Save our Mackenzie Country

The Mackenzie landscape is being changed dramatically from natural shades of tawny brown to bright green.

Giant pivot irrigators are tapping into nearby rivers and watering vast expanses of pasture for intensive farming. We believe this will destroy this special landscape and push our endangered species closer to extinction.

 Big Sky Country

 “I believe that landscapes have a power and a meaning far beyond any temporary economics. Landscapes, the natural theatres of our personal experiences and dramas, perform a symbolic and emotional function miles beyond their economic or geographical rationale.” Grahame Sydney

South Canterbury’s Mackenzie Basin (see map) is the heartland of our ‘big sky country’.

Its vast tawny-brown dry-lands and glacial lakes sit tucked under the shadows of the pure white spires of the Southern Alps. It is unlike any place in New Zealand.

Snapshot: in numbers 

  • 68 rare and threatened plant species
  • 93 adult black stilts (kaki) left in the wild in the world.
  • 900,000 tourists visit the Mackenzie country each year  
  • Less than 2% of the glacial outwash plains are protected in public conservation lands.

 Millions of years of glacier action, tectonic upheaval and erosion have created this unique place loved by Kiwis, tourists, directors, poets and painters.

The Mackenzie country lies on the tourist trail between Lake Tekapo, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Wanaka and Queenstown.

The draw of this unbroken, russet brown vista helps to inject $4 billion tourism dollars into the economy each year, and has brought millions of movie-dollars to our shores.

A place to call home

The desert-like climate of the Mackenzie country has created a unique array of robust creatures specially adapted to living in this highly inhospitable climate with its yo-yoing temperatures, arid soils and scorching sunshine.

The Mackenzie country is home to the only bird in the world which has a beak that bends sideways. It is thought that its beak developed this way, so it can reach creatures hidden under stones.

Indeed, beneath the tussock cover  and herbfields lies a thriving population of insects, lizards, beetles, mountain grasshoppers and alpine weta – a unique species that literally freezes during the winter.

Eight species of bird - including the critically endangered black stilt and the bendy beaked wrybill – live in this region.

In total, the Mackenzie’s tussock grasslands, herbfields, shrublands and wetlands are national strongholds for more than 60 rare and threatened plant species.

 Unnatural Heritage

Over many generations, family leaseholders have grazed sheep and beef on Crown-owned high country, with comparatively low environmental impact.

No changes in land use could be made without approval from the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

Named for a charismatic sheep thief and amazing shepherd, James McKenzie, the Mackenzie Country has had a colourful history – it’s been a hunting ground for moa-hunting Maori; a battle-scene in Lord of the Rings and stronghold of our tourism industry. Now, agribusiness and developers are looking to turn it an unnatural shade of green.

 But privatisation removes that protection, and rising milk solid prices have attracted speculators and investors to dairying.

When a piece of land is under freehold title it can then be sub-divided and developed into intensive cropping such as viticulture or dairy farms, for example.

To turn these highly unsuitable dry-lands into profitable dairy farms, giant centre pivot irrigators (some up to 2km in length) are employed to water the land – and any native creature or plant that lies under its wingspan is destroyed.

The creeping green stain replacing the golden tussock-lands creates a mono-culture of grass and pasture, irreversibly destroying the tussock, alpine flowers and native wildlife that has existed in this landscape for thousands of years.

Our rivers: Death by a thousand straws?

To allow intensive farming in this dry-land, a vast amount of water is required, and much of this comes from our braided rivers that weave throughout this region.

These rivers and its inhabitants may suffer a death by a thousand straws, as dairy farmers, hydro-electricity companies and developers look to tap into its over-allocated waters.

Pouring fertiliser into these rivers and stemming their natural flow makes life difficult for those inhabitants that rely on its cool, pure waters. Why?

  • Fertiliser run-off raises the nutrient level of rivers and produces a layer of algae that changes the composition of the river. This can effect the insect population, and in turn the fish and birds that feed on these insects
  • Reduced river flow means fewer riverbed islands, where black stilts, wrybills and banded dotterels can nest safe from predators
  • Reduced river flow effectively increases the temperature of these rivers severely altering the habitat of freshwater species that rely on these cool waters.

For Sale: The Mackenzie Country

For decades, much of the Mackenzie Basin has remained in the hands of the public with farmers holding pastoral leases to graze mainly sheep.

The Mackenzie Country, looking south to Omarama.Photo: Peter Scott

The Mackenzie Country, looking south to Omarama.Photo: Peter Scott

In return, parts of the properties with the highest conservation values were supposed to be protected and managed as public conservation land. 

This is changing through tenure review – a process in which the Government offers ownership of the most productive parts of the land to leaseholders.

Areas that have significant conservation values are supposed to be retained and managed as public conservation land. 

Of concern is the growing number of Crown-owned properties that are passing into private ownership, with few restrictions on land use: thus paving the way for intensive farming and inappropriate development. On many stations the only protection has been through the use of covenants.

In the past many covenants have proved difficult to enforce, Forest and Bird is concerned when covenants give no public access to the land, which is why Forest & Bird prefers that land of high conservation value is retained in public ownership and managed by the Department of Conservation.

How we can protect the Mackenzie

 Forest and Bird calls on the Government to develop a strategic vison to protect the Mackenzie, including:

1. A Mackenzie drylands park in the northern part of the basin.
2. A halt to tenure review in the Mackenzie
3. Proper protection for landscapes and biodiversity on all remaining pastoral leases.
4. And end to ecologically destructive land use changes.

We want all political parties to adopt high country policies to protect the Mackenzie’s biodiversity and landscapes.

Forest and Bird works hard to protect the natural heritage of the Mackenzie Basin but we can’t do it alone. We are a totally independent charity and do not receive government funding. We rely on the support of members, businesses, communities and the public to continue our work protecting this unique place.

What we’re doing 

In 2010, Forest & Bird joined forces with the Environmental Defence Society to campaign for a forum to be created that would bring together farmers, major irrigators, recreational groups, tourism operators, community board members and conservationists - including Forest & Bird - to  find a way to save what was left of the Mackenzie. After plenty of discussion, listening, and compromise, the recommendations of the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Forum were announced in May 2013. 

The parties have agreed to protect 100,000 hectares of the Mackenzie for the sake of its flora and fauna, the natural values that attract so many tourists to the area, and those New Zealanders who might otherwise only ever know the Mackenzie as we know the moa. Forest & Bird will keep a close eye on which parts make up the protected areas. Once an agreement on this has been finalised, it will be taken to the Government to be implemented.