Pre-Covid, the South Island’s West Coast was awash with tourists urged to jump in their rental vans and cars, and drive from Kahurangi Point to Awarua Point, a 600km sliver of spectacular scenery wedged between the mountains and the Tasman Sea.

Nature is the main drawcard. Dramatic glaciers, limestone arches stretching across whisky-coloured waters nestled in lush forests, and deserted beaches pounded by unforgiving surf.

Much of the lower West Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Area, Te Wāhipounamu.

(The state of conservation report to UNESCO says the 2.6 million hectare area “has outstanding universal significance for its Gondwana taxa, and it contains great diversity of landforms, flora and fauna”.)

Hence the tourist-tempting tagline: untamed, natural, wilderness.

Why then, asks conservationist Neil Silverwood, isn’t there a greater clamour to protect it?

Silverwood, who lives in Blackball, just up the Grey River from Greymouth, has seen more of the West Coast than most. He’s an author and photographer, who’s also a caver, tramper, whitewater kayaker and rock climber.

He has been left scratching his head by proposals from a major project to re-classify 644,000 hectares of West Coast conservation land held right now as “stewardship land”.

In May, when recommendations were released, the headline-grabber was the idea of expanding Paparoa National Park. But that was only 12 percent of the land under consideration, and all of it in the northern part of the Coast.

About 82 percent, or 530,000 hectares – an area larger than the country’s second-largest national park, Kahurangi – is earmarked for conservation park and historic reserve status. That would leave the vast area between Greymouth and Haast, including some within Te Wāhipounamu, without any new areas of national park.

Yet so much of it is worthy of national park status, Silverwood says.

“The stewardship land in question encompasses enormous areas of pristine wilderness, a great deal of the Southern Alps, internationally significant wetlands, large areas of mature podocarp and beech forest,” he says.

“There’s 180,000 hectares recommended to become a historic reserve [and] you would not be able to tell the difference between that land, and the land inside Arthur’s Pass National Park.”

The recommendations fall well-short of reflecting the conservation values, Silverwood says – and leave it open to development, like mining or hydro-electricity schemes.

(Already, Victoria Forest Park has some of the West Coast’s largest coal and gold mines on public conservation land.)

Source of constant conflict

A clash over land classifications seemed inevitable.

Environmental Defence Society’s issues paper on conservation reform, published last year, said conservation groups had concerns about the adequacy of protection, while developers were frustrated by restrictions.

“This makes stewardship land possibly the most contentious of all land classifications and a source of constant conflict and debate,” the paper said.

Conservation and economic interests regularly clash on the West Coast.

Examples include a planned hydro-electric power schemes on Griffin Creek, and the Waitaha River, a hoo-ha over a cattle grazing licence, a controversial upgrade in the Ōpārara Basin, and a conservation board bust-up.

The EDS paper said reclassification is “highly contested”, as 84 percent of the West Coast is conservation land, and its “release” is seen as vital for development.

Silverwood criticises the process as “extremely rushed” – 504 parcels of land assessed in a matter of months. In that time, it’s impossible to properly understand each parcel, and get the classifications right, he says.

(He points out a report into the area proposed to be added to the Paparoa National Park neglects to mention 20 caves in a conservation area popular for recreation. Another assessment, of the Wanganui-Otira catchments, inadequately describes its importance for canyoning and whitewater kayaking.)

All draft recommendations appear to be a compromise between the national panel and the mana whenua panel, Silverwood says. “The panels have been heavily influenced by economic considerations, and have failed in their task.”

Newsroom tried to put Silverwood’s criticism to the chair of the western South Island national panel, Neil Clifton.

DoC operations manager Stacey Wrenn replied, via email: “The panels are non-partisan and comprised of technical experts and members were chosen on their relevant expertise, professional networks and availability. We ask people to contact DoC rather than the panels directly, as they are focused on the current process and won’t be providing comment at this time.”

Stewardship land was transferred to the Department of Conservation when it was formed in 1987, and held in that category pending assessment of its conservation values.

