Week in Review

National park to be fenced to block cattle

A decision to let cattle graze in a World Heritage Area raises questions, including from an ex-Conservation Minister. David Williams reports

Fences stretching for kilometres will be built on the boundary of a national park so a West Coast farmer can, for $5400 a year, graze cattle on flood-prone public conservation land.

Critics says it’ll effectively fence cattle into the river.

After more than two years of consideration, the Department of Conservation has granted Haast’s John Cowan a grazing licence in the upper Haast Valley, next to the Mt Aspiring National Park, and within the Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area.

The decision by Wellington-based deputy director general Kay Booth went against internal ecological advice, and a summary report which recommended declining the licence.

Cowan’s family is happy. Son-in-law George Ivey says: “It’s great for us and for our staff that work for us, and, I think, the wider community.” (The coalition Government has been unpopular on the West Coast thanks to a now-stalled plan to ban new mining on conservation land, proposed restrictions on whitebaiting, the rejection of a hydro scheme project for the Waitaha River, as well as the prospect of tighter environmental protections for waterways.)

However, conservationists who opposed the licence, including at a public hearing in 2018, are appalled, angry about what seems like economic pragmatism by the department at the expense of the environment – a rich vein of criticism in recent years.

Pre-eminent botanist Sir Alan Mark says Booth’s decision seems groundless, considering the evidence of significant ecological damage being done by grazing cattle in the Haast Valley to conservation land, and, previously, within the national park. There are also questions about the practicalities of fencing one of the country’s wildest rivers.

But Booth says grazing is allowed under various plans and the lease is for three years, not the 15-year term sought. Strict conditions – including intermittent fencing, between natural boundaries and monitoring – will ensure the environment is protected, she says. (It’s not clear why previous licences haven’t had similarly strict monitoring or conditions.)

Weighing the costs and benefits of the licence is, Booth says, up to Cowan, who has to pay for the fence and monitoring. But critics of the decision say the small rental gained by DoC for having 60 cows and up to 50 calves in the valley, doesn’t offset the cost to the country’s international reputation when hundreds of thousands of tourists driving State Highway 6 might see cattle wandering in the river. That’s not to mention the benefits to the natural environment of having the cattle removed.

From face slap to full-blown punch

The Nature Heritage Fund (NHF) has one of the strongest complaints against the licence being granted.

It granted $3.66 million so DoC could buy Landsborough Valley Station, just upstream of the Upper Haast grazing area. Minutes from a June 2005 NHF meeting shows the purchase was approved on the undertaking there would be “no further issue of grazing leases in the Landsborough and Upper Haast Valley”.

Yet DoC went behind its back in 2013 to issue Cowan a four-year, non-notified lease – described as a “phasing-out grazing lease”. If that secret decision was a slap in the face, this latest one is more like a full-blown punch to the nose.

The NHF has spent millions of dollars buying land and grazing rights over decades to deal with the difficult issue presented by licences, especially inside the Mt Aspiring National Park. Its focus was high-use valleys well-used by tourists and recreationists, but also, fundamentally, to try and avoid further damage or pollution in wetlands, forests, valley floors, and waterways.

Thanks to its negotiated settlements, stock was removed from valleys in Makarora, near Wānaka, the Ahuriri, near Ōmarama, and the Dart Valley, at the head of Lake Wakatipu. The Landsborough-Haast river junction was seen as a particular problem – hence the purchase of Landsborough Valley Station.

NHF chair Jan Riddell couldn’t be reached for comment. But in a letter to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage in 2018, she said Cowan’s proposed licence breached DoC’s assurance that no grazing leases would be issued upstream of the Roaring Billy area.

Di Lucas, a former NHF chair for 27 years, says it’s her understanding granting the licence breaks a DoC promise. “I’m very disappointed and distressed, really, at the signal it sends.” She adds: “Barricading the river is not what we want.”

Bolstering the NHF case is a press statement from 2005 by the then Conservation Minister Chris Carter, which said: "In addition to adding an important area to the National Park, this [Landsborough] purchase will resolve once and for all an ongoing problem of cattle grazing inside the National Park and World Heritage Site, with all the associated impacts on natural grasslands.”

DoC’s Booth, who couldn’t remember Carter’s name, was unclear about the department’s undertaking. “What was referred to was not defined clearly so different people that I speak to have different views in terms of the definition of the Upper Haast.”

(DoC’s documentation for the Cowan application describes the area as the “Upper Haast valley”. The department treated it as a new application, rather than a renewal, notifying the public, because of its “complex history”.)

Former Minister Carter has returned to the country after stints with the United Nations in Myanmar and Afghanistan, and now serves on an Auckland Council community board and the Waitematā District Health Board.

He tells Newsroom he stands by his 2005 statement, adding: “I’m surprised that grazing has been allowed by the department and I would be interested in seeing its justification for that.”

Arguing’s pointless

Ivey, Cowan’s son-in-law, says he doesn’t want to get into a slanging match with opponents.

“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. I made the point at the hearing that people have different views and a lot of people aren’t unwilling to change their views, no matter your reasoning. I think arguing about that’s a little bit pointless.”

He says the grazing land gives the farm economies of scale. “If you start to lose them then, at the end of the day, you can’t employ people, and that’s more people leaving the community – and a community like Haast doesn’t have a lot of people come and going.”

While admitting he hasn’t read the DoC reports, because he was driving home after the birth of his daughter on Saturday, Ivey describes the fencing requirements as “not a huge surprise” and “achievable”. However, in times of flooding he worries animals won’t be able to find safe, dry areas. “It’s something that’s got to be done carefully and responsibly.”

