Grass stains on the Mackenzie, part II: tenure review

In which policy makers try to grow the economic cake, but end up eating it instead, leaving us with some little brown crumbs …

Tenure review is an arguably fatally flawed review of the Crown pastoral land asset.

[continued from Part I]

The primary objects of tenure review are:

  1. promoting the management of reviewable land (ie, Crown pastoral land) in a way that is ecologically sustainable, and
  2. protecting significant inherent values of the land, by either creating protective mechanisms, or, preferably, restoring it to full Crown ownership and control.

Enabling reviewable land capable of economic use to be freed from management constraints resulting from its tenure status” is a secondary goal, subject to promoting ecologically sustainable management.

Which sounds all good, conservation-wise.

The thrust of tenure review has been to freehold productive land, and take back other land for conservation purposes. Between those two outcomes, lies a spectrum of other options: for example, sustainable management covenants and public access easements over freehold land, or continuation of Crown pastoral lease arrangements. But these are not often used.

Parliament, in the Crown Pastoral Land Act, has said that ecological sustainability is more important than freeing land from management constraints. And yet, if this did prevail, it would badly undermine the Act’s other objective: new land owners, rightly or wrongly (given the clear terms of the Act), have an expectation of being able to develop ex-lease land to its best economic use, unencumbered.

The former government therefore acknowledged the reality, that it might need to remain a high country lessor indefinitely, if it wanted to protect the high country. But tenure review is proceeding apace. Of 303 Crown pastoral leases, review of 67 of them is complete, with five further whole properties purchased, 98 are not in review, and the remainder are in various stages of progress.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), in her 2009 report on change in the high country, identified such fundamental problems that some have concluded tenure review must simply cease, because it is not achieving the objectives of its own Act, let alone New Zealand’s other conservation undertakings and objectives. It is in fact, itself, an active cause of harm.

Lack of transparency: There are no measures to evaluate the overall outcomes of the process. Department of Conservation (DOC) and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) briefings have had positive stories to tell about many conservation gains, but there is no government-led attempt to measure losses, therefore no gauge of net effect.

No strategy: According to the PCE, “LINZ does not appear to have any strategic plans for tenure reviews … To the contrary, LINZ argues that tenure review cannot be held accountable for cumulative regional and catchment effects. This is a disappointing stance.” Individually reasonable decisions, the PCE concluded, can have and are having unforeseen cumulative consequences on large-scale features: ecology, catchments and landscapes.

Poor conservation outcomes: Consistently across time, outcomes have been split roughly evenly between conservation and freehold — in 2009, according to the PCE, 51% by land area freehold unencumbered, 43% to the conservation estate.

But another general trend of completed tenure reviews is that new public conservation land is predominantly high altitude tussock grassland, whereas freehold land is predominantly low altitude, more readily productive farmland.

When Susan Walker, et al modelled tenure review outcomes, likely patterns of land use change, and their effects on biodiversity, they found that, because of this split, tenure review is not protecting what needs to be protected.

Where land was suitable for intensive use, biodiversity outcomes were much worse on private land than pastoral leases in equivalent environments. Land suitable for intensive use is mostly lower altitude land, which is mostly being privatised. New high country reserves are being established in places where the threat is lowest because, even if privatised, the land would not allow intensive use.

According to the PCE, 88% of unencumbered freehold land had some sort of ‘threatened environment’ status, 20% was acutely or chronically threatened. 48% of conservation protected land had some sort of ‘threatened environment’ status, 3% was acutely or chronically threatened. The Crown was, therefore, paying to retain ownership, for conservation purposes, of a large proportion of land not under real threat.

DOC funding constraints: Funding constraints have since been reported as driving DOC choices about how much land it is feasible for them to reassume management of. Conceivably, this may lead them to relinquish some high country, low threat status choices, but with no better gains for low altitude highly threatened areas — because with real economic value, these would cost more to buy back.

Visual landscape pollution: Lower altitude developments are a visual intrusion on the landscape. Which is important, because it’s hard to spark public interest in obscure little sub-alpine plants; hard to convey that the bleakest outlook for conservation interests — the ecosystems and species at high risk of loss to intensive development — lie in some very ordinary-looking paddocks. But visually, the transformation from brown to green is a good enough proxy for ecocide.

Land use intensification: Tenure review itself has been a driver of intensification, as ex-leaseholders grapple with the economics of half the amount of land. Splitting leasehold runs formerly managed as a whole into conservation and farmed land has ecological effects, too: less opportunity to rest tired land.

Inadequate controls on future activities: Covenants have been rarely imposed, the logic being that future activities on freehold land should not be regulated by anything other than the generally applicable Resource Management Act. But arguably, in this context, the RMA is not up to the job: it doesn’t address cumulative effects, and irrigation consents, for example, are being granted, covering a swathe of the country.

There are dangers in too much nostalgia, because the Mackenzie country is not in its original state; not even the tawny expanse of tussock praised by von Haast (of Haast Pass and Haast’s eagle fame) was original.

There’s an argument, I grudgingly suppose, that the transformation from brown to green is all part of a progression. In many lights and locations, the Mackenzie is quite undistinguished: a wasteland, as the cubicle dairy farmers would have had it, crying out to be put to good productive use.

Decide for yourself, here and here and, especially, here. This is real New Zealand — high country, my country — part of a sort of holy trinity, of alpine bush and rivers, Crown pastoral land, and the coast.

To follow in Part III: the government response.