With the Government’s review of stewardship land seemingly stalled and doubt over whether it still wants to ban new mines on conservation land, West Coast gold miners are marking time.
They’re wondering if the doors are about to crack open or slam shut on an industry that pours more than $180 million a year into the region’s coffers.
Whereas the popular image of a gold miner is a large Australian hardrock corporate, most miners on the Coast are small family-based operators working alluvial claims often on private land.
Riley Perkins is one such Coaster who’s literally sitting on a gold mine – and eyeing one on conservation land next door.
Meet a miner
From his home at Bell Hill, south-east of Greymouth, Perkins surveys a family spread that would have to be one of the most diverse examples of land use in the country.
Under a backdrop of native forest and the mountains beyond Lake Brunner, his sister runs 200 beef cattle.
His mother is a coal and wood merchant who sells hothouse strawberries and manages the farm’s tourist cottages as a side-hustle.
And 38-year-old Perkins employs four people on the small alluvial gold mine he works in his backyard.
His house, well fenced to corral his three-year-old son, is metres from a deep pit where diggers carve out grey schist boulders the size of cars and scoop up the alluvium that yields specks of gold.
“Gold’s worth $3100 an ounce at the moment and we’re getting just under that in a day,” he tells Newsroom.
“But you need that much to cover the costs. Fuel’s the biggest one right now.”
Gravel from the pit goes through a screen: material is loaded into a hopper, washed through a long tubular sieve, or trummel, and the gold – barely visible – is caught on “tables”.
The process is mechanical with no chemicals involved, Perkins takes pains to point out.
The tailings are dumped in an existing pit, topped with silt from settling ponds and sown with grass seed.
“We’ll be working another 12 months on this spot and it’ll eventually be a big pasture. It makes for good free-draining soil.”
Perkins and his father before him have been working their way around their 270ha spread in this fashion for the past 35 years: excavating, extracting the gold and creating pasture.
“It was swampy land before Dad bought it in the late 1970s,” Perkins says.
“The blocks around here were rehab farms for returned soldiers after World War I.
“The old hardwood forests were cleared early on. It was last milled in the 1950s and 1960s. There were four mills within 2km of this place.”
Rimu and other native species now flourish in a 6ha patch Perkins has fenced off as a “significant natural area”.
Native forest is also regenerating on a strip of land at the base of Bell Hill, an ecological area Perkins gained consent to mine some years ago despite its protected status.
“The Department of Conservation refused consent at first but we got an ecologist’s report and it agreed.
“We would have taken a million dollars’ worth of gold out of that small strip. But you wouldn’t know it was mined.”
Vegetation is naturally springing up among the flax and Perkins has planted native species to hasten regeneration.
He’d like to do the same with DoC stewardship land bordering his western boundary.
But the Government’s review of DoC’s unclassified land – most of it on the West Coast – has stalled as it ponders how to accommodate Ngāi Tahu Treaty of Waitangi rights in conservation policy and national parks management.
Perkins is reluctant to spend money on a DoC access application or mining licence while the review outcome is uncertain.
He says the process was flawed from the start, a view shared by conservation groups but for different reasons.
“They [an expert panel] recommended this parcel of land beside us should be protected as a conservation area and I submitted against it.
“DoC’s had it since 1987 and done nothing with it – it’s scrub and gorse,” Perkins says.
“I spoke to my submission and in the end one of the authors of the report admitted they never came out and inspected it.
“They did it all from a desktop.”
Perkins would buy the 80ha block if he could but he’d also be happy to see it given to Ngāi Tahu.
“We have a good relationship with the iwi – they’re friendly to mining.
“At the end of the day I just want to see it in production, making money for the country.”
Eyes on Oz
“People look at Australia and see how good the lifestyle is there, and that’s all pretty much because of mining.
“If we want that here we need to tap into our resources.”
With the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions needing drastic cutting, would Perkins consider mining the block then restoring it to native forest instead of pasture?
And maybe, in a more enlightened future, claiming carbon credits?
“No, the emissions trading scheme is a scam. It doesn’t actually help the environment.
“You can’t pollute on the one hand and say the trees exonerate you. It doesn’t make sense.”
The lifelong miner says he’s happy to show visitors around his operation.
“We get a lot of tourists here from the Netherlands.
“They’ve never seen anything like this and they stay in the cottages, check out the mining, go for walks in the forest.
“They seem to love it.”
Sceptical Aucklanders and others who may regard mining with suspicion are always welcome as well, he says.
“I’d say get on a plane and come down to the coast and visit a mine.
“Don’t be afraid of it – we’re more than happy to open the doors and show you around.”
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund