Three conservation board members resign after an “out of control” meeting. David Williams reports

Conservation Minister Kiri Allan says the issues sparking the resignations of three members of the West Coast Tai Poutini conservation board are unique, and not symptomatic of wider problems.

Last Thursday night, Inger Perkins, of Hokitika, Suzanne Hills, of Barrytown, and Neil Silverwood, of Blackball – all of whom were appointed in 2019 by Allan’s predecessor Eugenie Sage – sent a joint letter to the Minister announcing their resignations, after tensions that have simmered with iwi representatives boiled over.

At the previous week’s meeting, Perkins was rolled as the board’s acting chair, in favour of former chair Mike Legge, who has been re-appointed to the 11-member board. There was fiery debate, including accusations of racism, over a Department of Conservation plan for a new visitor centre at Punakaiki, with the building at Dolomite Point to be gifted to iwi and DoC taking a lease.

Hills tells Newsroom Legge didn’t control rudeness or disrespectful behaviour, including an allegation that Dolomite Point opponents were being racist. “That’s just bullying behaviour,” she says.

“It was really out of control.” (Legge didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Silverwood adds: “The board is no longer a safe working environment.”

Allan, who is of Ngāti Ranginui and Tūwharetoa descent, saw the tensions first-hand when she visited the West Coast last year – just a week after the previous board chair, Keith Morfett, resigned. (Another member, Barry Hughes, also resigned last year, without serving his full term.)

“My preliminary view, having sat around the table, was it was very much to do with the personalities around that table, and a lack of a positive governance culture,” Allan tells Newsroom in Christchurch, at last week’s Environmental Defence Society conference.

“This is an anomaly in terms of a culture of a board. I don’t think it’s a satisfactory culture and there’s many driving factors.”

One of the biggest issues for Perkins, Hills and Silverwood is iwi members’ conflicts of interest not being declared or managed.

For example, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae chair Francois Tumahai is a director of coal mining company Bathurst Resources – his profile says “Francois is an ardent supporter of the mining industry” – and is a board member of the New Zealand Institute for Minerals to Materials Research. Tumahai, who is married to Ngāi Tahu kaiwhakahaere (chair) Lisa, is also chief executive of the hapu’s commercial arm, Arahura Holding Ltd, which has interests in mining, commercial property, forestry and a pounamu shop.

Hills accuses the three iwi representatives on the board – Tumahai, a community appointed representative, and Kara Edwards and Veronica Baldwin appointed by Ngāi Tahu – of blatantly pushing economic interests rather than advocating for conservation. The board had become so mired in debate about procedure it had achieved nothing in two years, she says. “That is so frustrating when we have these huge, massive problems facing humanity and yet we haven’t been able to work together.”

Board tensions have been escalated to ministers, to the top echelons of DoC, and the New Zealand Conservation Authority. (Authority chair Edward Ellison says the board issues are difficult and he’s not surprised by the resignations. “It’s probably not helpful for me to comment on it, from our role, we’re best to try and keep out of it.”)

A flurry of workshops on governance and Te Tiriti issues failed to bridge the divide, as did a personal intervention by Minister Allan, who heard concerns of both camps during a West Coast trip last year.

Yet Allan tells Newsroom she’ll need a paper from officials to get a clear picture of the allegations.

After last year’s meeting, Silverwood accused the Minister of backing iwi interests ahead of the environment. Some of her comments to Newsroom could suggest such a leaning.

What she heard from members last year was a lack of understanding about the “hierarchy of priorities”. “In my mind there isn’t – there’s quite a clear hierarchy of priorities.” She also talked of a “values discussion” that’s needed, which need to be interpreted in the current context.

The minister wasn’t aware of the call from the departing trio for statutory management of the board until issues are resolved. She also doesn’t recall if allegations of racism were raised with her.

Labour MP Kiri Allan was tipped early as having ministerial potential. She returned to work at Parliament last month, after taking time off to be treated for cervical cancer. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Some or all of the board’s iwi representatives have boycotted meetings in the last two years because the Conservation Act was being given primacy over Treaty of Waitangi principles. (Section 4 of the Act requires DoC to “give effect” to Te Tiriti.) Ngāi Tahu also filed a judicial review challenging the legality of board appointments process after Sage re-appointed Morfett.

