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Public access benefits for the high country

1 June 2004

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, but this has to be balanced against farmers diversifying away from merino farming on the freeholded land and pursuing a whole raft of other economic opporunities, 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.”

High country tenure review of pastoral leases: Q & A

What does the Government want for the South Island country?

Cabinet approved the Government’s High Country Objectives in August 2003. They include: Ecologically-sustainable management. Tenure review to allow pastoral lessees to freehold productive land, and allow land of high conservation value to transfer, preferably, into full public ownership. Secure public access to, and enjoyment of the high country. Progressively establish a network of parks and reserves. Foster communities, infrastructure and the economy of the high country.

Are the goals for the high country prioritised? The objectives above are listed in order of importance, and are to be achieved in ways that accommodate the needs of stakeholders, that is, farmers, recreation groups, environmental groups. In many cases, the Government will need to negotiate a compromise, in all aspects of the Act’s objectives, to get a win-win outcome.

What’s in tenure review for high country farmers? Tenure review, now managed by Land Information New Zealand under the Crown Pastoral Lease Act 1998, offers a deal to farmers. They get to freehold productive land, in exchange for land with high conservation values returning to full Crown ownership.

Why not transfer all the land to farmers, and covenant conservation land? Protecting land with conservation values as public conservation land has many advantages for New Zealanders over convenants: The public have access as of right to conservation land. Any grazing can be managed with conservation as the imperative, not agricultural production. Easier to actively manage for conservation. Easier to form high country conservation parks and reserves.

Why not allow some grazing to continue on conservation lands? Much has been made of the ideal of multiple land use - where grazing and conservation may coexist. Experience tells us that this seldom works. It is expensive to regulate. It is not clear that grazing is sustainable in many areas of unimprived land. There may, however, be some circumstances where this option is considered.

How much pastoral lease land will end up in parks and reserves? The Government has no target figure. Experience of tenure review under the Land Act 1948, between 1991 and 1998, suggests that 40 per cent of land entering tenure review has been transferred to conservation. The final figure, however, may be different.

What about the estimate of 1.3 million ha entering the conservation estate?

That figure was an estimate of the total area covered by pastoral leases with conservation values, not all of which will become conservation land. This was always going to be subject to negotiation.

Is the drive to establish parks and reserves forcing the outcome of tenure review? No, it’s the other way around. The outcome of tenure review will influence the size and locations of the parks and reserves. For that reason, it is not possible to say exactly where the parks are going to be.

Why does the Government want a chunk of high country land for conservation?
What the Government wishes to do, in essence, is add important landscapes, ecosystems and public access/recreation opportunities unique to the high country to the public conservation estate via a network of high country parks and reserves.

Isn’t the Government out on a land grab of high country?

No. For a start, the land in question is Crown-owned, that is, owned by all New Zealanders. Farmers always knew that tenure review would involve some leasehold land becoming freeholded in exchange for some going into full public ownership and managed by DOC. Tenure review is voluntary. If farmers don’t want to do it, they don’t have to.

But DOC already manages a large part of the South Island for conservation?

What else would one do with glaciers, mountain peaks, dense native forests, lakes, rivers? The real point is that the eastern side of the Southern Alps is under-represented in the public conservation estate, for recreation and public access, and in terms of protecting native plants and animals that occur only in, or mainly in the high coutnry.

Isn’t DOC being arbitrary in the way it judges “significant inherent values”? No. clearly, it is difficult to compare values such as native species protection, and recreation opportunities. The values are looked at on their relative merits on a case-by-case basis for each tenure review candidate.

What’s the future for the high country farmers?

That’s up to the farmers. Tenure review is voluntary. Farmers can either stay away from the process, or withdraw from it at any stage. That 64 per cent of 304 lessees have completed or entered tenure review suggests that it is a deal worth exploring for the farmer.

If it is such a good deal, why is tenure review taking so long?

Tenure review is time consuming. The statutory process includes calling for and analysing public submissions, legal and regulatory steps, fencing and survey. It has to be fitted in around farming routine. Inspections, fencing and survey usually have to carried out in snow-free months.

