Goldrush for conservation land mining

While a proposed ban on new mines on conservation land lumbers through a public consultation process, there has been a rush of mining applications.

Until a ban is in place, the Department of Conservation (DOC) must assess applications under existing legislation. Since the ban was proposed in November, 18 applications have been approved.

DOC has received 24 applications for access to conservation land, or to vary current access arrangements following the announcement of the proposed ban in November. This compares with 14 applications made over the same timeframe a year ago.

The public consultation process announced last week by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage means the proposed mining ban will take several months to be implemented.

Forest & Bird CEO Kevin Hague said a moratorium on new applications could have been put in place in November.

“We were delighted when the Government announced that it was ending mining on conservation land. But six months down the track we’re still losing New Zealand’s native species to giant holes in the ground.” 

Policy change would only be made after consultation has been completed with the mining sector, iwi, local government, environmental and community groups, and the wider public. A discussion document will be released in September but the timeframe for public consultation following the document has not been finalised.

“The longer that process goes on for the more likely it is miners will start to make their applications and because they have applied under one set of rules it will be difficult for the government to insist the new set of rules will apply to the further processing of those applications,” said Hague.

Sage has confirmed applications are still being assessed as they were prior to the announcement of the ban: “Until the new policy is implemented applications will continue to be dealt with under the existing law. There’s no power to veto, but the existing mechanisms can be used.”

“It’s time we stopped giving the mining industry special treatment.”

Currently 3000 hectares of conservation land has access arrangements for mining activities with 54 of 113 approved operations active.

While the gold, coal and limestone that mining companies are extracting from conservation land isn’t at risk of going anywhere, some of the wildlife living in areas approved for mining is at risk.

The Archey's frog only lives in the Coromandel and Te Kūiti. Photo: Phil Bishop
The Archey's frog is only found in the Coromandel and Te Kūiti. Photo: Phil Bishop

Conservation land used for mining is home to threatened species and Forest & Bird are concerned destroying habitat could lead to extinctions.

One proposed open-cast coal mine includes habitat home to the threatened great spotted kiwi, West Coast green gecko and the rare forest ringlet butterfly. Despite being home to these species the area is considered low-value conservation land.

Another approved site in the Coromandel where exploration for gold is taking place threatens one of the two known habitats of the endangered Archey’s frog, which tops a Zoological Society of London list of endangered amphibians.

Hague said no other activity is allowed to destroy conservation land the way mining is.

“It’s time we stopped giving the mining industry special treatment.”

Straterra, an organisation representing mining interests, say mining is important for regional jobs and “realistic pragmatism” is needed to drive regional growth. They warn government intervention beyond existing legislation could impact growth.

CEO Chris Baker said: “Conservation land varies widely in its quality and value. We want to see a nuanced approach where all applications are considered on a case-by-case basis, and there is a net-positive benefit.

“As well as providing jobs and contributing to economic development in regional New Zealand, mining plays a crucial role in our export-reliant economy. We cannot ignore the contribution the minerals industry makes to regional development, which the Government has identified as crucial to New Zealand’s prosperity.”

Straterra say mining accounts for 22 percent of regional GDP and employs 1180 jobs in the West Coast.

Untangling how much regional growth is reliant on conservation land is difficult.

Straterra’s policy and communications manager, Jeremy Harding, said he didn’t know what proportion of mining relies on conservation land, or how many jobs it is responsible for, however, said “by far the most of New Zealand potential mining activity is on conservation land”.

Based on figures from Straterra’s website, the above-ground footprint of mining is 134 km sq.

DOC estimate mining activity is currently approved on 30 km sq of conservation land.

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