Gov’t says to hell with biodiversity on farms
High Country Accord co-chair Geoffrey Thomson says the government’s research funding body wants to know how to encourage private land owners to protect biodiversity on their land.
“The answer’s simple – central and local government should stop going out of their way to penalise those farmers who do the right thing,” he says.
“Farmers who have fenced off wetlands, native bush and historic features have these areas ‘claimed’ by district councils in their district plans. They lose the freedom of action they would have had if they’d developed the land for grazing.”
He says overseas ownership rules prevent foreigners from owning land next to reserves. So if farmers gift land for use as a public reserve, they find that these rules prevent them from selling the balance of their farmland to the highest bidder.
“In the high country, farmers are under immense pressure to surrender tussock country to DoC, because the Crown deems it to have ‘significant inherent values’.
“The reason why this land has these values after 160 years of European settlement is because it has been carefully stewarded by generations of farmers.
“When the government seeks to grab this land, it sends a perverse message. In effect the Crown is saying: ‘if you say to-hell with biodiversity and farm the land to the limit, we won’t bother you. If you do the right thing, prepare to lose it’.”
Mr Thomson says the Accord, which represents farmers who have perpetual leases in the high country, has spent three years trying to have a constructive dialogue with the government about the future of the high country.
“The high country is in the best shape its been in, productively and environmentally, for the last 100 years.
“Sure, there have been mistakes in the past. But the lessons have been learned and in the last 50 years farmers have developed systems for farming these fragile landscapes in ways which are economically and environmentally sustainable. We have a lot to be proud of.
“Yet the government does not want to hear. It wants 1.3 million hectares of land now under pastoral lease surrendered to the Crown.
“The minister of conservation has even directed the QE 2 National Trust not to help fund the establishment of covenants in the South Island high country. He’s only interested in the land being protected under full Crown ownership. That’s really quite an extreme position.”
He says the Accord knows from bitter experience why some farmers are reluctant to allow biodiversity or historic features on their properties to be formally protected.
“If the government really wants to know what would motivate farmers to do the right thing, the Accord can tell them for free. The government would then have $1 million more for protecting endangered eco-systems on land it already owns.”
Successful Crown-farmer partnership in the high country
By Geoffrey Thomson, co-chair, High Country Accord
The high country of the South Island is in better heart today than it has been at any time in the last 100 years.
Looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine what it was like at the end the Great Depression when much of it was over- run by rabbits.
After the Second World War, the government decided the high country needed to be managed back to health, and that the best way to do this was to encourage farmers to invest in the land.
Pastoral leases were made perpetually renewable, and rents were based on the value of the land exclusive of improvements. Farmers were encouraged to adopt soil and water conservation plans.
The legacy of these reforms lives on today. The high country is home of a world-famous Merino wool industry, and is well-known for beef and deer breeding, trophy hunting and adventure tourism.
Scrub weeds and wilding pines are being managed by farmers who take great pride in their environmental stewardship. Sub-alpine tussock grasslands, where sheep graze in summer, are vigorous and healthy.
Sadly, this golden era may be coming to an end.
The Government wants to acquire up to 1.3 million hectares of land now in pastoral leases to create up to 22 new parks and reserves. It’s even looking at changing the law so farmers who want to keep their tussock country are forced to pay higher rents.
Ministers of the Crown, in a softening-up process, regularly describe high country farms as “public land”. They’re not. The farms are leased from the Crown in perpetuity, and all the improvements belong to the farmer.
To defend their interests, high country lessees have formed the High Country Accord.
The Accord has provided the Government with detailed policy papers explaining how its goals of environmental, economic and social sustainability in the high country can best be achieved for the taxpayer. We have also hosted two Ministers of Land Information on tours of the high country.
Unfortunately the Government appears wedded to the belief that conservation should belong to the state. It chooses to ignore the economic and environmental successes of the post-war partnership between high country farmers and the Crown, that are there for all to see.
Farmers would like to use this shared history as a springboard into a new era in the high country. But they cannot achieve this alone.
It will require goodwill and a shared vision from Government that has so far not been forthcoming.
High country farmers hope Brash policies will be adopted by other parties
High country farmers say they welcome and support a number of points made by National Leader Don Brash in a speech at Molesworth Station last week.
“Dr Brash’s undertaking to review the Department of Conservation’s role and performance, if National forms a government after the next election, makes a lot of sense,” says High Country Accord co-chair Geoffrey Thomson.
“We also welcome his promise to ensure that the tenure review process results in environmental, economic and socially sustainable outcomes.”
However, he says the Accord is non-partisan and intends to talk to all political parties, including the government, about the complex issues involved.
“It is unfortunate that the debate about the future of the high country has become so politicised. What we want is an outcome which sees the environment protected and our high country farming heritage maintained, but for this to happen we need genuine and meaningful dialogue with the Crown.”
Mr Thomson says the key points identified by Dr Brash which the Accord supports are:
Mr Thomson says the Accord represents the interests of high country farming families who are all passionate about their land, livestock, livelihood and cultural heritage.
