Saving the Mackenzie

Forest & Bird’s three-year campaign to protect the bronzed tussocklands of Canterbury’s Mackenzie Basin celebrated a major breakthrough in May.

The announcement in May of an agreement recommending protection of 100,000 hectares of the best part of the Mackenzie Basin could be the best possible outcome for an area that has already changed markedly through a dramatic increase in irrigated farming.

The recommendations to the government and relevant councils are a major step forward that would not have happened without our supporters, those who made donations to the Save the Mackenzie campaign and Forest & Bird Canterbury/West Coast Field Officer Jen Miller.

The agreement focuses on a large part of the Mackenzie. Forest & Bird considers the area best preserved as a drylands park is the north-western portion of the basin, bordered by
Aoraki/Mt Cook village to the north, Lake Benmore to the south, Lake Pükaki to the west and Tekapo to the east.

Forest & Bird campaigned hard for the sake of this area, and it remains to be seen how much of it will be protected.

Despite a long history of human modification – starting with the arrival of Mäori – the Mackenzie is teeming with life. This includes lizards, insects and birds, many of which
live nowhere else.

The arguments for protecting a part of the Mackenzie aren’t all from the one side of the ledger, if you subscribe to the idea that a “balance” can be found between the environment and the economy.

In the Mackenzie the environment is the economy since a million visitors travel there each year. Many of the visitors carry on to somewhere else – which has been identified as a problem that needs fixing – but nevertheless tourism is the region’s biggest earner and has the potential to be worth a lot more to the area.

The Mackenzie has inspired, informed and appeared in a host of art, literature, movies – and beer commercials.

Those who have used the Mackenzie landscape as an expression of their creativity include writer Laurence Fearnley and film director Sir Peter Jackson, who set one of his many epic battle scenes from the Lord of the Rings series in the Mackenzie.

Anyone who has recently driven between Twizel and Ömarama will understand the threats to the Mackenzie. Vast vivid green circles are spreading across the landscape at the expense of the native plants that used to grow there.

Once tussockland is irrigated it dies and there is no going back.

In 2010 there were 110 applications to take water for irrigation in the Mackenzie. Forest & Bird and the Environmental Defence Society called for a forum to consider how this special landscape could be protected while allowing for some further agricultural development.

The Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust was set up shortly after. It involved farmers, tourism operators, fly-fishers, community boards, hunters, fish farmers and
conservationists.

And so the work began. Forest & Bird’s Jen Miller, who is based in Christchurch, made many trips south to Twizel for the discussions with other members of the forum.

Those discussions were sometimes onerous and required compromise all around – co-operative forums always do.

“Discussions were certainly robust,” Jen says with a wry smile. “However, I learned a great deal about farming in the basin and the dilemmas farmers face, as in many instances
being able to irrigate a relatively small area of their property is vital for their on-going survival,” she says.

Despite the inherent challenges for all, the process that led to the Mackenzie agreement is one the government favours. Its stated preference is for disputes to be settled between interested parties with agreed outcomes presented for passing into law. The same co-operative ethos gave rise to the Land and Water Forum, on which Forest & Bird gave nature a much-needed voice.

The real test of the success of the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust will be whether the government accepts all its recommendations. It will also be vital for ministers
to heed each other when making decisions related to the Mackenzie.

This will include the ministers of land information (who leads the South Island high country tenure review process, which will be crucial to achieving the vision set out in the agreement), conservation and environment.

The goodwill shown through the process so far will also need to extend to deciding which parts of the northwestern basin should be included in the 100,000 hectares to be protected.

Forest & Bird will be watching this process carefully, and will probably be making submissions to central and local government in the future.

It is essential that the parties do not stumble at this final hurdle. We must secure a good outcome for the area’s remarkable native plants and animals, for those who earn
a living from tourists and for the Mackenzie’s value in our cultural heritage.

And it is essential for all New Zealanders who have not yet seen why the Mackenzie Country is such an important New Zealand landscape.

Banner photo: Steve Attwood