No Man's Land

A third of the conservation estate is in limbo, waiting for its natural values to be rated. A new report says we can’t wait any longer for this stewardship land to be reclassified. By Jay Harkness 

Porter’s ski field swapped a piece of protected coastal land for the untouched Crystal Basin. Photo: David Brooks

Porter’s ski field swapped a piece of protected coastal land for the untouched Crystal Basin. Photo: David Brooks

 History is littered with relatively innocuous bureaucratic oversights and slip-ups that have had disproportionately significant consequences.

The dividing up of Africa with arbitrary straight lines and introducing apparently harmless animals into New Zealand to create a fur industry are two.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), Dr Jan Wright, has investigated another quirk of fate that has resulted in poor outcomes for conservation and cost Forest & Bird – and others – a lot of money.

Great Barrier Island Boosrt 

Conservation Minister Nick Smith announced in September that he plans to reclassify 15,000 hectares of land on Great Barrier Island (Aotea) in the Hauraki Gulf from stewardship land to conservation park. If it goes ahead, the park will cover 55 per cent of the island.

He also announced, along with Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye, a proposal to get rid of rats on Rakitu Island, which lies off Great Barrier’s rugged eastern coast.

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says reclassifying Great Barrier’s stewardship land would be great for conservation and great for Aucklanders. But he says Aotea should become a national park because it is free of possums and it has such high conservation values, which include its regenerating warm coastal lowland kauri forest.

Kevin says there’s another reason to make it a national park. “If we want Great Barrier to be saved from mining then national park status would protect it under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act. Having only conservation park status would leave it exposed to future mining proposals.”

He says Nick Smith’s park plan could be an attempt to rehabilitate the government’s image among Aucklanders. In 2010 the government included Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel in its plans to open significant conservation land to mining.

It is widely believed to have fuelled the subsequent public backlash, which led to the government’s turnaround on the issue.

Unclassified parts of the conservation estate – known as stewardship land – have come under the PCE’s scrutiny, and she released a report, “Investigating the future of conservation: The case of stewardship land”, in August.

Until the 1980s the Forest Service or the Department of Lands and Survey administered most publically owned land that wasn’t “productive” (to use a contemporary term). Forest & Bird, the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand and the Native Forests Action Council could see this wasn’t working for conservation so began campaigning for a department of conservation to be formed. The campaign was a success and work began in 1985 to form what would become the Department of Conservation.

At the time there were plenty of national parks but few other classifications for land thought to potentially have some natural heritage value. Only half the conservation land that isn’t part of a national park has so far been given a classification other than “stewardship land”. That leaves 2.8 million hectares, or a third of the conservation estate, unclassified. Reclassification of stewardship land has only happened in an ad hoc way.

No man’s land The Associate Minister of Conservation at the time DOC was created, Philip Woollaston, told the PCE that: “The clear intention in creating stewardship areas was to protect them from development or extractive use until their conservation value could be established, the appropriate form of protection chosen...; unless of course the conservation values were found to be inadequate, when the area would be disposed of…”

That may have been the intention, but Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says the department was not funded to a level where it could meaningfully tackle the reclassification job it had been given.

Some stewardship land has been given the protection it deserves. Matiri Plateau was added to Kahurangi National Park in 1996. About 35 per cent of what is now Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island was stewardship land until the park was opened in 2002. And once the United Nations listed the Kopuatai Peat Dome on the Hauraki Plains as a Wetland of International Importance in 1989, DOC took action and gave it protected status.

But most of the stewardship estate is still prone to commercial demands that could destroy it. The lack of robust legal protection has created a perception that it is of a lower grade than the rest of the DOC estate. The minerals sector has used the anomaly to its advantage. An Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand booklet called “Realising our hidden treasure: Responsible mineral and petroleum extraction” showcases the gains to be made for some in mining and exploration and describes stewardship land simply as having “no protected status”.

The West Coast’s Denniston Plateau is a good example of what can happen. It is stewardship land, despite its inclusion on DOC’s list of the top 50 most valuable mainland sites. Whereas DOC’s scientists saw a unique ecosystem, teeming with endangered plants and animals, miners saw an open-cast coal mine in the making.

So what other parts of the stewardship estate could be lost before DOC does the necessary paperwork to reclassify land?

More than 60 per cent of the Hauraki Gulf’s Great Barrier Island, or Aotea, is managed by DOC. Much of the island has been logged but because it is possum-free the forests are recovering fast – and are spectacular. But it is stewardship land and in theory the island’s Mt Hobson could be mined. The same is true of The Remarkables near Queenstown and most of the stunning forests between Fox Glacier and Haast Pass.

The other major shortfall of the stewardship system is the wording of the rules that allow it to be swapped for non-stewardship land. Swaps can happen as long as there is a net benefit to the conservation estate. That might sound okay except the overall goal of conservation might not be served by any deal.

Forest fringes the West Coast’s Mökihinui River. The river is crystal clear and attracts kayakers and rafters in high numbers. State-owned company Meridian Energy had assumed that because the river valley was stewardship land it had little conservation value. When it wanted to build a hydro dam on the river it proposed a swap with three blocks of lowland forest. Forest & Bird and DOC were able to put a stop to Meridian’s plans. But if it had been properly classified the fight to save the valley would never have been needed.

The PCE also gave the example of Canterbury’s Crystal Basin ski field, an even more dramatic example of how the law around stewardship land can result in environmental miscarriages of justice and a deal that – incredibly – went ahead.

When the management of the Porter’s ski field wanted to extend their operation in the Craigieburn Range it was able to swap a chunk of coastal land – already protected under local plans and the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement – for the untouched Crystal Basin.

Because the conservation estate benefitted from the inclusion of the coastal block (which wasn’t part of the estate), the swap went ahead even though, overall, there would be a net loss to the cause of conservation.

The PCE’s findings on the management of stewardship land are clear. Wright says that as well as putting any proposed swaps on ice, DOC must start consulting with the New Zealand Conservation

Authority to get a steer on the correct “principles and processes” when deciding on how to achieve a net gain for conservation, and also to take “direct responsibility for any decision to swap stewardship land that has significant conservation value”.

Forest & Bird’s Kevin Hackwell says these would be good first steps. But he says the issue goes back to the perennial one for DOC.

Despite what outgoing director-general Al Morrison said, DOC has been chronically underfunded, especially in the past five years, given the importance of the job it does.

“The PCE’s recommendations need to be adopted, but also the classification process needs to begin in earnest as intended all those years ago. Another Bathurst Resources may well be waiting in the wings to take advantage of the sad fact that while most New Zealanders think the conservation estate is safe from open-cast mines and whatever else it’s not.”

Two months after the report’s release, Conservation Minister Nick Smith had yet to make a formal response to the PCE’s report. Hackwell says Smith has no option but to agree with its recommendations given the swaps completed so far have been demonstrably poor and the long delay in completing the reclassification project.

He says the reclassification job is now easier. “While the job of understanding the biodiversity, recreation, geological and landscape values of the stewardship estate would have been a huge one back in the 80s, most of the hard information is now known.

Therefore the exercise of classifying the stewardship estate could theoretically be as simple as just pulling together all that data. “The sooner it’s done the better for all concerned. If the nature of a piece of land isn’t known to those who’re meant to protect it or to those who want to use it then we’ll be all doomed to see the likes of the Denniston and Mökihinui repeat themselves again,” Hackwell says.

The PCE’s recommendations need to be adopted, but also the classification process needs to begin in earnest as intended all those years ago.