Little happened for more than three decades. Small chunks have been re-classified, and other areas added, but stewardship land spans some 2.5 million hectares, or 9 percent of the country.

In the last 14 months things have accelerated – as has the turnover of conservation ministers.

In May last year, Acting Minister Ayesha Verrall announced reclassification would be streamlined, sped up, and simplified. The first areas to be considered would be the north and west of the South Island.

It took until six weeks ago for the West Coast recommendations – made by a panel of ministerial appointees, working alongside a Ngāi Tahu panel – to be made public.

Minister Kiri Allan said at the time: “It is important to strike the balance in getting these land classifications right, so that we protect land with conservation and cultural value, and unlock land with neither, making it available for other productive purposes.”

The next part – consideration of public submissions, which close on July 26 – will be overseen by new minister Poto Williams, who got the job after a Cabinet reshuffle last month.

The stakes are high. Silverwood says: “The stewardship land review gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be able to adequately protect some of our most high value conservation land in New Zealand.”

Mt Rochford Conservation Area is recommended to be classified conservation park. Photo: Neil Silverwood

Let’s use the Denniston Plateau, within the 7500-hectare Mount Rochfort Conservation Area, near Westport, as a case study.

The area, which borders the Orikaka Ecological Area and the Denniston and Buller Gorge scenic reserves, is described as having high landscape values, high ecological value, and high recreation values.

A landscape values report says much of the conservation area has been deemed an outstanding natural landscape. While the plateau’s gentle terrain is marked by various mining disturbances, a technical report says it’s still highly natural in character, with high-value forests, and a “high diversity of habitats and species”.

The Denniston also holds a major place in this country’s coal mining history – something mentioned multiple times – and is home to heritage and archaeological sites, historic walks, tramping, cycling and 4WD trips.

The Western South Island national panel says the area “contains a mosaic of high conservation values”, and a diversity of habitats supporting “numerous common, threatened and at-risk flora and fauna”, including the threatened land snail, Powelliphanta patrickensis.

Yet it is recommended to be a conservation park – the lowest protection in the hierarchy of conservation statuses.

The mana whenua panel’s view is it should remain as stewardship land. Mt Rochfort is adjacent to land being considered for “mine remediation” by government agencies, led by Treasury, the panel says. “Therefore reclassification should not occur at this time.”

Silverwood says it’s in the national interest to protect the area. “It’s inconceivable that it’s been given the lowest status.”

Nearby areas with arguably inferior conservation values have been given ecological area status, he says.

“It’s very difficult to understand the process. It almost appears ad hoc in places.”

A 2021 Cabinet paper from the Conservation Minister’s office said stewardship land “where applications are sought for mining access arrangements” would be prioritised in the reclassification process.

The mana whenua panel is led by Francois Tumahai, of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae. Tumahai, who’s married to Ngāi Tahu kaiwhakahaere Lisa, is paid $90,000 a year to be a director of listed coal mining company Bathurst Resources Ltd.

Tumahai’s 2021 appointment letter to the Australian stock exchange describes him as “an ardent supporter of the mining industry and a board member of the New Zealand Institute for Minerals to Materials Research”.

Silverwood says personal and organisational conflicts in the reclassification process haven’t been adequately managed.

(We asked Bathurst’s chief executive Richard Tacon if the proposed classifications are good for its business, and if it had plans to expand mining on public conservation land. He didn’t respond to our email.)

‘We take this very seriously’

Tumahai says the panel is acutely aware of its boundaries when representing iwi, whānau and its whenua. “Our professionalism is critical, and, as is the case for many Māori who have multiple roles across a range of areas, we take this very seriously.”

The stewardship land review is of utmost significance to Ngāi Tahu, Tumahai says, and the mana whenua panel and national panel have worked well together to develop recommendations.

(He points out the mana whenua panel was only established after Ngāi Tahu went to court after the Crown started the reclassification process without involving its Treaty partner.)

