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Speech Opening the National Mountains Conference

Hon Sandra Lee
Minister of Conservation


Speech by Minister of Conservation to open the National Mountains Conference, St David Street lecture theatre, Otago University, Dunedin


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[Mihi]


I am delighted to be able to join you for New Zealand¡¦s first national celebration of the UN International Year of Mountains.

New Zealand is a land largely dominated by mountains.

For Maori, several of these mountains have special status as sacred maunga.

As Ngai Tahu, my maunga is Aoraki or Mt Cook.

And it gives me great pleasure to know that this majestic peak is protected in the Mt Cook National Park Overlying its national park status is its designation as a topuni, recognising the importance of this mountain to the Ngai Tahu people.

It is also overlain with world heritage status as part of the Te Wahi Pounamu World Heritage Area.

This mountain is revered by Ngai Tahu, it is treasured by the New Zealand public and it is internationally recognised as one of the world¡¦s great natural features. And we all need to work together to ensure its special values are safeguarded.

The International Year of Mountains follows on from the 1992 Earth Summit and Agenda 21, which highlighted the urgency of the conservation of mountain lands.

Mountains are powerful landforms, shaping the land and the climate, but they are also fragile ecosystems, rich in biological diversity. They are popular - often overly popular - target areas for recreation, and are a hub of cultural heritage for peoples everywhere.

Around the world, mountains are threatened by global warming, economic exploitation, alien species, urbanization and mass tourism. Compared to their might, we are puny, yet the future of mountain ecosystems is in our hands.

Internationally, the year is an opportunity to move mountain issues higher on the global agenda, and to serve as a springboard for long-term action.

I regard it as a timely opportunity for New Zealand to advance work on some key issues affecting our mountain lands and high country, and for New Zealanders to celebrate their unique mountain heritage.

Before going on to look at some of the issues that the Year has highlighted for New Zealand, I would like to acknowledge some of our outstanding mountain and high country champions.

Of course there are many others, including writers and artists who have inspired us with the beauty and wonder of the mountains, and I can mention only a few tonight:

Professor Alan Mark, one of the organisers of this conference, a researcher, advocate and enthusiastic conservationist committed to the preservation of mountain lands and tussock grasslands.

More than 30 years ago Alan established a detailed photographic monitoring system in Mount Aspiring National Park to record the recovery of ecosystems as aerial recovery reduced deer numbers. This is one of the longest-running monitoring studies in New Zealand and it is typical of Alan¡¦s commitment to sharing his knowledge that he has passed all his data on to the Department of Conservation.

I also acknowledge the Miss E L Hellaby Indigenous Grasslands Research Trust, which has for many years provided financial support for research in the mountains, supporting students and assisting with land acquisition.

The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, which has consistently advocated for the protection of mountain ecology and mountain experiences

Federated Mountain Clubs, a strong voice for mountain recreation, wilderness, and for protecting the mountains against the encroachment of commercialism.

The New Zealand Alpine Club, involved in early exploration and documentation of South Island mountains and a leading exponent of mountain recreation.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the mountains themselves that are the theme of this gathering.

We are blessed with an outstanding mountain heritage, much of it protected in national parks and wilderness areas. Our mountain lands are among the world¡¦s great wild places.

As a mark of their uniqueness two areas have been set aside as World Heritage Areas:

„h The south-west New Zealand world heritage area, Te Wahi Pounamu, claimed to be the world¡¦s best modern representation of the ancient biota of Gondwanaland and home to unique plant associations and animal species found nowhere else on earth, such as the kea, the Haast tokoeka and Okarito Brown kiwi, takahe, blue duck, and long-tailed bat.

„h Tongariro National Park, for its important Maori cultural associations and outstanding volcanic features ¡V the first area in the world to receive dual world Heritage status of cultural landscape and natural landscape.

Mountains are sacred to Maori - yet many city dwelling Maori children have not experienced a mountain, or know the mountains they whakapapa back to.

It is one of aims this year to encourage all young people to visit and learn about their local mountains.

The Department of Conservation will support this by providing resources for schools, and through focusing the annual Conservation Week celebrations in August around a theme of Mountains.

New Zealand¡¦s mountain lands were the last in this country to feel the impacts of humans and their pests and weeds. Nevertheless, alien invaders of our mountain lands seriously threaten the integrity of natural ecosystems and habitats.

Tiny invaders like mouse-eared hawkweed are capable of out-competing our indigenous grasses and herbs on degraded sites, but some of the most aggressive plant pests can invade healthy native communities.

