Conservation group fears a flood of applications is “a rush to develop the high country”. David Williams reports

Farmers on Crown pastoral leases flooded authorities with development applications just days before tighter protections kicked in.

The leases cover about 1.2 million hectares, or 5 percent of the country, spanning the South Island’s high country. Lessees have grazing rights and other activities need approval from the Commissioner of Crown Lands, an independent officer employed by the Crown’s land manager, Land Information New Zealand.

LINZ confirms it received 218 applications in November – more than the previous six months combined.

More than half of November’s applications came from three districts – Central Otago (55), Mackenzie (46), and Queenstown-Lakes (31).

“These applications include consent to undertake discretionary pastoral activities, stock limitation exemptions, commercial recreation permits and easements,” LINZ head of Crown property Sonya Wikitera said.

“We believe the increase in applications is partially due to leaseholders wanting their applications considered under a familiar regime.”

A big change for the high country and the environment
Warning over Mackenzie development ‘goldrush’

November 17 was when reforms to the Crown Pastoral Land Act, prompted by public concern, kicked in. Wikitera confirmed applications received before that date must be processed under the previous regime.

Changes include a new consents process to protect inherent values better, a new way of transferring leases, which gives greater consideration of public access, and more transparency through publishing decision summaries.

Mark Patterson, a sheep and beef farmer at Lawrence, is Federated Farmers’ Otago president. The former New Zealand First list MP didn’t know the reason for the rush of applications.

“The only view I can offer is they need to go through a pretty rigorous process with LINZ and are subject to the usual council consents as would [be] freehold landowners. As to why the significant spike I’m not in a position to speculate.”

Glenbrook Station owner Simon Williamson, who farms near Twizel, is the North Otago chair of Federated Farmers’ arable industry group. His family used to run Birchwood Station, near Ōmārama, which was bought by the Nature Heritage Fund in 2004, and is now part of the Ahuriri Conservation Park.

Williamson says: “I suspect most are trying to get consent for winter grazing and the new pile of unnecessary compliance being dumped on them.”

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird has previously lamented the Crown’s light hand in the high country.

In 2021, it noted in 10 years of complaints about activities on Crown pastoral leases – activities like burning, spraying, and wetland clearance, undertaken without permission from the Commissioner of Crown Lands – LINZ had taken no prosecutions.

The flood of applications is concerning, Forest & Bird’s Nicky Snoyink says.

“This looks like a rush to develop the high country, which is very concerning for any remaining high country dryland ecosystems and the native species that live there. It raises real questions of the recent Crown pastoral land reform.”

Before developments are approved, Snoyink says ecological assessments, using suitably qualified experts, need to be undertaken, and all available information considered. “These agencies also need to be prepared to say ‘No’ to development in any areas that have significant values or that have been recommended for protection.”

Christine Rose, lead climate campaigner for environmental lobby group Greenpeace Aotearoa, says via email: “Looks like a rush is on!”

She hopes transitional arrangements are in place to reflect the new regime, even when considering applications up to the deadline of the old regime.

“Otherwise the intent and reasons for the change are thwarted. And if too many are approved prior to the new regime it is subverted and it makes that change moot.”

When considering consent applications, the Commissioner of Crown Lands has to consider views from third parties, such as iwi and the Department of Conservation.

Snoyink says LINZ and DoC need to ensure ecological assessments are robust – or a moratorium put in place on new consents.

DoC’s aware of the influx of applications, land regulatory delivery manager David Griffin says.

“We are working with Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand to understand and prioritise the applications that have come in so we can provide timely and robust ecological advice.”

It was public concern over third-party advice, or that the Commissioner wasn’t following it, that led to the shake-up of the Crown Pastoral Land Act. In fact, a LINZ review published in 2018 painted a picture of an opaque system, weighted towards farmers.

The land manager had stronger links to farming and economics than ecology, the report said, and ecological advice had been poor or variable, while compliance and enforcement was deemed inadequate.

Part of the problem was tenure review, a voluntary process to end a Crown pastoral lease, splitting it into privately held land, with some protection, with the balance going to the Crown.

The new bill, which passed into law in May last year, ended tenure review.

(Federated Farmers opposed the bill in its entirety. Its submission said it “would result in unnecessary, expensive, and resource intensive duplication”.)

What was left, then, was better management of existing leases. Academic research has found Crown decisions, including those by the commissioner, had allowed greater agricultural intensification in the Mackenzie Basin.

In July 2020, Eugenie Sage, then Land Information Minister, moved the first reading of the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill.

She was careful to say there were no changes to leaseholders’ rights – to pasturage, quite enjoyment, rights of lease renewal, or their responsibilities to pest and weed control. Nor was it the Government’s intention to prevent pastoral farming.

“Rather, the changes in this bill are intended to encourage leaseholders to manage the land in a way that reduces impacts or, better still, actively enhances the inherent values of the land that they lease from the Crown.”

The political opposition didn’t buy it.

National’s Jacqui Dean, the Waitaki MP, responded to Sage in 2020 “it’s really hard to know where to start to express the outrage that I feel at the introduction of this Bill”.

“I’m afraid that the minister, the Hon Eugenie Sage, has not shucked off her former close affiliation with Forest & Bird, in that, from my point of view, the minister would prefer to have no humans on the high country.”

Fast-forward to 2023 and the sky hasn’t fallen. Humans still occupy the high country. But change is afoot.

Sage, who was replaced by Labour’s Damien O’Connor as Land Information Minister, announced before Christmas she’ll retire at this year’s election.

Dean will, too.

But the Crown pastoral reforms are in place, and there’s a large pile of farm development consents to deal with.

LINZ’s Wikitera said it was working with leaseholders on timeframes for processing, and prioritising urgent applications where an activity was planned for this year.

“We will continue to consult with the Department of Conservation on each application to ensure ecological, landscape, heritage, cultural and scientific values on Crown pastoral land are protected.

“In addition, DOC and LINZ often seek expert advice to help with this assessment and that approach will remain. In some cases, that advice may already exist, and we will work with leaseholders to understand what is needed.”

A March 2021 comment piece, written by Victoria University of Wellington law Professor Catherine Iorns with the Environmental Law Initiative, asked “whether the Bill will achieve its objectives or whether it will turn the clock back and revive old tensions and issues”.

This flood of applications appears to be the first test.

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

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