Change in the high country: Environmental stewardship and tenure review


The high country of the South Island is a special place. As a teenager I kayaked on Lake Heron, and can still recall the silence. Many New Zealanders feel a similarly strong emotional pull from those great mountain valleys and basins.

For many decades most of the high country has been leased by the Crown to farmers who have chiefly run merino sheep on the land. Over recent years, many of these leases have been terminated in the process called ‘tenure review’. In almost all cases, this has resulted in a splitting of the leased land into productive land owned by the former lessee, and conservation land still owned by the Crown but managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC). 

An investigation into the outcomes and process of high country tenure review has resulted in this independent report to Parliament. Although many aspects of tenure review are controversial, the report is focused on environmental issues, not on legal and financial issues. The last section contains several recommendations to Ministers.

A major driver for tenure review is that the continuing economic viability of high country pastoral farming has become marginal on many properties and the pressure is on to diversify. Tourism has become increasingly important and is linked into the marketing of the fine merino wool clip. It seems that the pastoral legacy and the image of the sheep have become more important economically than the wool from the sheep.

Although review of the high country pastoral leases was widely supported in the early 1990s, this is no longer the case. The positions of different groups are strongly polarised, and battle lines have been drawn across the land and between the people and groups trying to manage it. Publishing opinions on tenure review has led to verbal attacks, calls for professional sanctions and physical threats. Debates in the media have been heated. Farmers report being abused by members of the public. Ngāi Tahu report racial tension, abuse, threats to significant Maori sites, and denial of tangata whenua access to sites in tenure review.

The objectives and process governing reviews of leasehold properties were formalised in the Crown Pastoral Land Act in 1998, although the underlying ‘philosophy’ is that of the reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that era, one guiding principle was that the state should not be involved in production that can be undertaken by the private sector. It followed that publicly owned farmland and forests should be split into privately owned production land and publicly owned land to be used for conservation and recreation.

The dissolution of high country leases can be seen as a last stage of this land reform. Two of the government agencies created during the reform era play the central roles in the review of the leases. Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) runs the process, and DoC advises on individual reviews and takes over the management of the land retained by the Crown. Almost a quarter of the leasehold properties have been through the tenure review process.

While the logic of single use and clear ownership is appealing, it became clear during this investigation that its application to the high country is challenging and that the simple ‘split model’ is leading to some problematic outcomes. For instance, land that is of marginal value for production is not necessarily of particular value for conservation and recreation, but ends up by default in DoC management. It is significant that in 2005 the Government confirmed its willingness to remain a high country lessor indefinitely.

Much of the controversy around tenure review is focused on property rights and the accompanying financial issues. Tenure review was originally expected to be fiscally neutral for the Crown, but the reality has been very different. The valuation method used by LINZ also has implications for setting rents on land still in leasehold.

These financial issues are outside the scope of this investigation which is centred on the public interest in the natural environment: biodiversity, landscape, soil conservation, replenishment of aquifers and streams, and water quality. The public interest in the natural environment has strong connections with economic and social dimensions, such as agriculture, tourism, recreation and access.

Public concerns have mainly focused on three issues: loss of lower altitude ecosystems, impact on landscapes, and public access to the high country. On becoming Minister of Land Information in 2006, Hon David Parker responded to these concerns by pulling lakeside leasehold properties out of the tenure review process and requiring Ministerial approval of reviews near completion. And over time in response to Cabinet direction, both LINZ and DoC have become more skilled in delivering better environmental outcomes from tenure reviews.

The concern about the preservation of lower altitude ecosystems follows from tenure reviews resulting in only a small amount of lower altitude land being denoted as conservation land. The opportunity to preserve whole altitude sequences has generally not been taken. Any remaining indigenous biodiversity at lower altitudes is likely to disappear under intensified production. Short of creating yet more high country parks that span a wide altitude range, the way ahead would be to place remaining patches of biodiversity under covenants when privatising productive land.

There are (at least) two concerns about the impact of tenure review on high country landscapes.

One concern comes from the potential division of privatised land into residential sections and lifestyle blocks, and its effect on lake views in particular. This is largely a ‘bolted horse’ issue, since a directive from Cabinet in 2007 required lakeside properties to be withdrawn from tenure review unless the Crown retained land close to the lakes or there were controls on development. LINZ now exerts much more control over this. It is worth noting that houses can be screened by trees, painted to blend in with the landscape, and even demolished, and so the environmental impact may be able to be mitigated. As always, the devil is in the detail.