Forest and Bird’s Nicky Snoyink, the conservation lobby group’s regional advocacy manager for Canterbury/West Coast, says continuing to allow cows in rivers on conservation land makes a mockery of attempts to clean up the country’s waterways.

“While we’re pleased to see tighter conditions, even with a requirement to fence the adjoining national park, conservation land and specific areas of native vegetation, we don’t see how this decision could possibly be consistent with the Conservation Act.”

Jan Finlayson, the president of Federated Mountain Clubs, says the decision’s “got pragmatism written all over it”. It raises questions, she says. Will DoC monitor the licence properly, including checking fences after flooding, and enforce sanctions? How will recreational access to the river be catered for? How will cattle be kept out of the river?

“This is a world heritage area on a national park’s doorstep.”

An electric fence runs for kilometres along the Haast Valley to keep stock off State Highway 6. Photo: Supplied

The devil is in the detail, of course, buried in the many DoC reports. That detail seems bedevilled by contradictions and contrary opinions – especially by Booth.

An ecological report by Jane Marshall and Rowan Hindmarsh-Walls said the 736-hectare licence area is home to threatened and at-risk plant species and habitat for threatened and at-risk fauna, including wrybill and banded dotterel.

Cattle grazing is having an adverse effect, it found. “The research and field observations are consistent with the conclusion that cattle, at the current numbers, are having an overall negative affect on the forest composition and regeneration of rare plant species within and adjacent to the licence.”

Removing cattle will take the pressure off “palatable plant species”, return greater diversity to forest and patches of remnant forest, as well as help the recovery of freshwater and wetland values.

Cowan didn’t provide his own ecological evidence. However, Ivey criticised DoC’s report, saying it was “led” by a submission by Theo Stephens and Susan Walker, “two people that vehemently oppose us”. DoC’s summary report to Booth rejected Ivey’s criticism, saying the DoC ecological report was “definitive” .

Confusingly, a 2018 field inspection penned by Haast senior ranger Rachel Norton, said the effects of grazing on conservation values was “minimal” – while noting she “did not undertake a detailed analysis”. But Norton’s report does mention non-compliance with the previous licence: grazing outside the licence area, unauthorised drainage work, and an “extension” of stock holding yards.

Ivey says it wasn’t an extension, rather the replacement of a six-wire fence with a deer fence. “You don’t need permission to do that.” And the drainage work was to remove water from a stock race at the yards. “We’re not talking about a dairy shed, we’re talking about a yard that gets used up to three times a year.”

A DoC report, written by Queenstown-based department staffer Cher Knights, about recreation and access values of the grazing area, said: “The value of conservation lands to the New Zealand public and New Zealand brand should take precedence over the value of the lands to a commercial entity.”

The decision summary to Booth concluded the Haast Valley was a priority biodiversity site and Cowan’s licence application was inconsistent with the West Coast’s conservation management strategy and the conservation general policy.

‘Applying existing policy’

Booth accepts there are adverse effects from cattle grazing. “I am not trying to pretend otherwise,” she tells Newsroom. “Where my point is around this is the conservation management strategy for the West Coast and also the conservation general policy, they allow for grazing.”

There’s not a shred of conservation advice suggesting grazing is good for conservation in the Upper Haast. “We’ve got very good ecologists and I appreciate their advice,” Booth says. “Where I differ is that I believe that the effects that they discuss and identify can be mitigated.”

Fences will keep stock out of adjoining conservation areas, including the national park, she says. There’ll be a baseline ecological survey, and native plants in the licence area, particularly ribbonwood trees and Coprosma wallii, will be monitored for damage. Monitoring will be done to ensure compliance.

Booth says she’s simply applying existing policy – “It’s not my job to make new policy.” But that’s seemingly contrary to what her own staff have said – that the licence is inconsistent with existing policies, and even sections of the Conservation Act because, they believe, the damage can’t be properly mitigated.

There’s no question cattle straying into the national park must stop, Booth says. The nature and location of the fences will be discussed “to the satisfaction of staff”, she says, while admitting they will be “kilometres” long.

The public will need to have access, through stiles or gates. And if the fences come down in a flood? “It’s a requirement that the farmer puts them back up again.”

“I agree with you it has taken too long.” – Kay Booth

Booth says she doesn’t know why rigorous monitoring wasn’t done before: “It would have been helpful but I don’t have this data.”

But won’t the baseline differ from, say, 2014, when the last licence was granted? She sidesteps the question. “From here onwards we’re taking a lot more focus on effects and compliance monitoring.”

If conditions aren’t complied with, Booth says, the department can review its decision.

But what of the previous non-compliance, mentioned by Norton? Initially, Booth says she isn’t aware of it. Then Newsroom points her to the relevant part of her own report. She’s still not sure if it’s been remedied. “The operations team may well have sorted this out.”

Booth can’t adequately explain why her decision took so long, but agrees it has taken longer than it should. The decision support document says a decision was due in June last year.

“I guess just generally tried to make sure that I had the information required to do the job. I agree with you it has taken too long.”

Without irony, Booth maintains conservation is at the heart of her decision. Why? “Because this is a decision made within the framework of our policy and plans for conservation areas.”

DoC might soon get to repeat these justifications.

Mark, the knighted botanist, points to successful appeals to the Ombudsman in recent years over DoC allowing “illegal” helicopter landings on the Ngapunatoru Plateau in Fiordland, and an “unreasonable” expansion of guided walkers on the Routeburn Track.

“We’ll consider taking this decision to the Ombudsman,” Mark says of the grazing licence. “I see this in the same category.”

* This article has been updated to clarify that Di Lucas was chair of the NHF for 27 years.

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