Porter Heights skifield on a slippery slope

24 Aug 2010

Forest & Bird is asking Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson to reject a land grab plan by the Canterbury Porters Ski Area owner that could turn pristine alpine conservation land into another skifield.

Skifield owner Blackfish wants the Department of Conservation (DOC) to give it freehold ownership of almost 200 hectares at Crystal Basin, which is near Porter Heights.

In return, the Australian-controlled company would give back to DOC 377 hectares of land it’s not using in the Upper Porter Valley. Blackfish doesn’t own this land – it leases it from DOC.

Blackfish wants to expand Porters Ski Area – 89 kilometres west of Christchurch – to Crystal Basin and build a ski resort. A land swap would allow Blackfish, which is 63 per cent Australian-owned, to expand its skifield into Crystal Basin and build an accommodation village linked to the basin by a gondola.

Forest & Bird’s legal advice is that a transfer of a leasehold interest in a conservation stewardship area from a private party to the Department of Conservation in return for the freehold title in another conservation stewardship area is unlikely to meet the requirements of Section 16A of the Conservation Act, and that a decision by the Minister of Conservation to approve such an exchange would be unlawful. It would also set a concerning precedent for land exchanges, and expand the use of section 16A in a previously unimagined direction.

Forest & Bird has written to Ms Wilkinson and DOC Director-General Al Morrison asking Ms Wilkinson to turn down the lopsided land deal.

The proposed swap could not be described as a land exchange. A foreign-controlled company would be given a freehold on publicly owned land with high conservation value in return for giving up a lease on land under no conservation threat and which is already owned by the New Zealand public.

DOC is already required to manage the leased land so that its natural and historic resources are protected, regardless of the lease. So an exchange in which DOC obtains the leasehold interest in land it already manages simply cannot “enhance the conservation values of land managed by the department” as required by the Conservation Act. Those values are already part of the department’s portfolio.

Some might assume that because the lease to Blackfish is perpetual, the leased land is as good as owned by Blackfish and the “swap” is a real one. In fact, Blackfish’s interest is very restricted. The lease has controls on what Blackfish can do with the land, and the company must get approval before making any improvements. It must also keep the leased area free of non-native plants, weeds and vermin. Blackfish’s interest falls far short of a freehold interest.

In deciding whether to approve the exchange, the Conservation Minister must not take into account economic benefits that might result, or the benefit of creating or enhancing recreational opportunities on land not managed by DOC. If the exchange is approved on that basis, the approval will be unlawful.

Despite their potentially huge impact on New Zealand’s conservation estate, there is no right of public participation in land swap decisions. The only legal option for organisations such as Forest & Bird is to challenge the legality of land swap decisions in the High Court once the decision has been made.

The area Blackfish wants to buy is part of land bought by DOC and a private buyer with the financial support of the Nature Heritage Fund (NHF) in 2004. It would be highly unlikely that NHF would have supported the purchase if it imagined DOC would consider swapping this land as proposed by Blackfish. NHF certainly does not consider applications for commercial use.

The Crystal Basin forms part of a unique series of conservation areas linking the Southern Alps’ main divide with the Canterbury Plains. Plans by Blackfish for extensive earthworks to reshape areas of Crystal Basin for ski trails, infrastructure and snowmaking reservoirs will destroy significant conservation values in a pristine valley.

Forest & Bird is worried that a new emphasis on commercial opportunities on conservation land could result in irreversible damage to Crystal Basin and other precious landscapes as conservation takes a backseat to short term economic gain.

>>Read Forest & Bird's letter to DOC's Director General Al Morrison