The other main landscape concern is the visual effect of straight horizontal lines separating green fertilised private land and brown DoC land. This occurs because altitude is a simple way of distinguishing between productive and non-productive land. However, some altitude shifts are natural, for example, the tree line. Vertical lines predating tenure review separating forest from grassland seem more intrusive, at least to my eyes. And wilding conifers dotted around like an unshaven chin and wandering above the treeline are surely a larger visual offence.

The potential loss of public access is the third concern. Fish and Game New Zealand have been significantly involved in individual property reviews, and so this concern has been systematically addressed.

I am more concerned about some other environmental issues.

The first is water quality. Increased production on newly privatised waterside land must lead to increased concentrations of phosphate and nitrate in water. The clarity of the high country lakes should not be taken for granted.

The second is the spread of weeds: broom, gorse, briar, lupins and conifers. The high country is on a trajectory back toward woody species. A slow advance of scrubland and even beech forests in limited areas can occur, but a general return to the original indigenous species is not feasible.

Many of those anxious about the impacts of tenure review are concerned about its incremental nature, namely that it is a change in the ownership and use of a huge amount of Crown land that is happening without oversight or strategic direction. This concern is valid. For this and for other reasons I have recommended the creation of a High Country Commission.

I am aware that the timing of a recommendation to form a new government agency could scarcely be worse. Yet the cost of such a body would be small compared with the expenditure Government has already made on tenure review. And such a Commission could be given a limited lifetime to accomplish a set of clear tasks.

A High Country Commission would provide a locus for the many diverse interests in the high country, and could get people talking to, rather than past, each other. LINZ is focused on private financial transactions between leaseholders and the Crown; DoC is focused on creating and managing a network of high country conservation parks. But a strategic overview that spans all the issues is lacking.

One major issue deserving of high level strategic attention is the spread of wilding conifers. It is not an exaggeration to describe the proliferation of weed trees in much of the high country as dramatic. Reduced numbers of sheep and rabbits (due to calicivirus) in recent years have led to less grazing of seedlings. DoC have a good control strategy but do not appear to be winning the battle. There could be potential for job creation here.

If this issue is looked at from a whole-of-environment point of view, a number of questions arise. Are there areas of the high country where we should seek to eradicate wilding conifers and other areas where we should allow them to grow? Trees store carbon and conserve soil. On the other hand, allowing trees to cover certain catchments such as the Waitaki would decrease the available flow of water used for generating hydroelectricity by as much as 40%. Wilding conifers have already changed landscapes.

The only high level strategy for the high country is DoC’s plan for the creation of 22 high country parks. Yet much of the land going into those parks has no special biodiversity value, and comparatively few people will be hardy enough to use them for recreation. With the addition of each park must come the need for significant ongoing Crown expenditure on pest and weed control, access roads, fences, tracks and huts. It is hard to see how this strategy yields the best national value for the conservation dollar.

Public funding for conservation will always be limited. Other models that sit between the extremes of unfettered private ownership and management on the one hand and pure DOC ownership and management on the other should be used more widely. Covenants and possibly performance-based financial incentives as well as local authority rules can all be used to support farmers and other owners in the stewardship role many already play.

Perspectives on the high country vary widely and different issues are entangled together. I hope this report goes some distance toward disentangling them.

Finally, I would like to thank the many people who were interviewed and provided a great deal of information and insight. I would also like to thank the staff who worked hard on this complex project, in particular Dr David Bull whose dedication and competence have been outstanding.

Conclusions and recommendations

Achievements of tenure review

An investigation that concludes with recommendations for change may be perceived as fundamentally negative. So it is important to stress that tenure review has led to some good outcomes, and has not been without innovation and improvement. 

Tenure review provides a way forward for marginally economic leasehold farms that can enhance both public and private interests. It allows for diversification on high country land, which may enable more sustainable land uses. 

At the same time, tenure review has provided opportunities to protect tussock grasslands and some remnant forests and wetlands across much of the eastern South Island. These are huge new recreational areas for trampers, mountain bikers, climbers, hunters, anglers, birdwatchers and others. There is the possibility of connecting the new parks through the Te Araroa track, which will eventually run the length of New Zealand.

