Forest & Bird uncovers Government pressure to privatise Mackenzie

Independent conservation organisation Forest & Bird has obtained documents under the Official Information Act that reveal the Government is stopping the Department of Conservation (DOC) from trying to protect the Mackenzie Basin from destruction by intensive irrigation.

The documents show the Government’s new high country policy has overturned previous DOC work to halt greater privatisation of the Mackenzie Basin, much of which is currently publicly owned.

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell says the Government is undermining DOC’s ability to do its job. “Parliament gave the Department of Conservation a specific job to advocate for the protection of significant conservation and landscape values on publicly owned high country land,” he says. “The Mackenzie Basin desperately needs DOC’s protection in the face of growing privatisation and intensive use of this precious New Zealand landscape.”

Many pastoral leaseholders want to privatise land so they can develop dairy farms and irrigate the naturally dry land with giant pivot irrigators.

In 2006 DOC proposed creating a Mackenzie Basin drylands park to protect some of the area’s significant natural landscape and native plants and animals, which include critically endangered black stilts. But last year the Government forced the department to back down on proposals for full Crown ownership of land with outstanding conservation and landscape values.

A DOC manager wrote in September 2009 that the department was reducing the area it recommended for protection on four Mackenzie properties: “Since we provided this advice, the High Country Policy has been revised and funding for the Department of Conservation has come under scrutiny. The Department of Conservation has therefore had to review its direction in the high country with regards to any new lands it may acquire, lakeside issues and any ongoing management costs that may be associated with new lands.”

The leaseholder of Simons Pass – a pastoral lease under tenure review – at the southern end of Lake Pukaki has applied to irrigate thousands of hectares. The land has significant areas of nationally rare ecosystems that support threatened black stilts and banded dotterels and more than 11 threatened plants. DOC recommended in 2007 that a significant proportion of this land now proposed for irrigation be protected as public conservation land.

By December 2009 DOC had backtracked to fit with Government policy and recommended a much smaller protected area. An internal DOC e-mail dated October 16, 2009 says: “In our discussion with [the irrigation developer, he] was happy more or less for DOC to have that land it proposed for protection (as discussed above) in 2007, but what we are now proposing for freehold. This seems remarkable to me that we are even prepared to freehold land with high values when the lessee [was] prepared for the most part to work around our 2007 recommendations.”

Forest & Bird calls on the Government to rethink its high country policy and support DOC to better protect the Mackenzie Basin’s unique landscape, which is valued by New Zealanders and overseas tourists.

“There seems to be confusion within Government ranks over the Mackenzie Basin,” Kevin Hackwell says. “Environment Minister Nick Smith noted the national significance of the area and ‘the fragile and iconic nature of the Mackenzie Basin environment’ when he called in three large dairy effluent discharge consents on January 27.

“Yet if the Government doesn’t act now, large areas of the Mackenzie Basin will be obliterated by giant green irrigation circles. Much of the irrigation will be on land that the public of New Zealand presently owns. That will be bad for tourists and for the many special plants and animals living there.”