Grazing in national park ‘breaks promise’

The Nature Heritage Fund lobbied the Conservation Minister over a cattle grazing licence in a South Island national park. David Williams reports.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has been unmoved by a plea for her to stop cattle grazing in a national park, a situation that breaks a 14-year-old promise by her department.

Farmer John Cowan wants a 15-year renewal of his licence to graze 110 cattle across a 13-kilometre stretch of the Haast River Valley – part of the Mt Aspiring National Park and in a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The Department of Conservation (DOC) publicly advertised the application in May.

Soon after, Nature Heritage Fund chair Jan Riddell wrote to Sage, asking her to step in. Riddell’s letter, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, urges the minister to fix the “totally unsatisfactory situation” which, it seems, DOC itself has perpetuated.

At DOC’s request, in 2005 the fund bought Landsborough Valley Station – on the undertaking no grazing leases would be issued or renewed above an area of the Haast Valley known as the Roaring Billy. But on Christmas Eve 2013, DOC issued Cowan with a non-notified four-year grazing lease in the Upper Haast Valley. The fund wasn’t consulted.

(In 2015, Cowan, supported by National list MP Chris Auchenvole, approached the Conservation Minister to graze all of the former Landsborough Valley Station land. The request was rejected.)

“It is now time to ensure the original intent of the purchase is achieved and the grazing of this protected area ceases.” – Jan Riddell

The fact DOC is even considering Cowan’s renewal appears to rankle Nature Heritage Fund’s Riddell. She wrote to Sage on May 15: “The NHF is very keen to see the original approval for purchase, and related condition of approval by the then Minister, implemented by DOC. Considerable time has now passed since the purchase, costing $3.66 million, and it is now time to ensure the original intent of the purchase is achieved and the grazing of this protected area ceases.”

Despite Riddell’s protestations, a hearing to consider Cowan’s renewal was held in Hokitika in June. (According to Stuff, a group of about 50 West Coast farmers, miners and business owners gathered outside the hearing to support the Cowans.) DOC is yet to make a decision, which, Newsroom understands, is now being made in Wellington.

Sage’s office said yesterday: “It’s a concession application that is still being considered (under a statutory process), and it would not be appropriate for the Minister to comment until the decision is made.”

Newsroom asked Cowan’s daughter Catherine Ivey for comment but she didn’t respond by publication deadline.

OIA Response Cowan by David Williams on Scribd

DOC has been under greater scrutiny since last year’s change of Government. It has been accused of being pro-business and ignoring its core function: to advocate for conservation.

This year, it has been criticised for even entertaining a proposal to build an upmarket lodge in the Fiordland National Park, for allowing a Queenstown skifield expansion that would destroy a wetland, and for backing parts of a plan to at least double visitors to a fragile West Coast cave.

Sage herself has also been under pressure. Questions about her decision to approve the expansion of a Chinese water bottling firm’s New Zealand operations led her to say: “If you want to sit in this seat than perhaps you should stand for election.” She also took flak for asking the last Government to step in and add a Crown-owned slice of Canterbury farm to a national park, and then failing to do so herself.

As previously reported, DOC’s 2015 monitoring report of the Cowan grazing licence was criticised as “inadequate” and “deficient”. In the report, community relations officer Andrew Wells said the licence area was well-managed and appeared to comply with conditions.

Grazing ‘positive’ for vegetation

The Upper Haast has been grazed for 150 years – by the Cowan family since 1978. Daughter Catherine told DOC the family’s farming had a positive effect on vegetation, through controlling weeds, there were no significant effects on waterways or water quality, and no effects at all on adjoining land.

The Nature Heritage Fund isn’t the only conservation body worried about Cowan’s grazing licence.

Last year, New Zealand Conservation Authority chairman Warren Parker wrote to DOC director-general Lou Sanson, asking him to confirm Cowan’s grazing lease would not be renewed, and his cattle would be removed from the national park. Sanson delegated the reply to western South Island operations director Mark Davies, who said any application from Cowan would be considered on its merits. “It would not be appropriate to pre-determine the outcome of any future concession application.”

Since the Nature Heritage Fund was established in 1990 – with a mandate to protect areas of high ecological value – more than 340,000 hectares have been protected, either through direct purchase or covenants.

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