Tenure review can also be used to maintain certain nationally significant landscapes. These are treasures for high country communities and visitors from all over the country, and also for international tourists, to the great benefit of New Zealand as a whole.

Refinements to the tenure review process have allowed the Crown to take a share in any potential windfall profits from subdivision and development of pastoral land. Potentially interested parties including state-owned enterprises, Fish and Game, TRoNT, conservation and recreation groups, scientists and local people have the opportunity to publicly express their concerns for the high country. A new form of sustainable management covenant has been devised. The national importance of high country lakes has been recognised.

Moreover, considering the dozens of individual reviews now in process, much time and effort has gone into assessing high country leasehold land and in negotiating tenure review proposals. It would be wasteful to abandon all this work, and potentially very stressful for lessees.

On this basis, the tenure review process as a whole should not be discontinued. Nevertheless, there is no justification for completing individual reviews where the public interest is not protected adequately. The previous Government wisely indicated that it is prepared to remain a lessor indefinitely where that is appropriate.

I recommend that:

1.  The Commissioner of Crown Lands proceeds with individual tenure reviews of pastoral leases under the Crown Pastoral Land Act, provided that proposals and settlements are demonstrably in the wider public interest.

In particular, the CCL and the Minister for Land Information must be confident that SIVs on the land will be protected, and ecologically sustainable management will be achieved. 

The need for oversight and monitoring

Prior to the CPLA, about 20% of the area of the South Island was Crown land under restrictive pastoral lease. Lease by lease, approximately half of that land is being opened up to private development, while the rest is retained for public conservation. Thus tenure review results in an immense change in land ownership and land use. 

This change is coming at a considerable cost to the public. Quarter of the way through the tenure review process, at least $120M has been spent in settlements and in whole property purchases. At the same time, approximately 300,000 hectares of publicly owned land has been privatised.

Tenure review by its very nature is a sequence of incremental changes, leasehold property by leasehold property. Incremental changes lead to cumulative effects. The sheer area of pastoral lease land is such that the cumulative effects of tenure review decisions have implications for regional and even national environmental issues. These include biodiversity, lake and basin landscapes, alpine tourism, soil conservation, carbon storage and hydroelectricity generation. There may also be adverse effects on the fine wool clip, lowland irrigation and water supply to urban centres. 

Good outcomes therefore require that individual tenure review decisions are made in the context of a long-term, high-level strategy for the high country as a whole. However, LINZ consider that they are not responsible for the cumulative effects of tenure review.

The Minister of Land Information between May 2006 and November 2008, Hon. David Parker, saw the need for oversight. During his term, all preliminary and substantive proposals became subject to review by LINZ senior management, and subject to funding approval by the Minister of Land Information in consultation with the Minister for Conservation. At the same time, all lakeside properties were withdrawn from review unless stringent conditions were met.

Tenure review under the CPLA is not merely a regulatory decision, but also a policy decision about Crown assets. It is elsewhere considered appropriate for elected Ministers to take such policy decisions. For example, under the Crown Minerals Act 1991, the Crown decides each year how much land should be made available for mining and gas or oil permits based on its energy policies. In that case, it is accepted that the Minister of Energy is best placed to act in the Crown’s best interests in deciding what resources should be made available and when.

However, direct Ministerial involvement in individual decisions is not sustainable. High country issues are complex, technical, interrelated and contentious, requiring considerable resources to address. Key objectives such as ‘ecologically sustainable management’ may mean something very different for one part of the high country than they do for another. The problem remains that the Crown’s objectives can only reliably be realised in the long term through consistent oversight and the development of an explicit strategy. 

Neither of the two principal agencies involved in tenure review has the capacity or the mandate to be concerned with the high country as a whole. LINZ’s role is one of administering the Crown pastoral lease system, including lease termination, under the Land Act and CPLA. DoC’s Southern Conservancies identify significant inherent values of high country land, manage land for conservation purposes, work for threatened species recovery, and provide for public access and recreation via the creation of a park network. 

A new body is urgently needed to provide strategic overview and direction to tenure review. Such a ‘High Country Commission’ would monitor cumulative effects of tenure review, develop the detail of a strategy directed at achieving the objectives of the numerous relevant Government policies, and advise the CCL accordingly.

