Access denied: Mackenzie farm bars expert

As the clock ticks towards the termination of tenure review, a pastoral lessee shuts the gate on an ecologist favoured for an environmental assessment.

The email doesn’t strike a shocked or upset tone.

The Department of Conservation’s Jacob Dexter writes to his superiors last December after Simons Pass Station lessee Murray Valentine refuses access to its botanical expert, Mike Harding, for an environmental assessment. The aborted visit related to tenure review so Dexter suggests a strategy meeting with Land Information New Zealand.

“It would be useful for LINZ to be aware of Murray V’s concerns so we can flesh this out when we meet,” he writes on December 5 – in an email released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act. Plan B involved a different inspection date, but also the now-barred Harding. “We have no Plan C yet,” Dexter writes.

By January, DoC had secured the services of another contractor, Kate Wardle, for a two-day inspection in February. Her report, completed in March, feeds into LINZ’s draft substantive proposal.

Why does this matter? Critics say a public agency undertaking work in a high-profile and controversial public process shouldn’t be dictated to by a lessee about the expert it wants to use. For their part, DoC and LINZ say they’re not worried about a precedent being set.

Valentine doesn’t know what the fuss is about, and is adamant there’s no story.

But the up-to-date ecological assessment, to review a property’s significant values and advise the best way to protect them, may affect the outcome of Simons Pass’s tenure review. (The soon-to-be-ended process is a lease-ending decision which privatises some areas, with the balance added to the conservation estate. Payments are made to settle property rights.)

It’s fair to say Valentine has a vested interest in the outcome of tenure review. Simons Pass, which is a mix of private and Crown-leased land, is undergoing a $100-million-plus dairy conversion. If plans come to fruition, it will see 4500 hectares irrigated and up to 15,000 stock animals there, including 5500 cows.

Claims of conflict

Valentine tells Newsroom that Harding had a conflict because he’d prepared another report on Simons Pass, but wouldn’t name the other party. “We had a problem with him, and we talked to DoC about it, and we got someone else to do it. Is there any problem with that?”

LINZ’s deputy chief executive of Crown property, Jerome Sheppard, clears up the mystery. He says Valentine complained Harding was also working on Simons Pass’s consent applications for the Mackenzie District Council.

“We communicated this to DoC, who, in the interest of progressing the lease assessment, contracted an alternative ecological specialist to carry out the inspection,” Sheppard says.

Did DoC agree there was a conflict? David Rhodes, DoC’s acting partnerships manager of tenure review, says: “Decisions regarding tenure review and access on the lease are made by LINZ and your question referring to a potential conflict should be put to them.”

So we asked Sheppard, who says: “This decision to use another contractor was made by DoC and we were satisfied with the outcome.” He’s not aware of any other situation in which a leaseholder has raised concerns about access for tenure review experts.

Access concerns at pastoral leases would be considered on a case-by-case basis, Sheppard says. Both agencies note that if experts were blocked from providing sufficient advice, the Commissioner of Crown Lands has the ability to grant access. (Leaseholders have exclusive occupation of their leases and a right to “quiet enjoyment”.)

“It’s getting close to impugning the integrity of people when you say, well, I won’t have that one but that one over there looks OK.” – Gary Taylor

Such gentle explanations of Harding’s exclusion from Simons Pass don’t wash with Greenpeace NZ agricultural campaigner Gen Toop. She says lessees shouldn’t be able to cherrypick experts in a public process run by public agencies.

“It’s a very dangerous precedent to set, to let people who clearly have a vested interest in destroying the environment – like Murray Valentine who wants to put a mega dairy farm on a fragile piece of land – to rule over a process which is designed to make sure that, before we sell off a piece of public land, we know exactly what species are there, and, therefore, what parts of it might need to be kept and protected in public ownership.”

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor doesn’t believe there’s a conflict. He says it’s more likely that Valentine “doesn’t like the rigour of Mike Harding’s analysis”.

“It’s getting close to impugning the integrity of people when you say, well, I won’t have that one, but that one over there looks OK. Their professional judgment is what you’re after.”

(DoC’s Rhodes says using an alternative ecologist didn’t affect the quality of advice.)

Taylor’s careful not to heap blame on DoC, which, he thinks, had its hands tied because Valentine vetoed Harding’s access – “which, in law, he’s entitled to do”.

Newsroom asks Valentine if a tenant on public land should have the right to decide who assesses the pastoral lease’s plants? “I don’t know,” he says. “It seems that we talked to DoC about it and we went ahead and did it. We can come to an agreement, surely.”

Asked if he realises he might be accused of denying access because Harding wasn’t going to give the answers he wanted, Valentine replies: “I don’t think so.”

“I believe the department should use who they wish to use, and they should not be influenced by the concerns or requests of outside parties.” – Mike Harding

There’s history between Valentine and Harding.

He worked for the Mackenzie council leading up to an Environment Court case to decide whether Simons Pass needed consents for agricultural intensification and irrigation. The court found in the council’s favour, and Simons Pass promptly appealed to the High Court.

As previously reported by Newsroom, Simons Pass’s lawyer, Pru Steven QC, referred in evidence to a verbal exchange between Harding and Valentine during a site visit, because the ecologist gave his opinion that vegetation clearance rules applied.

Steven wrote: “I accept that Mike Harding is not a planner, although I would expect the council would properly brief any ecologist on the purpose of his survey.”

Back to the present day, Harding says from Golden Bay that he gets work because he provides objective and robust ecological advice that’s not influenced by clients' demands or wishes. “I believe the department should use who they wish to use, and they should not be influenced by the concerns or requests of outside parties.”

Valentine won’t say if he has a problem with Harding’s professionalism.

DoC’s Rhodes says Simons Pass “is the only leaseholder who has withheld access for a botanical specialist (a DoC contractor) to inspect a lease”. That’s irrelevant, Valentine says, as the lessee sets the rules. “If he [Harding] doesn’t want to comply with our rules he doesn’t come on.”

What rule did Harding break? “Oh come on,” Valentine implores. “I’m not going on any further about it. You just don’t want to understand that it’s a perfectly normal thing to do for anyone, anywhere, and I’m not the only one who’s ever done it.”

LINZ’s Sheppard says consultation on Simons Pass’s substantive tenure review proposal is ongoing. “The timeframe for finalising a substantive proposal depends on a number of factors, including the securing of various approvals from the commissioner and ministers.”

Hanging in the balance

This microscopic mudfight on a Mackenzie moraine (and outwash) is set against the background of huge scrutiny on the Crown’s high country management. LINZ is consulting the public on Minister Eugenie Sage’s decision to end tenure review and other changes which, it says, will strengthen land management to better protect landscapes and biodiversity.

Yesterday LINZ released a summary of the 3248 submissions, 84 percent of which used form submissions provided by Forest & Bird and Greenpeace. (Ahead of the consultation, LINZ publicly changed its tone, releasing a report stating its system of management is opaque and unfair, and weighted towards farmers.)

Some submissions refer to Simons Pass directly. One of those is Greenpeace’s, which, last July, staged a protest against the proposed dairy development. A dozen people were arrested.

In its submission to the Government, Greenpeace has specifically asked for Simons Pass to be retained. The submission says if parts of Simons Pass were privatised it would increase the financial incentive for the dairy conversion to be completed – despite, right now, the farm company not having the necessary consents. “The future of this precious and iconic piece of land just south of Lake Pūkaki hangs in the balance.”

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