Minister defensive over 117-year anomaly

Approval for the sale of a massive high country farm ignores a 117-year-old promise to include part of it in a national park – something Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage pushed for last year. David Williams reports.

A year ago, Green Party MP Eugenie Sage took the Land Information Minister to task over the proposed sale of a Canterbury farm station.

The Crown pastoral lease of Mt White Station, 40,000 hectares bordering the Arthur’s Pass National Park, was being sold by the Turnbull family. Sage urged the government to “immediately” withdraw almost 1000 hectares of Mt White, known as Riversdale Flats, from the proposed sale.

“Is the Minister saying that he and Land Information New Zealand can ignore a 1901 Gazette notice, which set aside Riversdale Flats as a reserve for national park, and which should have seen the land become part of the Arthur’s Pass National Park?”

Nathan Guy, answering for his absent colleague Mark Mitchell, said that it was a “very complicated issue” and the Commissioner of Crown Lands was investigating options to “resolve” the land.

Sage’s fears that a sale would happen without the reserve being added to the national park has today been realised. But now she’s the Minister.

Czech buyer announced

Land Information New Zealand announced yesterday that Mt White Station would be sold, for an undisclosed sum, to Czech-born businessman Lukas Travnicek.

Sage didn’t personally sign off the sale. Because Travnicek is a New Zealand resident it was approved by the Overseas Investment Office under delegated authority. The Commissioner of Crown Lands also allowed the Mt White lease to be transferred to Travnicek’s company, Southern Ranges Ltd.

LINZ deputy chief executive of Crown Property Jerome Sheppard says current public access at Mt White is unchanged, but he confirms the Riversdale Flats issue is unresolved. LINZ and DOC will meet with Travnicek’s representatives on Friday “to begin discussions”, Sheppard says.

That’s appalled conservation advocates, who say the Government missed a big opportunity to resolve the issue. They also worry that if the reserve land were eventually added to the national park, it will end up costing taxpayers, as the new lessee might be entitled to compensation.

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury-West Coast manager Nicky Snoyink, of Christchurch, calls the decision “outrageous” and “gutting”, saying the Government should have put the sale on hold until the reserve land issue was resolved.

“It’s absolutely absurd and diabolical that it’s got to this point,” she says. “The specialness of this place has been known for a very, very long time. I don’t know why this has happened.”

Snoyink says the legislation is at fault – “and the Government has to change that legislation”.

“This was the Government’s chance to clean up a 117-year-old mistake and they’ve failed.” – Gerry McSweeney

Gerry McSweeney is a Forest & Bird conservation ambassador who owns Wilderness Lodge, which neighbours Mt White Station. He says the Government needs to urgently revisit the decision.

“The announcement that it’s been sold without excluding the Riversdale Reserve is outrageous,” he says. “This was the Government’s chance to clean up a 117-year-old mistake and they’ve failed.”

McSweeney is appalled the Government would start negotiations over the reserve after approving the sale.

“We owe this to our ancestors, who had the vision in 1901 to make it a reserve set aside for national park purposes. Since then it’s become the southern and eastern gateway to the Arthur’s Pass National Park.”

Federated Mountain Clubs vice-president Jan Finlayson, of Geraldine, says it’s good news that existing public access arrangements will continue. But she says Sage needs to urgently add Riversdale Flats to the national park.

“It’s simply wrong that this beautiful country has been treated as part of a lease, and it’s been grazed by runholders, for all this time and it’s still not been sorted. It’s public land of incredibly high quality – national park quality – reserved for national park purposes, and it should be free for everyone to visit, and it should be cared for appropriately by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as soon as possible.”

She adds: “The ball is in the minister’s court.”

Minister is confident

Sage argues it’s not jarring that an issue she raised in Parliament a year ago has been unresolved, despite her now being the minister. Echoing Guy’s comments from last year, she tells Newsroom the situation is legally complex – because it’s part of the pastoral lease while, at the same time, being reserve land.