In late December 2019, Tumahai and Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio chairman Paul Madgwick backed the call of Westland Mayor Bruce Smith to disband the board because it’s stacked with conservationists.

Minister Allan says boards around the country comprising people with different backgrounds and views are working constructively.

Putting your hand up to be a governor means putting aside personal views, she says. Treaty relationships “aren’t that challenging” in many places, she says, pointing to successes in Te Urewera – where the national park is governed with Tūhoe – and the Whanganui River, which has been recognised as a legal person.

“What they do require is focusing on shared common ground, [and] being free and frank where there are challenging topics to overcome. But in most places people are getting on and doing it,” she says. “I don’t have issues like this anywhere else in the country. Nobody else is walking away from tables, they are having conversations.”

The West Coast resignations are set against a massive re-think of the DoC-iwi relationship because of the 2018 Supreme Court Ngāi Tai decision – a judicial review of commercial concessions granted for tours to Rangitoto and Motutapu islands in the Hauraki Gulf. (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu was given leave to intervene in the case.)

The decision gave the department further guidance on the application of Section 4 of the Act – underlining a Court of Appeal decision in 1995, known as the Whales case, which said iwi are entitled to a “reasonable degree of preference”, and active protection of rights under Te Tiriti.

In a press statement issued from Ngāi Tahu’s head office in Christchurch on Friday, Tumahai and Madgwick rejected claims made by Perkins, Hills and Silverwood in their resignation letter.

The rūnanga, together known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu, are working with DoC in partnership at a “mana ki te mana” (chief to chief) level.

“We understand that the change to implementing a partnership approach is challenging for some individuals, however this is specifically mandated by section 4 of the Act and confirmed by the Supreme Court decision in the Ngāi Tai case and as part of the Ngāi Tahu settlement.

“Therefore we will continue with this approach in line with our tribal values. We look forward to working with new board members and implementing a Treaty partnership in a modern context as soon as possible.”

The Waitangi Tribunal’s 2011 report Wai 262 affirmed the right of DoC to give primacy to conservation – “but this right is not absolute”. It must be achieved by a partnership that, “to the greatest extent practicable”, supports the tino rangatiratanga (self determination) of hapū and iwi, and provides active protection “for their interests in taonga (treasured objects, resources, phenomenon, ideas and techniques)”.

A central theme for future conservation law reform, the push for which was evident at last week’s EDS conference, will undoubtedly be the relationship with iwi.

This year the national conversation over Te Tiriti has become politically charged, over the He Puapua report, claims of racial separatism, and a controversy over the scientific credentials of mātauranga Māori.

Keith Morfett claims there’s an inappropriate relationship between Poutini Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation on the West Coast. Photo: David Williams

Morfett, the former West Coast conservation board chair, hasn’t spoken publicly about his resignation from the board last December. But he’s doing so now because of the recent ructions. He reveals he stepped down because of what he describes as intolerable pressure from Ngāi Tahu, which accused him of cultural insensitivity.

“I resigned in the hope that it may resolve some of those conflicts. It didn’t, and I’m pretty upset at the way it’s gone – but I’m not surprised.”

The resignation letter from Perkins, Hills, and Silverwood said Morfett was asked by Sage, the previous Minister, and an unnamed senior DoC staffer, to resign “to help ease tensions with Ngāi Tahu”.

Morfett says Sage visited his house last year to talk to him, and Perkins, about iwi tensions. The Minister was supportive, he says, and several workshops, about Section 4 and governance, were organised to try and unite the board. “Whatever we did, it didn’t work.” (Sage refused to comment.)

There’s an inappropriate relationship between Poutini Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation on the West Coast, Morfett says. The department is stepping outside its legislation, he says – “enabling economic development to the detriment of conservation”.

“The whole relationship is based on economic development rather than conservation. The other issue [is] rampant conflicts of interest aren’t being handled.”

He says Ngāi Tahu representatives consistently refused to fill out conflict of interest forms, an expected part of being a board member.