Among the wilding trees, Douglas fir can invade beech forests. Tussock hawkweed now seems to be getting a hold everywhere, from valley floors to alpine herbfields, and is showing an ability to suppress the regeneration of natives. Hawkweeds are a menace to both conservation and to high country farming.

There has been a turnaround in land occupier and community attitudes towards wilding trees in the high country. Organisations as diverse as Otago Forest & Bird and the Canterbury Regional Council have been active on tree control.

The government¡¦s biodiversity funding package has increased DOC¡¦s capacity to tackle wilding tree infestations on conservation land and is ramping up again next year.

A co-operative approach between DOC and regional councils is essential, however, because wilding tree seeds driven by a high wind do not respect differing land tenures.

******


I want to talk about an alien invader problem that is fortunately confined to the South Island.

Himalayan thar in sufficiently high numbers are capable of causing the local destruction of our world-renowned alpine herbs, grasses and shrubs.

I know that the opportunity to hunt thar in this country is valued by some, but I am fast losing patience on this issue.

Thar have been popping up on our mountains well away from the feral range, too far for the animals to have got there of their own accord.

I can only conclude that they are there because misguided people have moved them.

Constantly having to locate and eliminate isolated thar populations is a severe drain on DOC¡¦s limited resources.

I am not at all sure that a policy of having a managed feral population in one part of the Southern Alps and trying to exclude them elsewhere is sustainable.

The department has been innovative in its approach to wild animal control.

Otago Conservancy proved that its judas goat technique could be transferred to thar, and is about to publish a report on its first 5 years experience with the judas thar method giving us additional tools to help control the spread of this introduced species.

Himalayan thar are a magnificent animal but they evolved as part of the Himalyan mountain ecosystem - elsewhere they damage mountain ecologies whether here or in south Africa where conservation authorities are trying to eradicate them from Table Mountain.

The core of the Southern Alps is mostly national park or conservation land.

While the control of alien invaders there is challenging, the list of pests is relatively small.

It seems to me that it is inefficient for the department to consider each pest separately: if aerial control is undertaken for goats for example, then it should be more efficient to deal with all large animal pests in the same operation.

This may require the different pest plans and strategies to be more fully integrated.

It seems to me that the Southern Alps is a place where I can ask the department to take an integrated approach to pest management, and I have done so.

I have asked the department to prepare a Southern Alps Biodiversity Strategy and they will shortly be reporting to me on the scope and nature of such a strategy.

******

The South Island high country has a special place in the hearts of many New Zealanders. It is also the home of many of our threatened species, distinctive ecosystems and most valued settings for recreation.

But the high country is changing.

While you can still encounter characters and scenes straight out of a Speight¡¦s advertisement, the high country is no longer the sole preserve of the weather-beaten musterer in a brown oilskin.

There are now winemakers, poets, tour operators, painters, cross country skiers, snow-mobilers, conservation volunteers and DOC workers, visitors in 4WDs, lifestyle sub-dividers and operators of retreats for the wealthy.

And land owners and occupiers who are recent arrivals in this country.

Much of the high country is in Crown pastoral leasehold tenure, a form of perpetually renewable private occupation designed after World War II (Land Act 1948) to facilitate the extensive grazing of sheep.

I question whether the current legal and administrative arrangements that apply to pastoral leasehold land are adequate to safeguard the public interest in light of social and economic change in the high country.

The Crown Pastoral Lands Act 1998 was an attempt to deal with some of this change.

It reshaped the tenure review of pastoral leases and required the Commissioner of Crown Lands to consider conservation values as well as farming values.

In my view it has not been a total success. Tenure review is voluntary and only produces good conservation outcomes when there is a good balance of freeholdable and conservation land on the property or there are local economic drivers that overcome any lack of balance.

The question is begged has the process become too cumbersome. A property by property approach on its own makes it difficult to achieve coherent and consistent conservation outcomes.

If tenure review is to remain as the major tool for achieving nature conservation and public access outcomes in the high country, then in my view the government needs to take stock and look for improvements. The purchase of key runs - on a willing seller, willing buyer basis - is a proven technique for achieving better conservation outcomes, but pastoral leases are highly priced at the moment.

While the tenure review process remains voluntary, I believe it is important to ask whether or not the public interest is adequately served by the day to day administration of pastoral leases. Pastoral lessees have the right to treat the public as trespassers, even though they are occupying Crown land.

Social and economic change in the high country has seen an increasing tendency for lessees or their managers to exercise those rights.