“That has got to be worked through. The benefit of the sale is that the new owner is sitting down this Friday to talk with Land Information New Zealand, the OIO and DOC about how to resolve this. I’m confident that the agencies will work to resolve it with the new owner.”

She adds: “It was not a decision I made as minister. I did not approve the sale.”

Sage says the situation at Mt White is different to another flashpoint issue involving a South Island pastoral lease – that is Hunter Valley Station, now leased by disgraced American TV host Matt Lauer.

“This is very different from an absentee overseas owner,” she says. But she agrees Travnicek might be entitled to compensation should the reserve land be removed from the lease. Not that adding it to the national park will be easy. Riversdale Flats are not continuous – there are small pockets of freehold land dotted in between.

Sage points to positives from the sale. Mt White has been removed from tenure review and she understands the new lessee isn’t challenging restrictions put on the previous owner’s proposed farming development. That suggests the new owner has different land use aspirations for Riversdale Flats, she says. But, right now, that use isn’t guaranteed to be protection as part of the national park.

Does the minister find it acceptable that, 117 years on, the situation isn’t resolved, considering it was something she found unacceptable a year ago?

Sage responds: “Yeah, I know, David, and that is why we’re trying to get it fixed. And you can’t do everything in terms of what’s happened over the last 117 years in nine months. The fact that a meeting is happening this week I think indicates the commitment of all parties to getting it resolved.”

New lessee must return

Mt White’s new lessee, Travnicek, has permanent residency and his wife and children are New Zealand citizens.

The Mt White sale needed Overseas Investment Office (OIO) approval because Travnicek returned “temporarily” to the Czech Republic in May last year. Under the sale conditions, he must return to New Zealand in just over 12 months and reside here permanently – or sell the property.

Because of Travnicek’s residency status, the OIO says it could not make access a condition of consent. (That scotches a tweet from Fish & Game yesterday, which said public access “is one of the key conditions” in the Mt White sale.)

In a statement sent out by a PR company yesterday, Travnicek says his preference is for the day-to-day management of the farm to continue under the existing manager, who Stuff names as Richard Smith, and a local farm adviser.

Over the next five years, investments will be made in the farm operations, the statement says, “and there will be no large-scale intensive farming or dairy conversion”. Travnicek also committed to working with the Commissioner of Crown Lands to formalise the existing physical roads to ensure continued public access.

A long history

Riversdale Flats’ status should be well understood by now.

It was first gazetted as a reserve, for inclusion in a national park, in 1901. The Turnbulls bought the Mt White lease in 1924. The Arthur’s Pass National Park was created five years later.

Many Cantabrians will also be familiar with Mt White. The TranzAlpine Express train passes through the station and the river flats have also been used as a transition area for the Coast to Coast multisport race.

Renowned botanist Sir Alan Mark has said native short tussock grassland ecosystems, like those found at Mt White, are “best protected in public ownership and managed as a critically important public good resource”. Sage knows this – she used that quote in Parliament last year.

At the time, Sage tabled in Parliament a 2002 due diligence report on Riversdale Flats. The document shows the flats comprise 997.5501 hectares with “incomplete actions” over its historical status. The land had “been erroneously included in the lease by virtue of it being reserve for national park by New Zealand Gazette 1901” and “this anomaly requires resolution with the agreement of the lessee”, the McGregor Property Services report said.

Successive lessees had been made aware of the anomaly, the report said. In 1987 the lessee indicated they would strongly resist the surrender of all or any of the Riversdale Flats “because of its importance to the management of the property”. The report notes a “potential contingent liability exists” to resolve the tenure issues.

Sage criticised her predecessor for not taking notice of the 2007 Arthur’s Pass National Park Management Plan and the Department of Conservation’s 2016 Canterbury (Waitaha) Conservation Management Strategy, which both advocated the reserve be added to the national park.

Sage told The Press in July last year: “Large parts of the property [Mt White] are unsuitable for farming. They deserve to be added to the conservation estate.”

Many are disappointed the minister hasn’t pushed harder for that to happen.

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