Foulden Maar scientists in waiting

A maar at the centre of a controversy sits idle in the hands of receivers while Dunedin City Council seeks a valuation and works on purchase funding options

While cogs slowly turn in the process for a public purchase of Foulden Maar, scientists are waiting to regain access to the site.

Described as Dunedin’s Pompeii, the maar is home to a trove of fossils and climate records. Since the crater lake was formed 23 million years ago, leaves, insects and fish have been preserved in the diatomite sediment which eventually filled it completely.

It’s been in private ownership with small-scale diatomite mining occurring at times. Last year, a plan by the offshore owners to buy a surrounding farm in order to make a larger-scale mining operation financially viable shocked scientists. The company planned to sell what it extracted and crushed from the maar as a stock food supplement.

After a public outcry, the company went into receivership in June 2019 and the Overseas Investment Office application to purchase the larger farm was withdrawn.

Receivers KordaMentha were appointed to deal with what was left of the company’s assets, which include the scientifically important 42 hectare site.

The Dunedin City Council process

In November 2019, the Dunedin City Council announced its intention to purchase the land under the Public Works Act.

Good faith negotiations are required to take place between the liquidator and the council. If an agreed price is not reached, a compulsory purchase could be made. This would be at a figure agreed by the Land Valuation Tribunal.

November 2020 is the deadline for a compulsory purchase.

Dunedin City Council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose said the council has arranged for a property valuation to be completed. 

The current capital value listed is $365,000. According to the Overseas Investment Office, the mining company purchased it in 2014 for around $650,000.

“Once the negotiations have been progressed, we will be able to decide what will be done with the land. We are in discussions with the Department of Conservation who have said they are very supportive of our intention to protect this valuable site and that they will help us prepare an application to the Nature Heritage Fund.”

The Nature Heritage Fund has a budget of around $1.8 million. To date it has been used to protect more than 340,000 hectares of indigenous ecosystem. It does this either by purchasing land, or by assisting private landowners with covenants.

It can contribute to purchases by local authorities who are prepared to manage protected areas as reserves under the Reserves Act. This act covers reserves classified as scientific reserves for the purpose "of protecting and preserving in perpetuity for scientific study, research, education, and the benefit of the country, ecological associations, plant or animal communities, types of soil, geomorphological phenomena, and like matters of special interest."

Department of Conservation operations director southern South Island Aaron Fleming said DoC has provided information to the council about the application process. 

Decisions around what projects are awarded the contestable fund are made by a National Heritage Fund committee, which provides recommendations to the Minister of Conservation.

In a typical year, the three to four projects are funded, but this varies depending on the land value and number of hectares.

Fleming said he wasn't aware of purchases in the past 30 years where the primary value of the land had been geological.

"The NHF Committee do however consider if an area contains any listed geopreservation sites. So, an application to the NHF for funding to protect a site of primarily geological value is eligible for consideration."

What’s the vision?

Saving the fossils from destruction was step one. There’s a question mark about how the site will be managed should it fall into public ownership.

Members of the Save Foulden Maar group are working on a plan they hope could lend a community and scientific voice to any conversation around the maar’s future.

Andrea Bosshard, who with her partner Shane Loader have been central to the fight to save the maar from mining, said a draft plan was under way.

“We just felt that the whole process had been on how to preserve the site, how to stop it being destroyed, and that it's now equally as important to come up with a vision or a plan for how the site could feasibly work under public ownership.”

The group plan to share the vision when it’s past the draft stage. 

Scientist Daphne Lee commissioned an ecologist and illustrator to recreate the flora and fauna at the site based on leaves, insects and fish found to date. Illustration: Dr Paula Peeters

Scientific endeavour on hold

Scientist Daphne Lee has visited the site with scientists and students several times a year since 2003. She’s written more than 40 papers based on the maar and its fossils.

Each visit she negotiated access with the respective owners of the land.

With the land in the hands of the receivers there’s no access allowed. Lee said she met the KordaMentha staff member managing the receivership in 2019 and broached the subject of scientists continuing to have access to the site.

A former student of Lee’s, Uwe Kaulfuss, who is now working at a German University, received German government funding to continue research on insect fossils at the maar he had started 10 years ago.

“I mentioned Uwe would be wanting to come back and continue his research and I had other students and colleagues who wanted to go there. At that time he seemed helpful.”

When she got back in touch with KordaMentha with exact dates of his visit, she was told there would be no access. 

“It was for two or three days only, and all the health and safety issues were all sorted as far as I was concerned.”

Lee said a health and safety person from the University of Otago's geology department was going to accompany Kaulfuss on his visits to the maar.

Newsroom has contacted the receiver to ask why it’s declining permission for scientists to visit the site.

Kaulfuss arrived on February 21 but was unable to visit the site so he made the most of a less-than-ideal situation.

He had some previously-collected fossils he could study and was also given access to nearby Hindon Maar, which is also on privately-owned land.

After being caught up in the lockdown and unable to get flights home he stayed with Lee for three weeks. During that time they worked on a paper on Southern Hemisphere fish fossils, including ones from Foulden Maar, which has just been published in an open access journal.

“I’m hopeful that soon the DCC will be able to get the valuation sorted and get on to the legalities and so on. Then science can resume.”

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