Grass stains on the Mackenzie, part I

Intensive farming development of the Mackenzie district is a failure of law and policy, and ecological disaster on a colonial scale

The “Crown Pastoral Land Act” is my new favourite title on the statute book — a window to a high country world.

“Pastoral”, as defined by the Shorter Oxford, evokes, in one word, the whole policy:

“pertaining to or occupied in sheep or cattle farming … (of scenery, a landscape, etc) having the simplicity or charm associated with pastureland … of or pertaining to a pastor or the spiritual care of a congregation … Austral and NZ a lease of land for that purpose”.

That’s no longer true though, if it ever was. Outcomes under the Crown Pastoral Land Act have been less than idyllic: the burnished Mackenzie hills and basins are turning poison green.

A background paper prepared for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) describes adverse effects of so-called pastoral care: “There is no doubt that pastoral management has been responsible for substantial and ongoing detrimental changes …” it says.

For example, the effects of annual burn-off on snow tussock: a single burn degrades tussock health and recovery for 14 years; it also helps along the invasion of exotic pasture grasses, and, carried out repeatedly, it sends native cover into decline.

In 2005, the Department of Conservation (DOC) reported to Cabinet on the ability of the current framework to deliver ecologically sustainable management. The report listed half a dozen adverse impacts of normal farming practices, even at low density: damage to native vegetation, spread of weed seeds, irreversible local depletion of indigenous ecosystems.

The Act requires Crown consent to certain activities, such as clearing bush or scrub, cultivation, top-dressing, and seed sowing. But the consent provisions are not robust, from a conservation point of view. Cases, Cabinet was advised, where consent had been approved included applications to:

bulldoze farm tracks and allow oversowing and topdressing across areas with significant inherent landscape and vegetation values; clear shrubland and allow new cultivation and drainage of indigenous vegetation in land environments that are not well represented in the protected area network; plant Douglas fir (which has a significant potential for wilding spread) across significant indigenous vegetation and landscapes”.

And yet, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) said that all of the decisions made were defendable. The PCE received legal advice to similar effect. In granting consent, the decision-maker only has to “take into account” two competing factors: the desirability of protecting the land and its ecosystems, and the desirability of making it easier to use the land for farming purposes.

The latest development pressure is irrigation. Landcare Research expert Susan Walker, giving evidence for the Mackenzie Guardians, found that the grant of consent for all the present irrigation applications would bring to one-quarter the proportion of indigenous Mackenzie Basin ecosystems completely converted to exotic cover.

This, she said, is land use change, landscape transformation, and biodiversity and indigenous ecosystem loss on a scale not seen since colonisation.

Some of the proposed irrigation would occur on pastoral lease land, or ex-lease land. This requires consent under the Resource Management Act, but not Crown consent under the Crown Pastoral Land Act.

Remember, this is land Parliament has deemed worthy of, at least in theory, close management. Susan Walker, an ecologist, and others, have described its many ‘acutely threatened’ and ‘at risk’ species of creatures and plants.

According to Walker, these cannot survive intensive development, in particular irrigation: many of them are species native to a highly stressed arid climate, not saturation with high nutrients. Although it doesn't disturb the soil, irrigation is no less damaging than other activities for which consent is required — yet, it is not required.

And yet, for all its failures, Crown pastoral land management was working better than its substitute: tenure review.

To follow in part II: what’s happening with tenure review.