Recommending an institutional form for a High Country Commission is beyond the scope of this investigation, but it might be appropriately established as an Autonomous Crown Entity with a small core staff and others seconded from relevant government agencies. To be effective, the Commission must be chaired by a professional director and have a membership inclusive of all interests; those of farmers, environmental groups, Ngai Tahu, the tourism industry, local authorities and so on. The Commission should be based in the South Island, possibly at Lincoln University.

I recommend that:

2.  The Government establishes a High Country Commission for a fixed period to advise on all significant aspects of the public interest in tenure review and in the high country more generally.

Functions and nature of a High Country Commission

The High Country Commission should be charged with particular advisory tasks with an attached timeline. Its principal task would be to identify desired and achievable end states for different parts and types of high country, addressing such questions as:

  • Which parts of the high country are nationally high priorities for acquisition as public conservation land, because they are highly vulnerable environments that are inadequately protected nationwide, such as wetlands?
  • Which parts of the high country are priorities for acquisition as public conservation land, because they will significantly improve the contiguity, accessibility, recreational opportunities or whole-of-landscape character of existing conservation parks?
  • Which parts of the high country are marginal for both production and conservation? Who should manage them and for what purposes? What sustainable management covenants or other controls would be advisable to protect the public interest in these areas?
  • In which high country lakes and rivers is water quality, colour and clarity at risk from agricultural intensification, and what controls on reviewable land are necessary to mitigate those risks?
  • Which high country catchments, if any, can be afforested without significant adverse effects on water yields or indigenous ecosystems?
  • Of those catchments or sub-catchments that could be afforested, which, if any, are suitable candidate areas for native forest restoration?
  • Which high country landscapes are of national significance, and what controls on reviewable land are necessary to mitigate risks of inappropriate development or pest and weed infestation in those areas? 

Other tasks should include:

  • Advising the CCL as to which groups of pastoral leases should be reviewed together, which other land (if any) should be included in reviews, and which tenure reviews are high priority (refer s26, s27, s32 CPLA).
  • Monitoring the progress and achievements of tenure review, with particular attention to the potential for undesirable cumulative effects.
  • Devising a practical means of assessing ‘ecological sustainability’ with respect to high country pastoral land.
  • Reporting to Cabinet, and, if appropriate, to interested parties.

· Advising on other aspects of the public interest in the high country, such as management of existing pastoral lease land, or the potential for carbon storage.

The High Country Commission should engage with:

· Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu

· Regional councils, in regard to water quality and soil issues at a catchment level

· Territorial authorities, in regard to landscapes and development planning

· Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, and Federated Mountain Clubs, in regard to conservation and recreation uses of land

· Meat and Wool New Zealand and the High Country Accord, in regard to productive uses of land

The High Country Commission should seek advice from selected scientific experts from the universities and Crown Research Institutes as required. An inclusive high-level process is likely to be more meaningful, efficient, and appropriate to considering third party aspirations at a strategic level, than increasing public participation in individual reviews.

Environmental reporting for the high country

The Cabinet directed officials to report annually on progress against Government High Country Objectives, and deferred the second such report until 2008. That report by LINZ, DoC and MAF provided much valuable information about positive outcomes of tenure review. But it omitted virtually all mention of adverse outcomes. 

I recommend that:

3.  Cabinet directs the officials responsible for preparing the next South Island High Country Objectives report to include both environmental gains and environmental losses.


Matters covered in the report could properly include:

· Gains and losses of land assessed as having significant inherent value

· Gains and losses of land classified as acutely or chronically Threatened Environment

· Gains and losses of wetlands

· Gains and losses of rare environments

· Gains and losses of nationally threatened species and their habitats

· An assessment of changes in water quality and quantity in major high country lakes and rivers

· An assessment of the extent to which ecologically sustainable management has been attained on public and privately owned reviewed land

· An assessment of changes in agricultural productivity

· An estimate of capital expenditure required to complete tenure reviews in process

· An estimate of net increase or decrease in Crown return on high country pastoral lease land, including fencing, pest and weed control, income from leases and concessions, administration costs and tax revenue.

This information should cover the period from the start of tenure review under the Land Act, and all high country land.

