Mackenzie developments, and Trust

High country farmers and Ministers are defending private property interests in the Mackenzie Basin, while speaking the language of collaboration and trust — with a capital T

At the recent Bluegreens forum, under the title “MP proposes collaborative approach for the Mackenzie”, National Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean talked about establishing a Sustainable Futures Trust:

The best way forward for determining the future of the iconic Mackenzie/Omarama Basin is a collaborative approach led by a new Trust involving all the key interests, Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean told the Bluegreens Forum in Akaroa today. … The key to its success will be a broad membership, wide buy-in and a real commitment of the respective parties to working together on a balanced plan that incorporates economic development and environmental sustainability.

Since then things have been moving fast, in this slow land. ‘Trust’ being the operative word, there’s a bit of a lack of it.

The Trust is being modelled on other collaborative successes: the Fiordland Guardians, and the Land and Water Forum. Both have mediated clashes between the private and the public, conservation and productive use. Dr Smith hopes that the Trust could eventually produce a “shared vision statement”, which sounds neither use nor ornament, but in Fiordland led in the end to the establishment of a marine area and reserves.

And there’s nothing better on the table. The alternative is to battle it out, as NGOs have also been doing, through the district planning and resource consent processes, that cannot properly address the big-picture high country issues.

Until now, conservationists have been the voices calling for action; the government and farmers the ones turning deaf ears. In November, Federated Farmers boycotted EDS’ and Forest & Bird’s “imposium”.

Cubicle dairy champion Richard Peacocke — who did attend the symposium — has put up money for the Trust, prompting this dry comment from Gary Taylor: he had heard about these moves to establish a Trust, “but it was not up to him to comment on them”. A veto right has been agreed upon, in the terms of reference for the Trust, to get farmers on board — but crucially, on their terms. The clause reportedly says that any “individual property owner can veto any proposal on or affecting their property rights, but not the working party’s findings”.

Farmers, then, you might say, are not really buying into the ‘shared vision’ idea at all (except of course Mr Peacocke): they’re sitting on the fence.

Others are complaining about being sidelined, such as Mackenzie mayor Claire Barlow, who complained councils are charged with the governance of their communities and "my councillors aren't convinced that the government has got the formula right". In reports of the groups participating in closed-door talks to form the Trust, there's no mention of the Department of Conservation, a major Crown pastoral land stakeholder.

And Forest & Bird is incensed. On December 18, Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson notified two tenure review proposals, for ‘Maryburn’ and ‘The Wolds’.

The Wolds’ proposal suggests freeholding over 7,000 ha of an 8,110 ha property. According to Forest & Bird, this would “scupper any chance of a Drylands Park”, the main thing they had hoped to discuss. DOC’s conservation report explains the significance of The Wolds. Along with habitat for threatened birds and other “notable fauna”, areas on the property recommended for protection, and sites of “special wildlife interest”:

The Wolds Pastoral Lease forms an integral part of the highly-recognizable Mackenzie Basin landscape … Collectively all the landscape units on the property are interconnected to form a coherent and striking high country landscape. … In aesthetic terms The Wolds Pastoral Lease exemplifies the qualities that are closely associated with the Mackenzie Basin … The Wolds Pastoral Lease makes a major contribution to the distinctive traits of the Mackenzie Basin, one of Canterbury’s quintessential high country landscapes. Significant parts of the property merit protection for their landscape value. …

The Wolds Pastoral Lease supports plant communities that are characteristic of the Tekapo and Pukaki ecological districts. Despite extensive modification, there are areas on the property that support vegetation that is moderately or highly representative of the vegetation originally present in the area. There are also healthy populations of a number of rare and threatened plant species on the property ... Many of these plant communities and threatened plant populations are in relatively good condition, have moderate to high naturalness values, and are viable in the long term.

The Wolds looks a prime candidate for helping to address an issue with tenure review outcomes to date: low altitudes, that are the most threatened, are not being protected, also affecting ecological sequences from high to low altitude.

Another issue is the visibility of both properties (“expansive views”) from SH8. On Maryburn, the leaseholders have big centre-pivot plans.

Forest & Bird, therefore, wants these tenure reviews put on hold. They cannot risk wrecking the collaborative process, on which their whole cause depends. However, they are furious with Minister Williamson, saying he has “refused outright” to meet, and his staff are not taking or returning the NGO’s calls:

to get all the players around the table for a collaborative process for a sustainable future for the Mackenzie, and then run a process alongside in an ad hoc manner, that would privatise thousands of hectares of Crown land, seems to fly in the face of what collaboration is about.

And, given the purported brief of the Trust, to advise central and local government on environmental issues in the Waitaki and Mackenzie Basins: “There should be an opportunity for the trust to inform the outcomes of the tenure review process — both in terms of development and conservation.”

The Wolds leaseholder, John Murray responded: “I think if the minister did call a halt you would get a fair backlash. You probably wouldn’t see farming organisations joining the proposed trust”. His wife Bronwen said she would now have “absolutely no trust … If this is [Forest & Bird's] idea of collaboration, we have no faith in them once again”.

The government’s part in this does have shades of freshwater management — but not the LWF.

The LINZ’s Minister’s move looks more like the ECan legislation, which among its other notorieties, pre-empted litigation about the Hurunui water conservation order (WCO), and changed all of the rules for WCOs in Canterbury.

Since then, NGOs Fish and Game, and Whitewater New Zealand, have withdrawn their Hurunui application, preferring instead to channel their efforts into the collective Canterbury Water Management Strategy. Dr Smith trumpeted this, as evidence that his brainchild is working. Closer to the truth of the matter is that WCOs having been gutted, they were no longer worth pursuing; and the alternative result is not the same, at all.

That unilateral anti-collaborative effort by the government almost ruined the LWF. Nick Smith shifted the goalposts first, before starting the friendly game. If that is not the government intent in the Mackenzie, if they are in fact acting in good faith, someone really needs to have a quiet word with Mr Williamson — because that's not how it looks.