Environmental group seeks Mackenzie deal

A high-profile opponent of an intensive dairy development in the Mackenzie Basin is now negotiating with the farm owner. David Williams reports.

As Greenpeace hardens its campaign against a massive dairy conversion in the Mackenzie Basin, long-time opponent Environmental Defence Society appears to be softening its stance.

On Monday, a dozen Greenpeace protestors were arrested after chaining themselves to trucks and diggers at Simons Pass Station, which is to be irrigated and converted to dairying in a $100-million-plus development. When fully developed, the farm, which is partially Crown pastoral lease, will have about 5500 cows and 10,000 other stock animals on 4500 hectares of irrigated land – while another 4000ha is earmarked for conservation.

In recent years, the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has led public opposition to the development. But last week its executive director Gary Taylor flew to the Mackenzie and took a helicopter ride over the property. He confirms he’s in negotation with Simons Pass owner Murray Valentine, a Dunedin businessman.

The discussions are on a no-prejudice basis, Taylor says, and EDS will still try to stop the development – “but I’m not sure we can”. “And so plan B is to limit the damage, and make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Taylor’s taking a pragmatic stance given the development has started and the dozens of approvals from various agencies, including Environment Canterbury, Mackenzie District Council and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). “I don’t like it but I think that is the reality of where the agencies have led us to,” Taylor says. “Our objective is to see if we can find a least-bad outcome that maximises conservation outcomes and minimises dairy intensification.”

Higher value parts of the property are “still salvageable”, he says – “that’s where our effort there is focused”. “To give credit to Murray Valentine he’s been willing to discuss these issues with us. However it’s on a without-prejudice basis. We’re still a submitter on tenure review for this property – which we’ve said it should all go to DOC – and we continue to hold a view that Simons Pass doesn’t have all the land use consents required for the full development and we’re investigating that.”

Valentine is keeping his cards close to his chest. Asked if there is wiggle room from his point of view, he tells Newsroom: “We’re discussing various possibilities.”

Relationship thaw

As the ground freezes, the thaw in relations is an unexpected turnaround.

EDS picked up the baton for environmental opposition to Simons Pass after the 2016 settlement of a long-running Environment Court battle between Simons Pass, Forest & Bird, Mackenzie Guardians and others over water consent conditions.

In January of this year, Valentine was bothered that EDS – “some Auckland outfit” – was telling him what to do, while Taylor accused Valentine of “whinging”. Two months later, Taylor asked for Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage to step in to protect nationally important values at Simons Pass.

Instead, it was Greenpeace that elbowed in. Valentine says he’s worried about future protests. He won’t discuss security arrangements.

A dairy conversion development, as seen in March, at Simons Pass Station, some of which is on Crown pastoral lease land. Photo: DOC

Greenpeace campaigner Gen Toop isn’t ruling out further law-breaking action. She says Monday’s protest at Simons Pass was successful in shutting down construction for the day and showing the public “how extreme the dairy industry has become”.

It also led to a slight shift in political and corporate tone about dairying in the Mackenzie. Fonterra’s Twitter account said on Monday: “We’d prefer not to see more dairy expansion in the Mackenzie Basin”. And former Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy suggested, on The Country radio show, that dairy farming there was unfortunate.

Greenpeace is calling on the Government to ban new dairy conversions and end any further intensification of livestock farming in NZ. Over the coming year, the Government intends to consult on a stronger national policy statement on freshwater and, potentially, national environmental standards. At last month’s Forest & Bird annual conference, Environment Minister David Parker said improving freshwater quality was his number one priority, with material improvements within five years.

“I think that the paradigm has shifted and it’s shifted substantially against dairying in the Mackenzie.” – Gary Taylor

The Simons Pass development isn’t a done deal. The station’s in the latter stages of tenure review, through which a pastoral lease is broken up for freeholding and conservation. Valentine confirms his development still requires more consents.

EDS, like Greenpeace, agrees intensive dairying shouldn’t be in the Mackenzie, Taylor says, but the development is partially complete already.

The Mackenzie’s recent conservation history is littered with big ambitions and lofty goals but little follow-through. The Mackenzie Agreement was signed in 2013 but never funded. Tenure review was seen as a saviour by some but, as reported last year, it became a land carve-up that, perversely, has been more likely to privatise land if it has rare and threatened ecological values.

Taylor says the agencies know they’ve “stuffed up” in the Mackenzie, and EDS wants to prevent any further dairy intensification in the basin. He thinks that’s possible because of a series of factors. He points to: a “wake-up call” for agencies through a report released by Environment Canterbury in February; a new leadership team at LINZ; a new acting Commissioner of Crown Lands; a new Mackenzie district plan that gives greater protection to ecology and landscapes; and a new Government “that’s prepared to exercise more control over conservation outcomes, if required”.

Taylor: “I think that the paradigm has shifted and it’s shifted substantially against dairying in the Mackenzie – and this is its last hurrah.”

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