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Public access benefits for the high country

Public access benefits for the high country

Public access to high country conservation parks and reserves is one of the major benefits of tenure review of South Island pastoral leases, the Department of Conservation says.

DOC Canterbury Conservator Mike Cuddihy was commenting today on runholders’ concerns that DOC’s acquisition of high country land would destroy the merino industry and farmers’ way of life.

“Let’s get the debate on the high country into perspective,” Mr Cuddihy said. “A large area of high country that till now has been restricted to the public will be opened up for all New Zealanders to enjoy. Farmers will be able to diversify into other activities on their land. The tourism industry will benefit.”

“The public will have free access to the new conservation parks and reserves, where they can take advantage of recreation opportunities, as they wish. Let’s not confuse this access as of right with the farmers’ right of refusal of access on land they manage.”

Land covenants for conservation were not the answer, in general, because ownership and trespass rights would remain with the farmer, not the public, Mr Cuddihy said.

That 64 per cent of 304 pastoral lessees had completed or entered tenure review since 1998 suggested that farmers see benefits in it for them, Mr Cuddihy said. They would be free to determine their own economic futures on freeholded land, for example, in viticulture, orchards, forestry, deer farming, ecotourism, or continue with merino farming.

“Life in the high country is changing regardless of tenure review, and in response to choices the farmers themselves are making,” Mr Cuddihy said.

“The musterers on horseback are increasingly being replaced by men in Toyotas and helicopters. High country communities are becoming depopulated as farmers shed staff in the pursuit of economic efficiency.”

“New jobs in the high country are going to come from other activities than high country pastoral farming, tourism for example,” Mr Cuddihy said. “And this isn’t just my imagination. The Otago Central Rail Trail is an excellent example of revitalising communities along its 150km length.”

Some merino production would be lost as land is transferred into high country conservation parks and reserves, and as farmers diversify away from merino farming on freeholded land, Mr Cuddihy said.

“Farmers’ claims of 600,000 stock units being lost from the high country appear to be exaggerated, and one-sided. A drop in stock units was always envisaged under the Crown Pastoral Lease Act.”

But change was afoot in the merino industry in any case, with or without tenure review, Mr Cuddihy said. Fine wools were increasingly coming off the back of improved breeds grazing fertile lands, rather than from sheep on marginal lands.

“Farmers know that tenure review is voluntary, they don’t have to enter if they don’t want to, and they know it involves a deal - they get to freehold productive land in exchange for land with high conservation values being protected permanently, preferably by way of return to full Crown ownership.”

Full protection was required for conservation land, because in many cases, even light grazing caused environmental impacts on native species, Mr Cuddihy said. Cattle damaged trees, shrubs and wetlands. Sheep preferentially grazed palatable species. Burning and grazing over many years had changed the species composition of the high country.

“DOC may allow a little grazing where sheep can remove introduced pasture grasses, benefiting native flora till they regenerate to the point when sheep can no longer access this land. In such cases, sheep will be managed for conservation reasons not for agricultural production.”

“Tenure review will benefit native species, such as many plants, lizards and insects that occur nowhere else in New Zealand. With the sheep gone, high country conservation areas will revert naturally from tussock and grasslands into a mosaic of shrubs, forest, alpine herbfields, as well as tussocklands.”

“Finally, criticisms of DOC secrecy over the locations and sizes of the high country conservation parks and reserves are totally unfounded. The outcome of tenure review will largely shape the parks and reserves network, not the other way around. The reason DOC cannot say exactly where the parks and reserves will be is simply because we do not yet know. The farmers are part of the equation, there is no secrecy here.”

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