High country accord: save the Mackenzie country

Farmers and conservationists agree, the Mackenzie must be saved. In simple terms, the question is: should it stay brown, or turn green? Farmer Richard Peacocke and Forest & Bird discuss

Richard Peacocke is becoming a familiar face. He’s one of the so-called ‘cubicle dairy’ farmers, who withdrew his called-in applications, and was accused by Nick Smith of “gaming” the process. He fronted here on Close Up, to talk about his proposal; he says housing cows is the way of the future, he’s just a man ahead of his time. Now, he’s putting pen to paper to argue that Forest & Bird’s campaign to “keep the Mackenzie brown” is emotive and misleading. Irrigated pasture farming is what is needed, in his view.

He also lives, according to his Companies Office records, in Mt Maunganui, not the Mackenzie District. His farm there, Glen Eyrie Downs, has been described at different places and times as owned by one or other of his companies: Southdown Holdings Ltd, or Southdown Trustees Ltd.

Sometimes, farmers and conservationists are at loggerheads, including on the future of the Mackenzie District. But it's not that simple. Everybody also has common ground there: all agree, the land is damaged, and something must be done to save it. Forest & Bird says brown; Mr Peacocke green.

Mr Peacocke’s open letter, sent to Forest & Bird and others, including Pundit, explains why he wants to irrigate the land: “in order to farm sheep, cattle, undertake some cropping, and some dairy cows. Dairy farming provides the highest and best economic use under irrigation”. His irrigation application is still awaiting an ECan decision.

“After reading a great deal of emotive comment on this site along with similar sentiments in recent nationwide advertisements in weekend newspapers I decided it was important to balance the highly emotive publicity with a few real facts,” he writes (to Forest & Bird).

So by all means, let’s start with some facts, because pretty much everyone agrees on the problem, although not on its solution.

Mackenzie ecosystems are struggling; emotively, you might say that the land and its inhabitants are slowly dying. Concern about environmental changes there have been a key feature of the 2009 high country report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE); submissions by Susan Walker, ecologist, on the ECan irrigation applications; they’re driving Forest & Bird’s campaign; and Mr Peacocke identifies the same problems.

After original native forest cover was extinguished, it was, as his letter says, given over to graziers who overstocked with their mobs of sheep and grazed the land down to bare earth; later, it was damaged some more by rabbits. He says it is weed infested, and the soil is blowing away, citing a Department of Conservation figure: 2.5 tonnes of topsoil per hectare on average is blown away each year.

He talks about the invasive flat weed ‘hieracium’, and wilding pines, giving examples of the spread of wilding pines on his own property, and in the wider high country. The same problem was identified by the PCE, too, who commented on the visual offence of “wilding conifers dotted around like an unshaven chin and wandering above the treeline”. She made only nine recommendations, in that report, and wilding pine weed control was one of them: clearly, therefore, she thought it was a high priority.

Everyone agrees, too, that some of the landscape has been altered, particularly around Twizel and Omarama, towards the south end of the Basin. Peacocke describes existing irrigation and dairy farming: approximately 12,000 hectares already being irrigated; 8,000 dairy cows; and annually, “thousands of dry land hectares of the Mackenzie Basin are … planted in rye corn, turnips, kale, lucerne, clover, and other crops”. It is therefore incorrect, he says, that irrigation will turn the landscape from brown to green, because in spring and summer, lots of it is already green; additional irrigation only makes the growing season longer and better.

And, he wants fairness. His farm tenure was reviewed, and made freehold: “As a consequence the owners of this land have the same rights to farm, subject to applicable environmental constraints, as any freehold farm in New Zealand (my emphasis). Again, who could disagree? But that’s it right there, the moot point: what should the “applicable environmental constraints” be, in the Mackenzie Basin? Is that district the same as Waikato or Southland or the Canterbury Plains? Do we need or want to do something special to protect it?

Mr Peacocke seems keen to characterise the Mackenzie as an unproductive wasteland — and it may be unproductive for his purposes — but around 900 000 visitors travel to the Basin each year, 500,000 of them international visitors, it contributes to the $4 billion a year in high country tourism, and has been described by the Tourism Industry Association as “one of the jewels in New Zealand’s crown”.

Instead, he wants to plant grass: “The quickest way to save the soil is to plant grass and the only economic way the grass can be maintained and thrive is to apply water and fertiliser and the only way this can occur is if the farmers have a guarantee of continuity of supply of water to ensure economic sustainability. Without water the land will continue to be depleted and a weed infested wasteland will be the result”.