The middle way - more mixed outcomes

The CPLA allows for a range of options for land use and management as outcomes of reviews of pastoral leases. However, most completed reviews have resulted in a division of the land between lower altitude production land in largely unencumbered freehold ownership, and higher altitude conservation parks. This simple split model:

  • Does not provide effective protection to some waterside SIVs and endangered bird habitats
  • Drives intensification on lakesides and river flats, threatening water quality
  • Leads to a huge conservation park network, mostly high-altitude tussock grasslands reached through easements across private land
  • Diverts resources from high conservation priorities such as lowland forests, dunelands and marine areas.
  • Does not allow for restoration of ecological communities that have been virtually eliminated
  • Breaks up whole altitude sequences, which have landscape and conservation value in themselves
  • Changes the character of high country farms, threatening a loss of pastoral heritage and landscape
  • Prevents high altitude grassland being used for summer grazing, which disfavours traditional merino farming and hence national fine wool production. 

Overall, these effects could make the high country less attractive to tourists, with potential regional and national consequences.

This simple split model is fostered by a single word in the CPLA. S24(b) gives two options for enabling “the protection of the SIVs of reviewable land”, namely:

(i) By the creation of protective mechanisms; or preferably

(ii) By the restoration of the land concerned to full Crown ownership and control.

As well as all the adverse effects above, this preference has added hundreds of thousands of hectares to public conservation land in the South Island, and appears likely to add as much again if carried to its conclusion. Protecting that land will place great demands on DoC resources. It is time to question how much grassland should be publicly owned conservation land. Any Government is of course entitled to have preferences, but these are better expressed in policy, not in legislation.

I recommend that:

4.  The Minister of Land Information proposes an amendment to the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998, namely, to remove the word “preferably” from s24(b)(i).

One alternative approach is retention of just the highest priority whole altitude sequences as public conservation land. This is the philosophy behind the whole property purchases funded by the National Heritage Fund and LINZ, including the St. James and Hakatere stations. 

Another alternative is management of a property for multiple uses, not just pasture or park. Controlled low-intensity grazing accompanied by pest, weed and erosion control may be sustainable in some circumstances, maintain the pastoral character of a landscape, and provide a source of productive income. Tools such as sustainable management covenants and whole farm management plans are available to guide management to multiple objectives. Such management can proceed under private ownership, or under public ownership using grazing permits and recreation concessions. 

For smaller areas of high natural value, private ownership under covenant with the QEII National Trust may be a good approach. There are already more than forty QEII covenants on high country properties. Not only are they comparatively cheap, versatile and rigorous, QEII covenants enjoy exceptionally high compliance rates nationwide. 

There seems to be a working assumption that all pastoral leases will go through tenure review. But it would be a mistake not to consider the status quo as a real option. High country pastoral farming is a highly valued cultural heritage. It has created and maintained the merino industry and the iconic open pastoral landscapes of the high country. 

Finally, some high country land has little present value for either conservation or pastoral production. Rather than trying to ‘shoehorn’ such land into one box or the other, it may be appropriate to search for other solutions. This may involve transferring it to local authorities and managing it for environmental purposes such as clean water yield, soil conservation or carbon storage. 

I recommend that:

5.  The Minister for Land Information directs the Commissioner of Crown Lands to encourage and adopt a wider range of land ownership and management models within tenure review proposals.

In principle, management for environmental purposes, even biodiversity enhancement or recovery of indigenous species, can be done by farmers. Pastoral leaseholders are already required to control pests and water weed, limit stock numbers and obtain permits for environmentally detrimental activities such as scrub clearance. 

The pastoral lease system provides for penalties including fines, further stock limitations and even forfeiture of lease, and perhaps incentives in the form of relatively low rentals. It may be appropriate for farmers to receive financial incentives for the provision of environmental services in the future, especially as the economic viability of high country pastoralism appears increasingly marginal. 

There are several different ways in which farmers could be engaged to provide additional environmental services. If land is made freehold subject to stringent consent conditions, its valuation should be less than if it were unencumbered, and hence the financial settlement would move in favour of the farmer. The Henroost sustainable management covenant includes an annual “rentcharge” that is to be waived if there is no significant breach of conditions.

Even without going through tenure review, rentals of existing leases could be waived or reduced in recognition of superior stewardship. Grazing licence fees or recreation concession fees on public conservation land could also be reduced. 