In tenure review, farmers are free to determine their own economic future, on their freeholded land. Experience shows this can include viticulture, orchards, subdivision, deer farming, forestry, ecotourism.

Tenure review will spell the end of the merino industry?

No, it won’t, but the industry will change. The industry is changing in any case. For instance, fine wool is increasingly being produced by improved breeds on more fertile land, rather than by sheep on marginal lands.

Total sheep numbers through the country have declined by at least 25 per cent in the last 12 years, as farmers have sought to diversify, and as performance per stock unit has increased, via higher lambing percentages and lamb weight gain rates.

In tenure review, land will be lost to merino production in being transferred into conservation lands. Much of this is of poor quality for grazing, and where grazing is ecologically unsustainable. Land will also be lost to merino production by farmers using land they have freeholded for other economic purposes. That is the farmers’ choice.

Claims have been made that more than 600,000 sheep may be lost from the high country through tenure review. DOC believes that a more realistic figure would be less than half this number. It was always envisaged that stock units would be removed from the high country in tenure review.

Will tenure review spell the end of a way of life?

That’s up to the farmers. As it is, the high country is changing, with or without tenure review. The horse is being increasingly replaced by the Toyota, and the autumn musterer by the helicopter. The high country is becoming increasingly depopulated, in pastoral lease areas, as farmers pursue increased efficiency by shedding staff.

In fact, tenure review is leading to a revitalisation of the high country, where it is occurring, through increased employment opportunities, in tourism for example.

Surely some farming is compatible with conservation?

Light grazing can benefit native plants by preferentially removing introduced grass species - provided grazing is managed for conservation and not for agricultural production.

Much of the high country, however, is marginal land where pastoral use has caused nutrient depletion and other environmental impacts. Cattle destroy beech forest margins and shrubs, and trample wetlands. Sheep eventually remove palatable native vegetation.

How is DOC going to manage weeds?

In 2004-2005 DOC will spend $13.80 a hectare managing weeds in priority areas, including in the high country, over more than 650,000 ha nationwide. As is the case with farmers, resources are scarce and work must be prioritised.

In respect of wilding pines, DOC and the conservation movement, not farmers, are the main actors for control. Farming does not stop spread of wilding pines.

On hieracium, native tall tussocks will out-compete this flatweed. Hieracium will in time lose dominance, where tall tussocks or shrublands appear, or, in some cases, through management.

What will happen to the areas of high country in DOC management? In many areas, previously grazed grasslands will revert into a predominance of woody vegetation. Tussocks will persist in niche areas, such as around water courses, where the land is too wet or too dry for forest, or above the natural bushline.

Allowing tussocks to return to a more natural state of shrubland and forest will benefit invertebrates, lizards, kea, falcons and other wildlife.

This is all well and good, but hasn’t DOC got a secret agenda?

No. Let’s set the record straight: LINZ runs tenure review, DOC is an adviser to it. Each case of tenure review involves a transparent negotiation between the Government and the farmer to achieve a win-win outcome. One size does not fit all in tenure review. Each case is looked on its own merits. The potential significance of any property is spelled out in conservation resources reports, available to the lease holder and the public. DOC is guided by its statutory responsibilities, which are to protect native species, foster recreation, and manage cultural and historic heritage, as set down in the Conservation Act 1987. As a government agency, DOC is accountable to the public and its decisions are open to judicial review.

Isn’t the access argument a red herring?

DOC restricts access, as do farmers Let’s not confuse the public’s right of access to conservation land, with the farmer’s presumptive right of refusal of access. Many farmers are good about access, but not all, as is their right. Nor is it clear to the public who owns a particular piece of land. It may not be easy to contact that person to seek permission.

DOC does restrict access to a few areas for conservation management reasons, such as the Murchison Mountains and Kapiti Island, for which there is wide public support. In the end, DOC is accountable to the public on access, farmers are not.

Have there been cases where runholders have been forced to sell?

No. Poplars and Birchwood Stations, for example, were whole-property purchases via the Government’s Nature Heritage Fund, between a willing seller and a willing buyer.


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