An example of the drive for economic development is the Paparoa National Park draft management plan – overseen by Legge during his previous tenure as board chair. The draft, written with Ngāti Waewae, included recreational helicopter landings in the park. At the time, Ngāi Tahu’s tourism arm owned Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters, but after Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the borders closed, it was sold. The High Court found the draft plan departed from DoC’s conservation management strategy.

In 2019, the New Zealand Alpine Club urged DoC to withdraw the draft Westland Tai Poutini national park plan, which suggested more permissive aircraft landing “zones”, and an amenities area allowing a gondola to be built at Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere Valley. (The plan was pulled in response to the Ngāi Tai case.)

“I think it’s the job of the board to speak truth to power,” Morfett says. “And the power here is with the department and with Poutini Ngāi Tahu. The board’s just been bullied and bulldozed.”

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae is often pro-development. It supported the Te Kuha mine project, which was declined access to conservation stewardship land near Westport. The High Court upheld the decision of Sage and Energy Minister Megan Woods to deny access because Te Kuha’s economic benefits didn’t outweigh the effect on conservation values.

In 2019, Tumahai said it was “absolute madness” for Environment Minister David Parker to veto a hydroelectric power scheme planned for the Waitaha River.

(Critics say the department’s West Coast arm is also taking a pro-development stance beyond its legislative mandate for a project in the fragile Ōpārara Basin.)

Morfett, the previous board chair, says mana whenua have a right to establish a presence “at place”, in important parts of the rohe (region). They must also be involved in department decision-making, to some extent.

“But no organisation whatever shape, colour or creed, should have preferential access to resources, as the Ngāi Tai High Court case told us they should have, and be able to write the plan. They’re deciding how much resource there is, and how it should be managed, and getting preferential access to those resources.”

Another concern was plans for the new Punakaiki visitor centre. Morfett says there should be an open debate about changes to how things are done on public conservation land.

“We need to throw the doors and the windows open, and have a good public discussion and debate about it. How that is brought about, I suspect it will eventually be via a court case. I think that’s unfortunate.”

At stake is what happens on public conservation land, including national parks. “We’ve got to think very carefully before we open up wilderness areas to helicopter access. We’ve got to think very carefully before we commercialise our national parks. We’ve got to think very carefully before we convert our visitor information centres into pay-per-view exhibitions.”

DoC has stopped listening to conservation and recreation groups, Morfett claims, and are just listening to iwi. “It’s terrible – it really has led us into a pretty dark place.”

“I feel really disenfranchised now. I’m a much more cynical person than I was two years ago.” – Suzanne Hills

Mike Slater, DOC’s deputy director-general of operations, says the statutory planning hierarchy and legislative requirements are well understood by the department.

“Occasionally these are tested in court, such as with the Paparoa National Park management plan.

“The judge struck out certain sections and policy provisions relating to recreational aircraft landings within Paparoa National Park and made a declaration which now forms part of the plan. DoC welcomed the clarity the High Court judgment provided.”

Slater’s statement ignored criticism of West Coast operations director Mark Davies, who the resignation letter said has been, to some members, “dismissive, defensive or misleading”. Former acting chair Perkins says at the last board meeting, Davies made a presentation about Dolomite Point and then asked her to put a resolution that the board accept the project as proposed. “It’s disappointing that that resolution was proposed by the director.”

(The board’s never been properly consulted on the controversial project, Perkins says, only briefed.)

An Environmental Defence Society’s issues paper on conservation reform, released last week, says some DoC staff value the role of conservation boards, while “others see them as an impediment to DoC’s work and an anachronism”.

There’s sadness and bitter disappointment among the trio of board members who have resigned.

Hills says: “I’ve put a lot of work and effort and diligence into trying to fulfil my role, but I’ve really been stymied on so many fronts. I feel really disenfranchised now. I’m a much more cynical person than I was two years ago.”

Silverwood says resigning has brought about a sense of relief. “The board had just become a pretty septic place.”

Meanwhile, Perkins says the experience has been “hugely stressful and difficult”, and she found herself prioritising board work over paid work.

“It’s not a safe place to be standing up for your principles and conservation. It just feels like there’s no point, which is tragic. Having been so thrilled to be appointed two years ago I now feel it’s completely in vain – there’s no point.”

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

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