Whatever the arrangement, it is important that environmental goals are clear, measurable and accompanied by outcome-based penalties and incentives.

Safeguarding national interests

The lack of strategic direction in the tenure review process and the potential for cumulative harm can be addressed by the creation of a High Country Commission. But such a Commission could only influence future tenure reviews. It will not change any ‘bolted horses’, that is, any undesirable environmental outcomes of reviews that are already complete. 

The potential for undesirable outcomes arises because there is a disconnection between the CPLA and the RMA. Tenure review seeks to remove management constraints from production land, taking for granted that any adverse environmental effects will be controlled by RMA authorities. But local authorities can only control use and development of land to the extent that relevant plans allow. While high country councils clearly want to acknowledge significant natural values and protect them from inappropriate development, regional and local plans as they stand may not be able to adequately manage land use intensification in practice. 

One particular concern raised about tenure review has been that it has not provided legal protection for indigenous biodiversity on lower altitude land, and that intensification will destroy what remains. This investigation shows that there is some justification for that concern However, there is a need for pragmatism and perspective. While there should be protection for the few remnant wetlands, gullies of native forest and so on, there is very little indigenous cover left on lower altitude high country except for matagouri and tussock. The forests that once covered most of the high country have been gone for centuries. 

Another concern has been the effect of subdivision of privatised land, and construction of buildings intruding on iconic views, particularly around lakes. But buildings can be designed to blend in, can be screened by native trees, and because they can be demolished are not an irreversible change. Indeed, low density residential use of lakeside land may have relatively little impact on water quality and landscape, compared to intensive production. 

So while adverse environmental effects could occur from inappropriate development of former pastoral lease land, such effects may be avoidable. There is even the potential for net positive environmental outcomes, especially if developments are encouraged to include elements of ecological restoration. A blanket ban on development is neither necessary nor constructive. 

Nonetheless, the national significance of many high country lakes and outstanding landscapes is such that some effective means of control on development is essential. Fortunately the RMA provides for Ministerial intervention to address exactly such matters. 

I recommend that:

6.  The Minister for the Environment calls in development applications that are proposals of national significance due to their potential for significant adverse effects on lakes or outstanding landscapes in the high country.

Protecting water quality in the high country

The purity and clarity of the water in high country lakes and rivers is of great national importance. New Zealanders treasure the intense blue of Lake Tekapo and the reflection of the mountains in Lake Hawea, and so do the tourists who come to see them. 

Some lakeshore land privatised through tenure reviews is being fertilised and running stock, and there are few, if any, regulatory restrictions on future intensification. There is the potential for an irreversible decline in water quality and appearance, like that already seen in Lake Hayes and major North Island lakes. 

Despite a clear understanding that ecologically sustainable management has due regard to water quality outside the land in question, LINZ and the CCL have consistently considered water quality issues to be outside the ambit of tenure review. Consequently no protective measures have been created to maintain water quality after review. 

Nutrient discharge from land use activities including pastoral farming can be considered a discharge of a contaminant in circumstances where it may enter water in contravention of the RMA. It is a function of regional councils to control the use of land to maintain and enhance water quality, and this can be done through rules in regional plans.

There are already promising approaches to these resource management problems. One is Environment Bay of Plenty’s Rule 11 of their Regional Water and Land Plan, relating to catchments of five of the Rotorua lakes, and another is Environment Waikato’s Proposed Waikato Regional Plan Variation 5 – Lake Taupo. In both cases, the regional council has aimed to set water quality targets for the lakes, and has developed ‘cap-and-trade’ models to manage nutrient use on land. These approaches set the environmental limits for land use intensity in the lake catchments, but leave options and decision making with individual land managers.

It is imperative that ECan and ORC promptly make rules that ensure the water quality of high country lakes is protected. 

I recommend that:

7.  Environment Canterbury and the Otago Regional Council introduce rules for monitoring and controlling discharges of nutrients, pathogens and sediment to iconic high country lakes. 

As it will be some years before any such rules are operative, it may be advisable for future tenure reviews to contain provisions for protecting water quality. These could include sustainable management covenants allowing for nitrogen and phosphorus discharge limits to be set by the appropriate regional council. The proposed High Country Commission would appropriately advise on these matters. 

