Fear of losses raised regarding conservation estate review covering 9 percent of the country. David Williams reports

A decades-long delay seems to have morphed into a headlong rush.

When the Department of Conservation was created in 1987 it was given management over land thought to have high conservation values but which hadn’t been properly assessed. The land, much of it forested, was held under the banner “stewardship”.

In all, it comprises more than 3000 parcels of land, big and small, up and down the country – but mostly in the South Island, and the West Coast in particular. Together they cover 2.7 million hectares – an area larger than Waikato, or about 9 percent of the country.

Stewardship was intended to be a temporary holding pen. Assessments would determine the valuable land to be reclassified for greater protection, and parcels with little-to-no conservation value to be sold or exchanged.

That was the theory, at least. In practice, very little happened. A stretched department failed to give it the priority needed, despite a 2013 report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright urging action.

Over 30-odd years, only 100,000 hectares was assessed and reclassified. Meanwhile, the stewardship portfolio has been added to through tenure review and Nature Heritage Fund purchases – including Canterbury’s St James Conservation Area.

Then, last year, the rush was on.

In May, Acting Conservation Minister Ayesha Verrall announced the Government was accelerating reclassication of stewardship land “to ensure land with high conservation value is protected for future generations”. Land with low or no conservation value “can be considered for other uses”.

The process needed to be simplified through law changes, and speeded up. Public input would be retained.

Two appointed expert panels were given eight months to provide recommendations to the Minister on reclassifying stewardship land in the north and west of the South Island.

Almost immediately, the speeding waka hit a sand bar. Ngāi Tahu took urgent legal action over a lack of consultation.

That was resolved with the establishment of a mana whenua panel, and, in November, the Department of Conservation issued a discussion document. Submissions close on March 18.

Reaction to the proposed changes has been mixed.

Federated Farmers said the review was excellent news. For years it had been asking for a concerted effort to identify conservation land “better suited to private ownership”.

“The end result should be better protection of land with high conservation values, both on private and public land, as well as more secure public access to the outdoors, and provision for greater economic outcomes for the nation,” said Canterbury’s Chris Allen, Feds’ environment spokesman.

Earlier last year, Forest & Bird reckoned the panels would find almost all stewardship land was ecologically valuable. Meanwhile, an anti-mining group worried the review was a red herring – that the Government might be quietly backing away from its ban on new mines on conservation land.

Ngāi Tahu kaiwhakahaere Lisa Tumahai said the review needed to take into account cultural practices and historical context.

“We can bring in a wealth of information and knowledge that the Crown-appointed panel members won’t have.”

Ngāi Tahu will provide information about mahika kai places, as well as informing them of future aspirations of the iwi, Tumahai said.

“We want to protect native species, significant ecosystems, and traditional places for future generations. It’s also important that as part of this process, mana whenua and the public have an opportunity to provide their views on whether economic activity should be undertaken in some places, if it is appropriate to do so.”

In the background, much more is at play. Leaked recommendations from DoC’s so-called “options development group” – a panel reviewing conservation policies in light of a landmark Supreme Court decision in December 2018 – suggested the Crown revoke ownership of indigenous species to better reflect Te Tiriti partnerships.

But first, the stewardship land review. With the deadline for submissions looming, recreation lobby group Federated Mountain Clubs is calling for a halt to allow for more serious consideration.

Call for a pause

“It’s outrageous that such scant due diligence has been done,” FMC president Jan Finlayson, of Geraldine, tells Newsroom.

In December, Finlayson wrote to new DoC director-general Penny Nelson calling for a temporary pause to the stewardship work. She said the conservation policies’ review needed to be completed first, otherwise re-classification of stewardship land might be open to legal challenge.

She noted that Verrall, in Cabinet papers, stated she’d asked the expert panels to “prioritise the assessment for re-classification of any stewardship lands where applications are sought for mining access arrangements”.

This jars with the 2013 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, which pointed to the country’s biodiversity crisis while stating: “Some areas of stewardship land are clearly in need of urgent reclassification, so they can be better protected.”

Wright’s report said stewardship land “has the weakest protection of all categories of conservation land, despite some clearly being of high conservation value”. That’s because it can be swapped or disposed of, and there’s little direction on how it should be managed.

FMC believes new additions to stewardship land – like Canterbury’s St James Conservation Area – should be exempt from disposal. It’s also not clear, Finlayson wrote to Nelson, what “no or low conservation values” actually means, and she wonders whether detailed field assessments of every parcel will be done in a fast-tracked process.

“It’s 9 percent of New Zealand, and it is being treated very frivolously. DoC needs to take it much more seriously.”

The present re-classification process is fit for purpose and needs very little tinkering, she says. “It certainly won’t be improved by the changes proposed – which could lead to some severe downsides for the land and for the public.”

The review will be discussed at tomorrow’s Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board meeting.

In the meeting agenda, Paula Smith says in her chairperson’s report some changes seem sensible, such as: allowing the Minister to direct the money from stewardship land sales to the department; or declaring all stewardship land as being held for conservation purposes.

However, she’s not totally comfortable with other proposed changes, such as the public only having 20 days to submit – half the existing time – which would be challenging for organisations that only meet monthly.

“Multiple ‘forever’ decisions are being made using this new process and people’s input should not be rushed.”

Smith, who won’t attend tomorrow’s meeting, tells Newsroom: “We’re all quite pleased there’s going to be some progress on stewardship land because it’s been sitting around for so long. Everybody will be a bit anxious about how it rolls out.”