It seems obvious to me that when trespass rights were conferred on lessees by the 1948 legislation, parliament surely did not intend that they be used to exclude all forms of public recreation especially not walking and tramping.

I note that the high country leaseland that was vested in the Ngai Tahu as part of their Treaty settlement contain wander at will provisions guaranteeing public access.

There is no mechanism in the Crown Pastoral Lands Act to address public access issues other than tenure review.

I do not believe this is satisfactory.

The Commissioner of Crown Lands is required to seek DOC¡¦s advice on natural heritage issues, but he can only do this when a lessee applies for his consent.

Some lessees have proceeded with significant developments without seeking the Commissioner¡¦s consent. I am also concerned that a number of lessees are not meeting their obligations to control alien weeds and pests

The Commissioner is supported by a tiny network of agents in Christchurch, Dunedin and Alexandra who are all under pressure with tenure review negotiations, not all of which will bear fruit.

Is this the best arrangement for safeguarding the public interest in pastoral leases?

I doubt it. I believe as a government we should be taking a close look at these issues.

I appreciate that there is public concern about the increasing foreign ownership of our South Island high country. This reinforces my wish to see the public interest in the high country better safeguarded.

******

Late last year I pledged my support to designate two new wilderness areas within the next twelve months.

It gave me great pleasure today to announce that I am seeking public comment on my intention to gazette the Paparoa and the Adams Wilderness Areas.

In 1900, while exploring the Lord and Lambert valleys of the West Coast, the early explorer Charlie Douglas wrote:

¡§Let us keep a few spots in Westland uncontaminated by the ordinary tourist, the picnicker and the photographic fiend, some almost impassable place where what is inside can be left to the imagination¡Kkeep them for those who care to risk their necks and enjoy scenery in a state of nature.¡¨

As you can see, wilderness is not a new concept, it forms an integral part of New Zealand¡¦s recreation opportunities.

This announcement tonight is important because on a world-wide scale ¡§wildlands¡¨ are a diminishing resource and in some countries have all but disappeared.

It is thanks to the foresight shown by Federated Mountain Clubs who in the1970¡¦s recognised the erosion of opportunities to create wilderness areas and set about publicising and promoting the concept of wilderness, that we now have the opportunity to create these areas.

Both the Adams and the Paparoa Wilderness Areas were included in the FMC Publication ¡§Outdoor Recreation on the West Coast- a conservation plan¡¨ published in 1979.

The fact that New Zealand still has wilderness areas that are undeveloped and relatively unmodified by humans is a credit to FMC.

Many of these wilderness areas survive because of their remote location and difficult terrain, which makes other land uses economically marginal.

But even these remote places are under pressure from people and their activities, and incremental changes can occur that will mean that their wilderness character will be lost.

New Zealanders now have the opportunity, as a result of the Adams and Paparoa proposals, to ensure that the valuable resource of wilderness areas is formally preserved for future generations.

Even individuals who never visit a wilderness area may be satisfied in the knowledge that a part of their natural heritage has been retained, as far as possible, in its natural state.

As Aldo Leopold stated in his ¡§A Sand County Almanac¡¨ in 1948:

¡§Wilderness is a resource that can shrink but not grow.¡¨

If successful, these proposals will increase the number of wilderness areas in New Zealand to 10.

The creation of the Adams and Paparoa Wilderness Areas will ensure a balance in the range of recreation opportunities that are available in New Zealand.

Whilst there are some visitors who want to enjoy a high standard of facilities with easy access, there are others who seek a remote backcountry experience.

They prefer to be totally reliant on their outdoor skills and to be able to set their own timetable of where they will walk, how long they will take and where they will spend the night.

Wilderness management is about preserving the quality, character and integrity of the wildlands. Management is necessary in order to keep wilderness ¡§wild¡¨.

I am sure you will all agree that in this ever changing world with its fast-paced lifestyles it is important to know that there are some areas that have been set aside where one can get away from the trappings of modern day living.

The process that will be instigated as a result of tonight¡¦s announcement will ensure that the wilderness values of these areas are investigated and that the public has an opportunity to express their views on these proposals.

I welcome the support of FMC to achieve this outcome so as to meet current and longer term needs of all visitors to public conservation lands.

******


I want to conclude by noting that the mountains and high country typify the challenges we face in ensuring that the values for which New Zealand is renowned - wilderness, solitude, unique biodiversity and geology, outstanding recreational values ¡V are not diminished.

I extend my sincere appreciation and best wishes to everyone here and wish you well as we work together to ensure a sustainable future for our mountain and high country heritage.


ENDS

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