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Government stalls high country rent hearings

Resolving the highly contentious issue of rents for South Island High Country Pastoral Lessees will not happen this season as farmers had hoped according to Federated Farmers High Country chair Donald Aubrey.

“Crown Law, acting on behalf of David Parker, the Minister of Land Information, has decided to bring in outside help in the form of a Queen’s Counsel. A combination of Queen’s Counsel unavailability and that of the tribunal, now means the hearing that was anticipated to start in April, is likely to be delayed until around election time.

Mr Aubrey says is very disappointed that this important hearing has been held off. The hearing in Dunedin in front of the Land Valuation Tribunal is now tentatively set for Monday 13 October 2008.

“The Prime Minister has said that she wants High Country families to be able to continue to farm. However proposed rentals are based on scenery rather than economic viability,” said Mr Aubrey.

“High country farmers have been forced to go to the tribunal in order for their farming business to survive and this is not a position they have chosen. Proposed rentals are based on scenery rather than economic viability. The imposition of rents based on “amenity values” is simply not affordable.

“Delaying the date of the hearing means that if the judge concludes the government is entitled to collect such rents, then they will be payable retrospectively. That means this delay could result in enormous additional costs and make it even more difficult for farmers to pay,” Mr Aubrey said.…

Government blows out DoC budget

The Department of Conservation is paying the price for bad government decision-making says the High Country Accord, commenting on the news that the department is having to slash 56 staff in order to live within its budget.

“There is an entrenched belief in the Labour-led government that the nation’s conservation values can be protected only by state ownership. This has led them on an immense spending spree, buying up vast tracts of high country real estate,” says High Country Accord chair Ben Todhunter.

“How much better it would be for taxpayers and the economy if DoC was encouraged to work with private land holders to maximise conservation values on private land.”

He says the Crown already owns more than half the South Island and under the present government was well on its way toward acquiring another 1.5 million hectares of tussock grasslands along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps and in Central Otago.

“This land grab is over-burdening an already over-stretched department. Not only is there the cost of the land, which is then removed from production, it has to be maintained at substantial expense – an expense which was previously paid for by the farmer.”

Mr Todhunter says the Green and Clarkson review of the New Zealand biodiversity strategy showed that only 2-3 per cent of the existing DoC estate was being intensively managed for biodiversity protection. It highlighted major concerns about the degradation of wetlands, and the adverse effects of introduced weeds and pests on threatened species and forest ecosystems.

“Under these circumstances the government is guilty of a gross misallocation of a limited conservation budget by expanding Crown ownership of high country farmland,” he says.

“It also richly ironic that farming families who have stewarded vulnerable high country eco-systems for 150 years are now being told

Merino supply collapse as predicted

Lands minister David Parker is being “too clever by half” when he blames farmers for a big drop in Merino wool production, says the High Country Accord.

“A Lincoln University report in 2004 predicted a “devastating” 31 percent cut in Merino wool supply if the government didn’t change the way it went about tenure review,” says Accord chair Ben Todhunter.

“The report, and a peer review from Professor Keith Woodford confirming its findings, was pigeon-holed by the Cabinet policy committee when it discussed tenure review in February 2005. Apparently the loss of the Merino industry was seen as a reasonable price to pay for creating a network of 22 new high country parks.”

Mr Todhunter was responding to a media report that the New Zealand Merino Company is having to use Australian wool to meet some of its contracts because of a 20 per cent drop in New Zealand production, due in part to tenure review.

The Accord, which represents farmers in the South Island high country, says tenure review involves an exchange of property rights. Farmers sell their perpetual leases at market value to the Crown, in return for buying freehold title to those parts of their property that aren’t wanted by the government for conservation parks.

“Farmers want security of freehold title so they can run modern diversified farming businesses. Some thought they could do this under leasehold title, but the government has made it very clear it will change the law and rules applying to leases if it doesn’t get its own way,” he says.

“This had made it very difficult for lessees. If they go into tenure review, they have to do it on the government’s terms.

“They have to surrender most of their mid- to high-altitude tussock country to the Crown, even though this land …

Brower book should be read with a ‘pinch of salt’

High country farmers say the views of environmental activist Ann Brower should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Ms Brower’s book on the high country, due out today, will almost certainly repeat the inaccuracies and falsehoods which have characterised her past utterances, says High Country Accord chair Ben Todhunter.

“Since coming to New Zealand in 2003, Ms Brower has waged a campaign to cast doubt on the legal status of high country farms with perpetual leases from the Crown. An accomplished self-publicist, she has used her status as a Lincoln University lecturer to get substantial media coverage.

“Yet far from being an objective academic, Ms Brower came to New Zealand in 2005 from the United States with a track record in environmental activism and for courting media controversy.”

In February 2006, Ms Brower published a report criticising tenure review in the South Island high country, saying “government contractors and government officials are giving away the crown jewels and paying the recipients to take them away.”

Victoria University professors Neil Quigley and Lewis Evans, in a critique of her report, said her claims were “entirely unfounded”, that she had “completely misinterpreted the available data” … and had made a series of claims about the outcome of the process that were “entirely erroneous”.

In late 2007, Australian property law lecturer John Page and Ann Brower published a paper in the Waikato Law Review claiming that holders of high country perpetual leases do not have exclusive possession rights to their properties.

Again, these conclusions were discredited. This time, in a Crown Law Office opinion which described their conclusions as “unconvincing”.

“In fact it would be impossible for the [lease]holder to undertake farming operations without exclusive possession of the land,” said crown counsel Malcolm Parker in his opinion.

Mr Todhunter says Brower’s claims …

Christmas won’t be found in a courtroom

Fish & Game must have thought all their Christmases had come at once when they learned that a couple of academics had written a paper arguing that high country pastoral lease holders don’t have the right to control trespassers on their farms.

