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the world’s great areas of wildness.)

Yet, as mentioned by Conservation Authority chair Ellison, the Cowan licence above the Roaring Billy Falls – the family has two licences below the falls, which expire in 2023 – has spent long periods in an unregulated wilderness.

A timeline compiled by McSweeney said it expired in the early 2000s, and it wasn’t until 2008 that a three-year extension was granted. After another gap, Slater’s “phasing out” renewal occurred in 2013, at a reduced stocking rate.

What of the monetary gain to DoC? The Cowan licence fee in 2017 was $2320. (Sanson estimated the Upper Haast grazing operation returned between $30,000 and $40,000 a year.)

In 2016, there was an added $2130 for the cost recovery of monitoring. However, it appears no monitoring was done between 2013 and 2015, or in 2017.

“It’s not all beer and skittles, I can tell you.” – Katie Milne

Katie Milne, a former president of Federated Farmers, picks up on Sanson’s comment the decision wasn’t precedent-setting but she says the cancellation is worrying.

“Talking to a couple of others from other parts of the country, they’ve had similar conversations going on where for those big, big braided rivers and things, if they can’t do the fencing appropriately then maybe they’re outside their lease agreements, and with the new freshwater policy coming through, they feel like they’re at risk.”

Milne, who has a dairy farm at Lake Brunner, and whose family farms in South Westland, some valleys had been farmed for 150 years. (Cowan started farming in the Haast in 1978.)

Grazing licences were one way the country evolved, she says, as people moved to remote areas because of the development. Generally, the farms with licences have small parcels of freehold land and big leasehold areas to graze.

“Basically if they’re gone the farms are gone, especially because they’re so far from anywhere. The reason why they’re not heavily developed compared to the rest of the country is they’re so remote the cost of bringing in fertilisers and things like that, and doing any work, is huge, and the cost of freighting your produce out is huge.”

Such low-cost, small-margin operations are precarious, Milne says. Some farms have other income streams – “they have to, to make it pay”.

“It’s not all beer and skittles, I can tell you.”

The impact of low-intensity cattle grazing on water quality is very small compared to dairy farms, she says. Still, DoC has been under increasing pressure to implement freshwater regulations, and she recognises it is following its legislation, set in place long ago. “It was coming.”

This appears to be one area she can agree with Mark, the eminent botanist. He says of DoC: “They’ve got their legislation to uphold and that’s what they’re doing.”

He just wishes the department didn’t have to be reminded so often about upholding those obligations.

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

Leave a comment