Forest & Bird reveals Government mining plans

Conservation organisation Forest & Bird has uncovered Government plans to allow mining in 7000 hectares of high-value conservation land in the West Coast’s Paparoa National Park, Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula.

Otahu Ecological Area, Photo: Kim Westerskov

Otahu Ecological Area, Photo: Kim Westerskov

The areas are:
• Te Ahumata plateau on Great Barrier Island (about 700ha)
• Otahu Ecological Area (396ha) and Parakawai Geological Reserve (70ha) near Whangamata and 2500ha near Thames township
• Eastern Paparoa National Park, near Inangahua (3000ha)

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says all the areas have outstanding ecological and landscape value, which is why they have been protected from mining. “We’re not talking about gorse-covered hillsides with the odd tree in these areas. We are talking about rare native Hochstetter’s frogs, endangered brown teal, mature forest and pristine wilderness areas.”

The independent conservation organisation has learnt that the Government has scaled back and delayed announcing its plans because of public opposition to mining in national parks. “We know the Government has been desperate to make its mining plans more palatable to the New Zealanders who value our national parks.”

The areas are currently protected under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act. Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee revealed in August a Government stocktake of the Schedule 4 areas, and an announcement was originally expected in November, then in February. Schedule 4 was created by the previous National government in 1997 to safeguard especially important conservation land.

“Prime Minister John Key has said he envisaged ‘surgical’ mining of low-grade conservation land. However, the Schedule 4 areas are protected precisely because they have high conservation values. This is borne out by the quality of the areas that are being proposed for removal,” Kevin Hackwell says.

Minerals targeted in the Government’s stocktake are found in low concentrations so open-cast mining – not “surgical” mining – is the most likely way to extract them. “In New Zealand, you get an average 3 grams of gold for every 1400 kilograms of rock that’s dug up. A mining company is not going to drill small, unobtrusive holes to process huge quantities of rock,” Kevin Hackwell says.

“In Paparoa National Park, for example, river terraces are being looked at. Open-cast mining is the only way to get at any coal or gold there,” he says.

Forest & Bird does not see any sense in Government plans to create a conservation fund from mining royalties. “If you don’t dig up wilderness areas, you don’t need to spend even more money in vain attempts to put them back together again,” Kevin Hackwell says.

Forest & Bird has also learnt that under the Schedule 4 stocktake, nearly half a million hectares of other prime conservation areas will be surveyed for mining potential, including Kahurangi National Park, Mt Aspiring National Park, Stewart Island’s Rakiura National Park and nearly all the conservation land in the Coromandel Peninsula. “This is an area nearly five times the size of Tongariro National Park,” Kevin Hackwell says.

“In the search for economic growth, we need to focus on our strengths. There is no comparison with the scale of minerals in Australia and we should not just try to follow them. Our brand is 100% Pure New Zealand. We need to be smarter in our use of conservation land. Conservation, recreation and tourism will make far higher long-term returns and create many more jobs than destructive, short-term mining.”

For hi-res photos, please contact Marina Skinner at m.skinner@forestandbird.org.nz

Summary of the Government’s plans for mining on schedule 4 lands

7000ha proposed for removal from Schedule 4 protection

Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park

Where: About 700 hectares centred on Te Ahumata (also known as Whitecliffs) and possibly including part of the Hirakimata-Kaitoke Swamp Ecological Area. Great Barrier Island is a key part of Auckland’s 10-year-old “national park” – the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
Why it’s special: Te Ahumata and surrounding areas have several plants found only on the island, such as the Great Barrier Island tree daisy and the Great Barrier Island kanuka. It is also home to the chevron skink (New Zealand’s longest lizard), the black petrel and kaka. The ecological area is a critical habitat for several rare wetland birds, including our most endangered duck, the brown teal.
Mining interest: Silver – the area has a small long-abandoned silver mine. Mining would involve processing vast amounts of rock to find minute amounts of silver, resulting in a large impact on the area.

Coromandel Peninsula – Otahu Ecological Area and Parakawai Geological Reserve

Where: The forest-clad Otahu Ecological Area (396ha) and its neighbouring Parakawai Reserve (70ha) drain into the 110ha Otahu estuary south of Whangamata. The Otahu River retains an intact natural sequence from the mountains to the sea. It is ranked as “outstanding” in a 1993 Department of Conservation survey; an “area of significant conservation value”, “nationally significant recreation resource” and of “ecological significance (outstanding)” in proposed council plans.
Why it’s special: These areas have rare native frogs such as Hochstetter’s frog, native fish such as banded kokopu, Helm’s butterfly and many native bird species. The area’s volcanic landscape retains indigenous forest with very little development, and it is popular with locals, tourists and walkers using nearby tracks.
Mining interest: Gold – nearby areas have had limited gold mining in the past. Gold mining would destroy one of the Coromandel’s few remaining natural river catchments running from source to sea.

Coromandel Peninsula – conservation areas behind Thames township

Where: About 2500ha of conservation land near Thames.
Why it’s special: The area has precious forest remnants and regeneration, with threatened plants, rare native frogs and a remnant kiwi population, which a local community group has put much effort into saving. Stream waters are high quality and good habitat for native fish. It’s a popular recreation area for locals, holidaymakers and tourists.
Mining interest: Gold - many of the valleys around Thames have been mined for gold in the past, but are now regenerating to a healthy and natural state. Any mining in the hills behind Thames will increase the risk of flash flooding of the town – this was the subject of recent reports from GNS and Environment Waikato.

Paparoa National Park

Where: About 3000ha of lowland native forest river terraces in the eastern part of Paparoa National Park to the west of the Inangahua River and SH65, north of Reefton.
Why it’s special: The lowland river terraces have silver and red beech forests with emergent podocarps like rimu and kahikatea, as well as pakihi. Large and diverse bird populations including abundant kaka, robins, kakariki, fernbird and weka live in these forests. The forests are crucial for feeding and sheltering in colder months for birds that live higher up the ranges at other times.
Mining interest: Coal, gold and gemstones – the area has had some coal mining in the past. The land is river terrace (gravel) so any mining is likely to be open cast rather than tunnelling, resulting in native forest destruction and waterway pollution. Nearby gold mining in Victoria Forest Park and surface coal mining at Stockton illustrate the likely impact.

Nearly half a million hectares of national parks and Coromandel Forest Park being surveyed for future mining

Eastern Kahurangi National Park: Almost half New Zealand’s plant species grow in the park, including many species endemic to the park. The eastern side of the park is popular with locals and tourists, with many tracks, huts and camping areas. Interest in gold and heavy metals – which would mostly involve open-cast mining with large tailing waste – may lead to areas being removed from Schedule 4 protection.
North-eastern Mt Aspiring National Park: Part of the Te Wahi Pounamu World Heritage Area, Mt Aspiring National Park is rugged, remote and used by hunters, trampers and tourism businesses. Popular tramping tracks and tourism activities near Glenorchy and the renowned Haast Pass highway are near areas of mining interest. Carbonatite deposits contain rare earth minerals but in tiny quantities so mining would extensively damage the area.
Rakiura National Park (Stewart Island): The remote and unique Stewart Island has so far escaped major damage from development. The southern-most area is a proposed Wilderness Area. It was the last wild home of the kakapo. The southern ranges have several endemic species and rare birds such as the NZ dotterel and a special kiwi (the Rakiura tokoeka) that forages by day, unlike its mainland cousins.
Most of the Coromandel Peninsula north of SH25A is included in the survey, despite the beauty, value and ecosystems services it provides to locals, holidaymakers and tourists who visit the area in droves.