Zeroing in on the high country problem

In which, after two months chasing High Country Ministers and their officials round in a circle, I realise they’re telling me something after all

Having run around government agencies for nil result, and ended up about back where I started, I’m afraid that this circumlocution is officials’ own special way of describing a big fat ‘zero’.

On June 24 and 30, I wrote to Environment Minister Nick Smith, and Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson. I wrote to Land Information New Zealand, too, with an Official Information Act request.

The OIA produced a timely, if brief response: a letter, summarising some information, rather than the briefings I had asked for. Some of it I already knew; some was tangentially relevant and, arguably, factually incorrect; some was based on a misreading of my request; and in the space of a page and a half, the same thing was repeated four times. Meanwhile, my Ministerial was transferred to the Conservation portfolio.

Overall there was a sense of it being somebody else’s problem. LINZ, however, is the department that administers the relevant Act.

My email to Nick Smith was specifically about the Mackenzie, and asked “what policy initiatives this government is progressing to ensure the Mackenzie and its landscapes are properly protected, and retain their essential character”. Earlier this year, when he called in the now notorious cubicle dairy effluent discharge applications, Dr Smith had referred to the fragile and iconic nature of the Mackenzie Basin environment and, implicitly, its national significance.

His reply to me, though, talked in general terms about his plans for some other kinds of national policy statements, and resource management reforms to promote efficiency and effectiveness. It did not respond at all to my questions about the Mackenzie district.

His colleague, Kate Wilkinson, wrote at more length. Yet the letter rang a bit hollow, as empty things will do. Here’s the whole thing (leaving out the salutations):

“I appreciate your interest in the Mackenzie Basin, and your concern for its iconic landscapes. The Government is aware that there is a high level of public interest in its future development for farming and tourism, and in the protection of its significant biodiversity and unique landforms.

“The Government, having reviewed previous high country policies, has produced a new strategic direction for pastoral lease land. This includes objectives that will promote effective stewardship to ensure that ecological sustainability is promoted, while pastoral and inherent values — including the natural character of lakesides and landscapes — are maintained.”

The “new strategic direction” restates — in a watered down, possibly slightly subversive way — key bits of the governing Act. The Minister (or her official correspondent, on behalf) is just rehearsing here the stewardship objective. She or he runs together the objective and hoped-for outcome, without the middle part, about how this will be achieved.

“We also wish to ensure that the economic viability of pastoral farming is sustained, and that high country culture and communities are valued. We consider that protection of the basin’s landscape and biodiversity will be possible under this strategic direction, through a mixture of both local and central government action and landowner initiatives.”

On the matter of economic viability, South Island High Country Ministers (LINZ, Conservation, Agriculture) recently announced a new method for setting Crown pastoral lease rents, based on the earning capacity of a property. It helps prop up that tradition, set in place to preserve the high country character, and now very much part of its character.

LINZ also told me that officials have been directed to consider legal gaps at the local government level: options for fixing gaps in district plans, for example, that may allow inappropriate development on former Crown pastoral land.

And yet, the central government part of “local and central government action”, conservation-wise, remains elusive. In short, I wrote to Ministers asking "what action?", and was reassured that there is action! Where we disagree, I guess, is on the efficacy of the actions.

Protecting the economic viability of Crown pastoral farming is a limited sort of response, insofar as such farming is itself damaging. Then, the Minister goes on to talk about tenure review. But this, too, is as much of a cause of conservation problems as a solution to them:

“Tenure review is one of the options that the Government is supporting in the Mackenzie Basin, with some areas being protected through tenure review as public conservation land, some covenanted, and other areas being freeholded. This process will meet the strategy we have promoted on pastoral land. The Government is committed to continuing the tenure review programme, just as it is committed to protecting the landscape, and ensuring that pastoral land is economic. The new system for setting pastoral lease rentals based on the earning capacity of the property is an example of this. We will continue to explore and evaluate all alternatives, to enable sustainable farming and effectively protect the basin’s unique values.

“Tenure review has already delivered important economic gains in the high country, and pastoral farmers have been able to diversify their farming operations by making better use of their productive land, or embarking into tourism opportunities. On the conservation side, better public access and recreation opportunities have been established, along with the protection of distinctive and rare ecosystems.”

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment noted in her high country report the official tendency to describe advantages of tenure review, without assessing the policy’s net effects. LINZ’ response to my OIA showed the same thing.

Let me try to put it another way. The Crown Pastoral Land Act provides for tenure review. The policy has been progressed under both Labour and National governments, in largely similar terms, except for some matters of detail. This is all old news.

We also have quite a lot of evidence now about how tenure review and Crown pastoral land management are working. That evidence seems to show that they are not working in a way that gives proper effect, on the ground, as it were, to the terms of the governing Act.

That’s my question: what will the government therefore do or change, to make sure the law is followed?

“The Government has taken the initiative and, under our policies, has directed officials to consider all options as part of the tenure review process and to work collaboratively with farmers and the community to ensure the best outcomes are achieved. These initiatives have all taken place since the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released her report on the high country. Her recommendations have been considered, and have influenced these new policies. I continue to work closely with my colleagues, the Minister for Land Information and the Minister of Agriculture, to ensure that good stewardship and positive relationships are fostered.”

The PCE’s recommendations, delivered in 2009, may have been considered, but seem to have influenced things, if at all, only slightly. None of the “initiatives and … policies” outlined above I would understand to be a proper response to her report, or anything beyond what this government would have done anyway. This is ineffectual tinkering at the margins, in response to a failure of present policies expertly diagnosed, but paid only lip service by the government.

The bigger problem though, for present purposes, isn’t a conservation one, it’s that there’s no political impetus. Without getting all Zen about it, if there’s no political problem, is there in fact a problem? Despite Mackenzie advocates’ best efforts, this isn’t on the political radar, yet. Until then, it’s business as usual.