Controlling wilding conifers

Wilding conifers are spreading over both private and public land in the high country. If uncontrolled they will rapidly and thoroughly colonise high country grasslands, preventing grazing and radically changing the ecology and the scenic character of the landscape. Extensive afforestation reduces water yields and stream baseflows, which in due course could have national consequences, by reducing water input to major hydroelectric power and irrigation schemes. Dense stands of P. contorta are not even a good resource compared to plantation forestry or native reforestation.

Key considerations in wilding tree control programmes are that, once established, eradication becomes much more expensive, and that controls must be sustained until dispersed seed is no longer viable. However, government support for conifer control programmes has been sporadic, and DoC are currently funded at a fraction of the level sought in 2004, based on a detailed wilding conifer strategy.

Other woody weeds may ultimately pose a greater threat than conifers, particularly broom and gorse due to their more persistent seed banks. Infestations of these species should also be addressed as a secondary objective of wilding conifer control.

Increased government expenditure is hard to justify in the current recession. Wilding conifer control appears to be a worthy exception. Not only will control costs increase exponentially if they are not addressed promptly and consistently, but also eradication is labour-intensive and hence could provide much-needed employment opportunities. 

I recommend that:

8.  The Minister of Conservation and the Minister of Tourism seek Cabinet approval for sufficient additional funding for a sustained woody weed eradication programme.

Parks and prioritisation

The land retained in Crown ownership after tenure review is given by default to DoC to manage. No other government agency has a use for ‘unproductive’ land.

The majority of National Parks are in the South Island. There are now eleven conservation parks (or equivalent) in the high country, and a further four in the rest of the South Island. DoC is also responsible for numerous reserves and ‘conservation areas’. The conservation estate in the South Island now comprises more than six million hectares. At least five further high country conservation parks have been proposed, two of which (Hawea and Oteake) have already been gazetted.

In this investigation a number of concerns about the new high country conservation parks have arisen. Most contain little lower altitude land, and hence represent a restricted range of land environments with few whole altitude sequences, which have particular conservation and landscape value. Some new conservation parks, for example the Te Kahui Kaupeka and Te Papanui parks, appear relatively difficult to access. Riverbeds, which are valuable as endangered bird habitats and for recreational access, but are not reviewable land, have not yet been incorporated into the parks. 

As highlighted by the previous Government, it is important that the high country park network contain “a full range of large scale landscape / ecology”. More acquisitions may be advisable to strengthen the lower altitude components of some existing parks. This could also have the secondary benefit of improving accessibility. The objective would also seem to require allowance for restoring some of the high country woodland ecosystems that have been virtually or completely destroyed by historic vegetation clearance. 

This objective should be achievable without completing the proposed park network. Further, the public interest in much of the high country pastoral lease land goes beyond DoC’s key functions as set out in the Conservation Act, which centre on maintaining and conserving natural and historic resources. Ecosystem services that could be provided by such land, such as soil conservation, water yield and carbon storage, do not necessarily require ownership and management by DoC. Moreover, much of this land has some potential for productive use. It may be preferable for some high country conservation land that has relatively low conservation values to be managed for multiple uses, or even disposed of in order to fund other acquisitions. 

At a national level, conservation parks are being oversupplied in one part of the country. Twenty parks in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps is simply not a good use of limited conservation resources. Of course, it is only in the South Island high country that such large areas of land are being made available for DoC acquisition. But our public conservation land should not be so dominated by dry high altitude pastoral land in one part of the country. 

The imbalance between conservation lands in the South Island and those in the more populous North Island is becoming very marked, as is the imbalance between alpine / high country and coastal / lowland conservation land, let alone marine conservation areas. The case for nationwide strategic planning for conservation land is increasingly compelling.

“The effectiveness of systematic conservation planning comes from its efficiency in using limited resources to achieve conservation goals, its defensibility and flexibility in the face of competing land uses, and its accountability in allowing decisions to be critically reviewed.”

The apparent lack of any such system was identified as a concern by the Auditor-General four years ago.

I recommend that:

9.  The Minister of Conservation reviews the policies and Conservation Management Strategies relating to the creation of high country conservation parks. These strategies should aim to create a representative land holding of high conservation value, which can be effectively managed and restored without drawing resources away from high conservation priorities elsewhere in New Zealand.