“The mana whenua panel is pleased with the progress made to date,” he says, in an emailed statement. The panel worked closely with the national panel “by providing information on mahinga kai, mātauranga Māori and our future aspirations for use of the whenua”.

Conservation and wider community interests were carefully considered, he says.

“For the mana whenua panel, the priority is to ensure that the mana and rangatiratanga of Ngāi Tahu is recognised in the reclassification process, and Ngāi Tahu values and interests are protected and enhanced.”

The largest proposed reserve, spanning 181,000 hectares, would be known as Tarahanga e Toru Historic Reserve. The area is inland from Greymouth, near Lake Brunner. It includes three main pounamu trails, and is of immense significance to Ngāi Tahu, Tumahai says.

“Tarahanga e Toru is at the heart of many Poutini Ngāi Tahu legends, customs, and traditions. These trails were lifelines for Poutini Ngāi Tahu and used as trading routes for pounamu and kai in times of peace and war.”

The controversial Griffin Creek hydro scheme is proposed to be built in Tarahanga e Toru, on a river prized by canyoners.

In the Waitaha forest, meanwhile, less than an hour south of Hokitika, the national panel recommends conservation park status, while mana whenua recommend it be held as stewardship land.

The recommendation report says: “The mana whenua panel notes the potential opportunities for hydrogeneration in this area and its importance for community resilience on the West Coast. Therefore reclassification should not occur at this time.”

Further south still, near the tiny town of Whataroa, millions of dollars are being spent on eradicating predators from a 12,000-hectare block of the Perth River Valley. The valley sits within stewardship land.

The assessment area is described in a technical report as having “vast expanses of moderate to steep slopes in river valleys covered in indigenous forest, steep subalpine and alpine areas and, at the higher altitudes, glaciers and alpine environments (many high peaks)”.

The valley, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Area, is recommended for conservation park.

(Newsroom asked Zero Invasive Predators, the organisation heading the Perth River Valley project, to comment on the stewardship land review, and asked if it would make a submission. Innovation director Phil Bell says: “ZIP has not participated in the conservation stewardship land review process to date.”)

“I am confident in the process that is being followed.” – Poto Williams

Each report is stamped with a similar disclaimer from the mana whenua panel, about Ngāi Tahu’s deep connection with all of the whenua in its takiwā. “The interests of Ngāi Tahu in this area may change over time which may require the classification to be revisited,” the Mt Rochfort recommending report says.

Tumahai says Ngāi Tahu and the mana whenua panel doesn’t support expanding national parks. “The National Parks Act restricts Ngāi Tahu from undertaking our kaitiaki rights and responsibilities, while limiting the meaningful involvement of Ngāi Tahu in decision-making.”

(That’s interesting, in light of DoC’s decision, two years ago, to resume consultation of the Aoraki/Mt Cook national park management plan, jointly with Ngāi Tahu.)   

Williams, the new Conservation Minister, doesn’t seem concerned about the stewardship review process.

In an emailed statement, she says: “The panels are committed to this important work and want to see these stewardship areas properly classified for future generations to enjoy. I am confident in the process that is being followed.”

Submitters will have the opportunity to speak to their submissions at a public hearing next month. Williams expects to receive final recommendations in October.

Silverwood, the West Coast conservationist, reckons the plug should be pulled now. Wilderness is only pristine once, he warns, and without protection, wilderness areas can only shrink.

“I see two futures here,” Silverwood says.

“One is where the land is marginally safeguarded by assigning classifications like conservation park with a low level of protection. And another is that we provide the highest levels of protection – so, national park or ecological area.

“If we go for low levels of protection, we will see exploitation of our wild corners, we will see hydro, and we may well see mining. And if we provide adequate protection, then in 100 years the land will look as it looks now – we’ll still have free-flowing rivers, we’ll still have forests, and a really important carbon sink.

“Hopefully we make the right choice.”

* This story has been updated with comment from ZIP’s Phil Bell.

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

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