Week in Review

Pragmatism sweeps into Mackenzie debate

An environmental group floats ideas for protecting the Mackenzie Basin’s landscapes. David Williams reports.

It’s both the poster child and the problem child.

Turqouise lakes and tawny tussocks draw more than a million tourists to the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin each year. But many believe irrigation-fuelled intensive farming – on former Crown-owned leases, often, within easy view of the highway – is ruining landscapes and sending mixed messages to turn tourists off.

The Government won’t buy the whole basin, so how do you balance protection with economic activity, while acknowledging those, including Māori, with important connections to the land?

The previous, National-led government threw its political weight behind the Mackenzie Agreement. It was signed in 2013 but the Mackenzie Country Trust, which was meant to drive its ideas, was only created in 2016 and wasn’t adequately funded. While talks dragged on, development continued.

Spearheaded by Conservation and Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage, this Government is scrapping tenure review and consulting on a greater stewardship role for the Crown in the South Island high country. But what that would mean on the ground in the Mackenzie has been unclear – until now.

The rise of culture and pastoral heritage

Glimpses of new thinking about landscape protection emerged at last week’s Environmental Defence Society national conference in Auckland.

The environmental group (EDS) is reviewing the country’s landscape policy, in a project funded by the Department of Conservation and Land Information New Zealand. Some case studies are being bankrolled by regional councils. The Mackenzie Basin is central to the project, the final report for which will be finished by the end of June.

The EDS conference’s theme was “Through new eyes”, so it’s no surprise that international examples were highlighted. There was talk of incentives for farmers who voluntarily protect their private land, and swapping low-value conservation land for important farmland. Given there’s more than 12,000ha of public conservation land in the Mackenzie, there’s talk of opening up DoC land to light grazing, to help control weeds and pests.

That could happen under the umbrella of “heritage areas”, EDS lawyer Cordelia Woodhouse suggested. The areas, similar to national parks in England run by the National Trust, can protect private land.

Woodhouse: “Any protection of these areas needs to recognise them as living, working landscapes. This means not locking them up and then turning them into publicly owned and managed national parks. These landscapes are not wholly natural – they’ve been modified by various land uses and they have a range of horticultural values.”

DoC has established a project management team to launch what it’s calling a Mackenzie dryland heritage area by December, thanks to $2.6 million in last year’s Budget.

The department has been working with the Mackenzie Country Trust. Trust general manager Rose Austen-Falloon – wife of National MP Andrew Falloon – said a heritage area is not like a national park and is not just about natural heritage.

“Yes, the geology shows an important history of our climate, yes the ecology and biodiversity are incredibly important, but it’s also the culture – Māori culture, the pastoral heritage, recreation, electricity, tourism, that combined have made the Mackenzie special.”

(The Mackenzie Country Trust is applying for $2 million from the provincial growth fund for its work on the drylands heritage area.)

Ministerial commitment

DoC deputy director-general of partnerships Kay Booth told last week’s conference the heritage area is a ministerial priority. “Minister Sage is absolutely committed to the drylands heritage area.”

(Sage tells Newsroom in an emailed statement that it’s unclear what form the area will take. “I’m expecting to release more details later this year.”)

However, if December is the deadline then how much can be achieved? Austen-Falloon admitted: “We’re just starting on the process. It’s going to take some time. It is complex, as you well know.”

The Government surely has to start with what it has got – conservation land and Crown pastoral leases. And that’s where another international concept, that of biosphere reserves, comes in.

Biosphere reserves are recognised by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (New Zealand has none, while Australia has nine, including Uluru/Ayers Rock.)

The concept has three concentric rings. In the middle, EDS’s Woodhouse said, would be Crown-owned land, undisturbed by farming or development, and strictly regulated. Beyond that core area is a buffer zone, which allows for sustainable development, scientific research, and tourism and recreational facilities.

“In the Mackenzie, the buffer zone is where landscapes are protected but maybe not all the ecological values,” Woodhouse said.

The outer layer is a so-called transition zone, for the towns and intensively farmed and irrigated land. People will continue to live and work there, she says, but will have to use land sustainably. That means farming will have to be less intense.

But farmers would be encouraged to do this by being able to take advantage of the heritage area “brand” to promote their businesses, and perhaps through priority funding through various funds, like the provincial growth fund, money collected from the international tourism levy, or funding for QEII covenants.

Woodhouse says a biosphere reserve programme was proposed for the Waitaki Basin in the 1970s, but the programme was dropped in 1983. “Maybe it is now time to pick up this idea and run with it again.”

“I don’t know anything about it because it has been happening behind closed doors and we haven’t been kept up to date.” – Jen Miller

For any of this – again, they are proposals which might yet change – to work there needs to be some basic things happen that have previously been patchy in the Mackenzie.

When faced with discretionary consent applications from farmers, that the Commissioner of Crown Lands is concerned with protecting landscapes and indigenous plants, animals and critters. That local and government agencies are talking to one another about planned developments, and considering the cumulative impacts of granting consents. And that the Waitaki and Mackenzie district plans, and the regional council’s policy statement, can protect the grand, stark landscapes that draw tourists to the Mackenzie, and spend more than $300 million a year.

One assumes there will also be the ability for public input into any proposals.

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury West Coast manager Nicky Snoyink says she is interested to discover what was said at the EDS conference. “I don’t know anything about it because it has been happening behind closed doors and we haven’t been kept up to date.”

Richard Subtil, of Omarama Station, which runs a high country farm-stay, backs the heritage area concept. He told last week’s conference: “In our area we’ve had lots of people parachute in, select something that they’ve already decided is the situation then go away and distort, possibly, what’s going on.” He added: “We are sitting on an absolute gem that we have undervalued for way too long.”

Preparing another Budget bid

Another assumption is that the Government will throw some money at this.

EDS’s Woodhouse says to ensure proper protection the heritage area would have to involve an intact sequence, from steep country to moraines and outwash plains. “Existing conservation land could form the basis of this. But this may need to be supplemented with the acquisition of greater areas of outwash plains as conservation land is primarily located at higher altitudes.”

Asked about a money pot for land purchases, Sage said last week there had not been increases to the Nature Heritage Fund budget or DoC’s land acquisition account. The Government’s priorities in the last two Budgets has been the biggest increase in conservation funding in 16 years, and a similar boost thanks to the international visitor levy. But because of the biodiversity crisis and the response to the mega mast, the NHF didn’t get an increase.

“I was disappointed by that,” Sage said. “You can expect another Budget bid, but whether it’s successful depends on the other issues around the table and the other bids that are there.”

EDS’s executive director Gary Taylor remains hopeful. He tells Newroom: “I think there will be some freehold land that will be acquired over time.”

The biggest assumption of all, however, might be that people are ready for hybrid landscape protection models – that they believe it’ll lead to robust protection, and that those who sign up to them keep their promises. There’s a lot at stake: The Mackenzie basin is home to species such as kāki/black stilt, which are found nowhere else in the world.

Forest & Bird’s conservation group manager Jen Miller says: “Buying land and having a good plan would go a long way.”

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