Here at last was the opportunity for hunters and fishermen to claim wander-at-will rights over a big chunk of South Island high country farmland.

I don’t want to be the Grinch who steals their Christmases. But Fish & Game’s claim that pastoral lessees do not have exclusive possession of their land conflicts with a forthright Crown Law Office opinion. It’s also based on the opinions of an environmental activist whose utterances on the high country have been mired in controversy.

Crown counsel Malcolm Parker, in his opinion, says it would be impossible for a leaseholder to undertake farming operations without exclusive possession of the land. He says pastoral leases grant lessees exclusive possession as intended by legislators, and this is supported by legal precedent.

His opinion was in response to an academic paper last year by Australian property law lecturer John Page and American academic and environmental activist Ann Brower.

Their paper was based on Australian leases and precedents that don’t apply to New Zealand. There was no analysis of New Zealand law or legal precedent; there was no analysis of the substance of a pastoral lease; and the authors misinterpreted the Australian High Court case that was central to their argument.

For these reasons Mr Parker said he didn’t find the paper convincing and disagreed with its conclusions.

Of course, a Crown Law Office opinion is just that, an opinion. But before dismissing it, Fish & Game should have looked carefully at the credibility of the contrary opinion.

Ann Brower came to New Zealand in 2005 with …

BACKGROUNDER

How much high country land has Labour acquired?

In 2002, the Labour-led government set its sights on acquiring 1.3 million ha of tussock grassland from pastoral leases in the South Island high country (about 60% of the 2.19 million ha of land in pastoral lease in January 2002).

This was to be done largely through tenure review and outright property purchases.

By 31 May 2008, 56 of 303 leases had completed tenure review and nine had accepted substantive proposals from the Crown. From these properties, 48% of the land (165,266 ha) had been or was to be bought by the Crown from the lessee and 52% (189,539 ha) by the lessee from the Crown.

Four leases totalling 49,242 hectares – Twin Burn, Michael Peak, Birchwood and Hakatere Stations – had been bought outright by the Crown. In addition, the government declined to renew the Mount Ida “Soldiers’ Settlement” grazing licence in Otago – a further 8401 ha.

In summary, between 2002 and May 2008 the Crown transferred 229,909 hectares of high country pastoral farmland to the conservation estate. All this land, plus the 180,000 hectare Molesworth Station that has been transferred from Landcorp, has to be maintained by the Department of Conservation – a department that struggles to protect endangered species on its existing estate.

The purchase of St James Station adds a further 78,196 hectares to the Crown estate and takes the total area transferred to DoC to 488,105 hectares — an area 2.6 times the size of Stewart Island (185,000 ha).

Most observers would conclude that such a major transfer of land out of productive use must be justified on ecological grounds. This is not the case. An independent review for the Department of Conservation states that high altitude tussock grasslands are well-represented in the DoC estate. Other …

St James Park – an irresponsible last hurrah

The decision of the government to buy St James Station and add it to the conservation estate is irresponsible says a high country farming group.

“This looks like a last hurrah for prime minister Helen Clark.  At a time when the government’s books are empty, there is still money for the prime minister’s pet projects,” says High Country Accord chair Ben Todhunter.

“The government is guilty of a gross misallocation of taxpayer funds by expanding Crown ownership of high country farmland, especially in the wake of the dire predictions for the economy over the next decade.

“The high country is prone to weed invasion and has to be maintained at substantial expense – an expense which was previously paid for by the farmer. The prime minister has just handed this burden to taxpayers and DoC, a department that struggles even in the best of times to control weeds and pests on its vast estates.,” he says.

“How much better it would be for taxpayers and the economy if DoC was encouraged to work with private land holders to maximise conservation values on private land.”

Mr Todhunter says since 2002 the government has taken an area of high country more than twice the size of Stewart Island, and at vast cost removed it from farming and added it to the conservation estate.

“To speed this process up, the government last year cynically changed rental formulas on leasehold properties so that in some cases, rents are higher than gross farm incomes. This is forcing farming families to sell and, under these circumstances, the Crown is often the only buyer.”

The High Country of New Zealand

HELP US PROTECT OUR AMAZING HERITAGE

 

The wild beauty of the South Island high country has a special place in the hearts of most New Zealanders.

 

It is a landscape shaped by climate, geology and people.

 

Countless painters, photographers, writers and film makers have celebrated its tussock-covered hills and craggy mountains, along with the farmers and sheep flocks that live here. Brand marketers increasingly use high country heritage values to connect with their consumers.

 

It is also the home of New Zealand’s celebrated Merino wool industry. Merino wool from the high country is sought after by leading fashion designers for its superb quality and by discerning customers seeking garments made from a natural and sustainable fibre.

 

Yet despite its importance, this heritage is at great risk.

 

Since 2002, the New Zealand Government has been acquiring large areas of tussock grassland for a network of 22 parks and reserves along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps.

 

Pleas from farmers and the Merino industry, which is losing its wool supply, have gone unheard. Scientific evidence showing that low intensity sheep farming is sustainable has gone unanswered. 

 

There is little logic in the drive to use Crown ownership to ‘protect’ iconic landscapes when they are in such great shape under farmer stewardship. But this escapes the government and its advisers who believe the high country will only be safe when it is owned and managed by the state.

 

Certainly, the policy cannot be justified on conservation grounds. Mid- to high-altitude tussock grasslands are already well represented in the Crown’s 3.5 million hectares of high country conservation estate. Lincoln University researchreveals that removing sheep does nothing to help native biodiversity.

 

Also, the cost of buying and maintaining this land means less money will