Minister urged to intervene in the Mackenzie

An environmental group wants Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage to step in to protect ecological values of Crown-owned land in the Mackenzie Basin, which will be destroyed by a planned dairy conversion. David Williams reports.

The Department of Conservation says it is investigating whether an irrigation pipeline being built in the Mackenzie Basin affects conservation values on public conservation land.

The below-ground pipeline is being buried in trenches running eight kilometres, from a Tekapo hydroelectricity canal to Simons Pass Station. The station is a mix of Crown pastoral lease (which is late in the tenure review process) and private freehold land. Water from the pipeline will supply a planned intensive dairy farm operation which could run as many as 15,000 cows.

In a statement to Newsroom, DOC’s director of planning permissions and land, Marie Long, says: “We are working to ensure that any development is within the conditions of its consent. As this investigation is ongoing, we aren’t able to provide further detail at this point.”

The investigation is apparently news to Dunedin accountant Murray Valentine, the lessee of Simons Pass, near Lake Pukaki. “I’d be very happy to answer the phone, but no one’s rung me.”

Valentine says his companies have an easement to install irrigation pipes along the eight kilometres between the Tekapo canal and the station. (Newsroom found pipeline easements in the final tenure review documents for nearby Irishman Creek and Maryburn stations.)

“I don’t know what you can investigate,” Valentine says. “I wouldn’t start it unless I had the approvals.”

It’s those very approvals that are vexing the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), a group that, for years, has campaigned for greater protection of the Mackenzie’s landscapes, flora and fauna.

In a report completed for EDS last year, Dunedin ecologist Susan Walker said Simons Pass had highly significant ecological values. The rarity and importance of those values had increased regionally, nationally and internationally since they were documented in 2006, Walker said, but they would not be protected under proposed designations.

EDS executive director Gary Taylor told Newsroom Simons Pass’s nationally important values will be destroyed if pivot irrigators are installed there – “even if one of them goes in”.

(Taylor says there’s approval for up to 24 pivot irrigators; Valentine says the first stage of development at Simons Pass, which has started, will feature “10 or so”.)

Asked if Eugenie Sage, the Minister of Conservation and Land Information, should step in, given that many of the approvals have been discretionary consents from the Comissioner of Crown Lands, Taylor said: “This is nationally important. She should definitely be looking at this.”

Minister: I cannot simply ‘step in’

Sage confirmed she is looking at it – and while her hands are tied with Simons Pass, she’s pushing to change Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) policy.The minister said it was the Commissioner of Crown Lands, rather than her, who decided whether to grant discretionary consent applications on Crown pastoral lease land, for activities such as burning, cultivation, and soil disturbance.

“The commissioner is an independent statutory officer so ministers of the Crown cannot override, or intervene in the commissioner’s decision making. So while I cannot simply ‘step in’ and reverse the decision, I am prioritising significant policy change in the way LINZ and DOC manage the high country.”

A 10-year summary of discretionary consents for Simons Pass (below), provided by LINZ under the Official Information Act, shows none have been rejected outright. Twenty-three were approved and seven were partially approved. Another nine are under consideration.

OIA LINZ Discretionary Consents by David Williams on Scribd

Sage has ordered a wide-ranging review of the Mackenzie and South Island high country, which will take in tenure review, the management of pastoral leases and the results wanted by the Crown. She doesn’t expect to have answers for six months.

“Fast decisions could have unintended consequences. I’m trying to take a very broad and deep look at what’s going on.”

Asked about the work being done at Simons Pass, LINZ’s deputy chief executive, crown property, Jerome Sheppard, said: “Our current information is that these are being undertaken appropriately, and we continue to monitor these, as we do with consents on other Crown leasehold land.”

EDS’s Taylor accepted the irrigation pipeline being built in the Mackenzie had some approvals but he’s not sure if conditions have been exceeded.

Federated Farmers high country chairman Simon Williamson, who farms Glenbrook Station, just south of Twizel, said it always looked “a bit ugly” when pipes are being buried.

“If EDS really had a problem with it why don’t they go and buy some of this land, instead of just fighting it from Auckland,” he asked. “Put your money where your mouth is and stop antagonising people who actually live in the area and make a living here.”

He adds: “A world without progress is a pretty bloody dangerous place to be.”

Microscope on the Mackenzie

Issues of the environment versus agricultural intensification in the Mackenzie have been in the national spotlight for years, such as proposals for dairy farms with indoor cubicles for cows. Last year, Newsroom reported on new research which suggested the law controlling tenure review was being ignored. We also broke the story of a billionaire’s plan to build a lodge 40 metres from Lake Pukaki; a proposal which has been sent to the Environment Court.

Tenure review, the voluntary process through which farmers can buy portions of high country leases, with some land being returned to the Crown, is managed by LINZ.

The Mackenzie District Council – which is also grappling with a huge increase in the number of tourists – has been in court for a decade defending its right to restrict inappropriate development. So-called plan change 13, opposed by agricultural interests, was confirmed by the Environment Court last year. In that decision, Judge Jon Jackson called for an “immediate moratorium” of the freeholding of land in the Mackenzie and an “all-station review” because large areas with inherent values were being lost “quickly”.

Last month, Environment Canterbury released a report identifying how Crown agencies and councils could work better together to manage land and water in the Mackenzie. Sage said the report reinforced what she already knew – that changes had to be made because of the way the Mackenzie has been “mis-managed”.

Taylor said the report cleared the air. In terms of Simons Pass, he accused the various agencies – DOC, LINZ, Environment Canterbury and the Mackenzie council – of not properly discharging their responsibilities by issuing piecemeal consents for the dairy development.

But in the past six months there’s been a sea-change in attitude, he says, following a change of personnel, management and culture. Last month, LINZ’s former tenure review partnerships manager, Jeremy Severinsen, was appointed to a dual role, advising DOC and LINZ on issues in the Mackenzie.

Taylor: “If there’s some way out of this nightmare then I think I would have confidence that the agencies might be able to find it.”

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