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Iwi warns Forest and Bird to back off over Waitaha

West Coast iwi Ngati Waewae has fired a solid warning shot across the bows of Forest and Bird and the West Coast Conservation Board, over moves to firm up protection for the Waitaha River.

The Waitaha River. Photo: Krzysztof Golik via Wikimedia Commons

Forest and Bird's West Coast chairwoman Kathy Gilbert, attended the board's meeting in Greymouth yesterday for support to have the pristine river catchment near Hokitika given National Park or Scenic Reserve status.

She said the hearings panel that declined Westpower's proposal for a hydro scheme on the river in August, had declared it an area of national significance that should never be disturbed.

The evidence from scientists and recreational experts presented at the hearings could be used to have DOC reclassify the Waitaha, and Forest and Bird was asking the Conservation Board to support that, Ms Gilbert said.

"The board's role is to promote the protection of an important piece of land. This is stewardship land at the moment and that is clearly inadequate."

The response from board member and Ngati Waewae chair Francois Tumahai was instant and blunt.

"We are disgusted that no-one has contacted us about this, as the Treaty partner.

"We will be pushing back on this; we and Makaawhio (South Westlandd iwi) oppose it and the board should not be making any decisions about it," Mr Tumahae said.

Board member Coraleen White asked Ms Gilbert if Forest and Bird took seriously its Treaty obligations to manawhenua.

"We work successfully with iwi around the country on many projects, but first and foremost we are a conservation organisation and we want to see the Act adhered to," Ms Gilbert said.

She said later that she had tried unsuccessfully to talk to iwi about the Forest and Bird proposal.

In the debate after the public forum, board chairman Dr Keith Morfett said he acknowledged the iwi views, but conservation considerations were paramount.

Francois Tumahai objected.

"They do not over-rule the Treaty," he said.

"That's bulls****."

Dr Morfett said he was passionate about the Waitaha, having hunted, tramped and climbed in the catchment over many years.

"(Westland Mayor) Bruce Smith is constantly telling us stewardship land should be re-assessed and distributed.

"Well, this land has just been re-assessed by DOC and recommended for more protection. We should be asking for a higher status for it either as National Park or a Water Conservation Area."

The Conservation Act provided for that approach from the board, Dr Morfett said.

Mr Tumahai ramped up his warning.

"I suggest you be very careful ... you have Treaty partner obligations and I will challenge you at the highest level. This is between the Crown and the iwi, not the Conservation Board.

"If you go ahead there will be ramifications. The board needs to tread carefully in its relationship with iwi."

Board member Inger Perkins said the board needed to find a way through the stand-off - not butt heads.

Veteran South Westland conservationist and eco-tourism operator Gerry McSweeney, found it.

Dr McSweeney, who was at the meeting to represent the Conservation Authority, suggested the board work with iwi to respond to Forest and Bird.

Dr Morfett and Mr Tumahai agreed to take on the delicate job.

Speaking after the meeting, the Ngati Waewae chairman said the iwi had backed the Waitaha hydro scheme from day one and would support Westpower if it decided to challenge the Government's decision to decline the project.

Ms Gilbert said Forest and Bird had tried to engage with iwi over its proposal but had been unsuccessful.

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