Gary Taylor, Environmental Defence Society’s chief executive, also welcomes the review, which he says is long overdue. But perverse outcomes are possible, he says, under the “clunky” legislative regime.

The DoC discussion document mentions a variety of concessions, for activities such as grazing or beekeeping, on stewardship land. It warns new land classifications might be inconsistent with existing concessions.

Two options are listed: Continue the existing regime of deciding situations case by case, allowing concessions (some granted for more than 30 years) to “continue regardless”; or changing the law to let existing concessions continue on agreed terms.

“Both options prioritise rights of concessionaires, even on high-value conservation land where vulnerable species/habitat might be getting harmed,” Taylor writes via email.

“Letting concessionaire rights trump conservation/biodiversity protection seems very out of line with the purpose of conservation system. It is essentially confirming a private property right on concessionaires over the public interest in nature.”

DoC’s strategic operations manager Henley McKegg says via email the department is focused on recognising conservation and cultural values on stewardship land.

Reclassification will help decide how best to manage land “and its resources” for future generations.

“At this point, we cannot predict the outcome of the reclassification process with the national panels. Further and ongoing engagement will occur with Conservation Boards by DoC and the national panels to ensure that their knowledge and understanding of stewardship land supports the reclassification process.”

“Some areas of stewardship land are of high conservation value and deserve the legal protection that reflects that value.” – Jan Wright

In her letter to DoC director-general Nelson, Finlayson raises a conflict of interest of Ngāi Tahu mana whenua panellist Francois Tumahai – a director of Bathurst Resources whose profile on the company’s website says he’s an “ardent supporter of the mining industry”.

Tumahai, the Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae chair, responds: “My role as a member of the mana whenua panel is to advocate for Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae and ensure the Crown understands the history of the land it is making decisions about. The mana whenua panel works alongside the two national panels to share traditional mātauranga Māori of the whenua within the Ngāi Tahu takiwā, as well as information on mahinga kai, cultural interests, development opportunities, and our future aspirations to use the whenua.”

The mining industry’s main lobby group, Straterra, has a special corner of its website devoted to “conservation land”. It says a tiny portion of the conservation estate – just 0.06 percent – is mined, and “not all conservation land is high conservation value”.

“We’re agnostic, in fact, about this stewardship land review,” Straterra chief executive Chris Baker says, “except for the fact that many people – many preservationists or NGOs [non-government organisations] – see it as a mechanism to stop the very, very small amount of mining that does occur.”

Baker makes two main points.

He claims land is protected by consents, not its conservation classification – putting aside what’s known as schedule 4 land under the Crown Minerals Act, like national parks, which is protected from mining.

“If you want to mine an area of high conservation value, then obviously the conditions would reflect that higher conservation – you have to go a lot more effort to compensate, or rehabilitate, or whatever the mix of conditions that would be applied, to allow that mining project to progress.”

However, this appears to upend what happened with the Mōkihinui River on the West Coast. Council consents were granted for conservation land to be flooded for a hydro-electricity dam, but DoC’s refusals to grant access, or indulge a landswap, were crucial in Meridian dropping the proposal. (DoC also spent $1.4 million fighting the consents in court.)

In 2019, 64,400 hectares of the Mōkihinui River catchment was added to the Kahurangi National Park – the largest reclassification of stewardship land.

Baker says conducting the stewardship review on environmental criteria is “entirely reasonable” but it begs the question about economic issues. There is significant potential for mining minerals, particularly critical minerals, in the conservation estate, he says. “I don’t think New Zealand Inc would want to close off access to those minerals without due consideration.”

This seems a leap. The discussion is about re-classifying high-value conservation land. Does that necessarily rule out mining?

Baker says mining takes place in locations where minerals are concentrated. Often there’s an alignment with what he calls “unusual conservation values” – where the geology and substrate is unusual.

Research by Crown research institute GNS Science backs this up, Baker says – that economically viable levels of minerals substantially lie in the conservation estate. (It’s no accident, then, the initial stewardship review is focused on the West Coast.)

“We’d like to be able to continue to take our chances in an independent environment, like Environment Court, rather than have things preordained.”

Courts are more the realm of lawyers than DoC ecologists, cynics might point out. A place where trade-offs, economic or environmental, are up for debate. Where, like with the Mōkihinui, public money can be burned in the name of protection.

In her 2013 report, former Parliamentary Commissioner Wright wrote that the relatively weak legal protection of stewardship land “quite naturally signals to the private sector that this part of the conservation estate is ‘open for business’”.

While there’s a place for some flexibility and exchange of land, the central guiding principle should be a “net conservation benefit” – perhaps by payment, new land, or pest control. However, the gain must outweigh the loss.

Wright refers to a DoC study of land with high biodiversity value, a quarter of which was stewardship land. “Some areas of stewardship land are of high conservation value and deserve the legal protection that reflects that value,” Wright said.

Finlayson, of FMC, isn’t convinced the latest review will fulfill Wright’s wishes, entirely. She says law changes have built-in checks and balances, like public submissions and select committee hearings. But she believes the stewardship review proposals would remove many of the checks and balances on the reclassification of conservation land.

Her crystal ball clouds at the troubling portent of a perfect storm focused on economic development.

“The absence of those checks, combined with future politicised panel appointments, could see land of national park quality turned into future building sites, or privatised.”

* This story was updated on Wednesday with comments from Francois Tumahai.

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

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