The PCE, sitting as she does, a little above the fray, declined to comment for this post. Her report notes at one point that indeed, irrigated exotic grasses can help counter hieracium — but more generally, it seems to pinpoint pastoral intensification “(up to and potentially including irrigated dairying operations)” as much more likely to be a risk than a solution to all the rest of the high country problems: soil degradation, indigenous plant biodiversity loss, nutrient runoff into lakes and rivers, and demand on water resources.

So must we choose, in the Mackenzie district, between farming and conservation? The PCE, as well as spending a lot of time laying out the problems of that kind of dual approach, cites a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Biodiversity and Private Land (2000), that:

argued persuasively and passionately that private landholders are “deserving of being trusted, respected and assisted to care for and manage our heritage”. The Committee did not see deriving economic benefit from land, and sustaining and enhancing its natural values, as exclusive goals. They found that increasing numbers of landholders have the practice, technology and experience to manage all classes of land more effectively and sympathetically than has been done in the past.

Which is about where we get into the ‘drylands park’ debate. As Mr Peacocke has alleged, and he is implicitly supported in this by the PCE, who did not recommend a drylands park: “DOC now administer more land than they have resources to effectively manage and as a consequence weed species and pests are taking over large areas of the DOC Estate”.

Forest & Bird disputes this, arguing that DOC is making good progress on weed control. But in any event, they are refining their ‘drylands park’ concept, to make clear that it is not about the Mackenzie as a museum piece, but something more dynamic, that recognises existing land use, and does allow for some development, within constraints.

It seems unlikely, though, that Peacocke’s cause would ever be wholly embraced by Forest & Bird. Following Federated Farmers’ lead, he says that irrigation will benefit threatened and indigenous species — that black stilt need wetlands, for example, and irrigation can help create them — claims that are not quite backed up by independent scientific studies, about the overall effect of irrigation and intensive farming on the high country.

Forest & Bird points out what has been well documented by others: that vast corridors of fragile Mackenzie basin habitat, home to a wide range of insects, plants, animals and rare ecosytems, have disappeared under the giant green circles created by pivot irrigators”.

And that is, likely, the end of them, because according to Landcare Research scientist Susan Walker, the Mackenzie’s many ‘acutely threatened’ and ‘at risk’ species of creatures and plants cannot survive intensive development, in particular irrigation: many of them are species native to a highly stressed dry climate, not saturation with high nutrients.

Walker, et al also found that, on land suited to intensive use, biodiversity outcomes were much worse on private land than pastoral leases in equivalent environments, presumably because farmers in Mr Peacocke's situation were benefiting from the pastoral lease farming restrictions having been removed. She has said that already, intensive farming in the Mackenzie over the last decade has seen landscape transformation and biodiversity loss at a rate not seen since European settlement, and this can only be made worse by the ECan irrigation applications.

“Just because the ‘canopy’ of the tussock forest is low to the ground, and the minutiae of plants and animals found in there are not ‘charismatic megafauna’ like kiwi or kakapo — does that make them any less crucial to our conservation heritage? I say no,” says Forest & Bird spokesperson, Nic Vallance.

Mr Peacocke is, at present, wading through RMA processes that he might not unreasonably argue should address all of these concerns. But others — Forest & Bird, and the PCE among them — say that it doesn’t address them.

Cabinet papers from 2009 confirm that the government is doing some work on this issue. The RMA framework is riddled with gaps, as regards former crown pastoral land — such as exemptions from some district plan rules, and inappropriate zoning. Nor does ‘calling in’ an application necessarily help, since that only streamlines and prioritises decision making under the RMA for that case; it does not correct RMA framework flaws, or allow a Mackenzie Basin-wide review.

Forest & Bird says that, far from being emotive, it is “restrained” in its vision for the Mackenzie. They recognise the complexity of the many different interests in the Basin (“everyone from tourism industry to Fonterra, central and local Government, farmers, conservationists, you name it”). They want two things, they say: a collaborative process to determine the best way to manage the Basin; and, pending the outcome of that process, moratoria on tenure review and "significant RMA consents".

If those giving voice to the Mackenzie have done so emotively — the accusation leveled by Mr Peacocke at Forest & Bird — it’s perhaps because it is proving so hard to spark the public imagination on this issue. There seems, as I’ve found myself, here on Pundit, not a great deal of interest sadly, in plain statements of the facts.