He says in the 1950s farmers were deliberately given an ownership stake in the farms they lease, so that this security of tenure would be an ongoing financial incentive to invest in them.
“This policy has been highly successful. Today most high country farms are great examples of triple bottom line sustainability.
“The Accord would like the government to recognise that the conservation values in the high country can continue to be managed and protected by farmers in the future as they are, by the great majority of lessees, now.
"We also hope the government will agree that it is in the nation's interest that high country farmers are allowed to proceed into the future with freehold titles to their land so that they are not open to political interference and manipulation."
Many New Zealanders – including farmers, trampers, fishers, skiers and sight-seers – are passionately interested in the South Island high country. As a result, discussions about the future of the high country can at times lose sight of the facts. The complex issues surrounding high country tenure review also serve to muddy the debate.
1. Who owns Crown Pastoral Lease land?
2. A land grab?
This fact has been used by the minister, Forest & Bird, and others to argue that the Accord is “crying wolf” when it says the Crown has targeted about 60 per cent of high country Crown Pastoral Lease land to go into Department of Conservation parks and reserves.
The facts are:
3. How much is a lessee’s interest worth?
Because a Crown Pastoral Lease transfers most of the rights to the land to the lessee, the Crown's interest in a pastoral lease is typically of the order of 15 - 20% of the fair market value (capital value).
The position, from a perspective of land valuation law, is that the Crown’s interest is in the land exclusive of improvements, whereas the farmer lessee owns and maintains the improvements. These typically include roads, water supply, pasture, accumulated fertility, fences and buildings.
There has been some criticism of the high cost to the Crown when it buys out all or part of a lessee’s interest in a high country farm. This simply reflects the market value of high country property and the relative ownership shares of the farmer and the lessee.
In some cases, the market value of high country land is being set by the Crown through its purchases of leasehold farms for inclusion in its network of up to 22 parks. In the case of the Birchwood purchase, the Crown valued the lessee’s interest at $10 million, as this was the payment the lessee received. The value of the Crown’s interest is not publicly known.
4. Are farmers paying market rents?
The Act provides for farmers to pay an annual rental based on 2 per cent of the value of the land exclusive of improvements, with rent reviews every 11 years. The average rent paid, for the last seven properties reviewed, is $25,000.
The unique nature of these leases means rent-for-rent comparisons with other properties with different types of lease are misleading and potentially mischievous.
The following is abstracted from a professional opinion by valuer, John Larmer of Telfer Young, dated April 2004:
5. Isn’t this debate about sustainability?
The Cabinet policy committee minute of 9 February 2005 “South Island High Country Objectives” lists 10 objectives.
Three of these – Objective 1, Objective 3 and Objective 8 – have assumed prime importance.
Objective 3 is to protect conservation values by the creation of protective measures or (preferably) by the restoration of the land concerned to full Crown ownership and control. Objective 8 is to progressively establish a network of high country parks and reserves.
In practice, the creation of 22 parks and the restoration of the land concerned to full Crown ownership and control, is in conflict with Objective 9 which commits the government to the sustainability of communities, infrastructure and economic growth and the contribution of the high country to the economy of New Zealand.
There is also considerable evidence that the establishment of parks, and the removal of Merino flocks from the high country, is in conflict with the Objective 1, to promote ecological sustainability in the high country.
The term ‘ecological sustainability’ is not defined in the CPLA, but has been taken by the Department of Conservation to mean an environmental state which existed prior to the arrival of humans in New Zealand. At that time, much of the present tussock country was in forest and scrubland. There are many references in DoC literature of its aim to see the tussock grasslands of the high country revert to ‘tall vegetation’.
Even though tussock may not have been dominant ground cover in the high country 700-800 years ago, it is the land cover which New Zealanders know and love. It has been the focus of countless books, films and images.
The Resource Management Act promotes ‘sustainable management’, a concept which most New Zealanders are familiar with. In the context of the high country, ‘sustainable management’ means retaining and enhancing existing vegetation; preventing pollution and erosion, and preventing the spread of weeds and pests.
The environmental sustainability of farming practices in the high country is the responsibility of regional councils. Neither the Otago or Canterbury Regional Councils, in whose regions most of the high country lies, have any significant concerns about the sustainability of high country farming practices in their regions.
Canterbury University conservation biologist Associate Professor David Norton has written numerous papers and articles about environmental sustainability in the high country. He says continued grazing by sheep may be the best way to protect the tussock grasslands of the high country. Once the stock and farmers have gone, large areas will revert to bracken, scrub and wildling pines rather than remaining in tussock grassland.
The outcome is unlikely to be positive from a conservation point of view and is certainly not what the public would expect.
There are several scientific trials and much anecdotal evidence to indicate that light grazing by Merino flocks of high altitude tussock grasslands helps enhance biodiversity. However there are few studies which measure the benefits of integrated farm and conservation management on a whole-farm basis. Three such trials are now being established, with research by Canterbury University and funding from the Accord and MAF’s sustainable management fund.
The removal of sheep from up to 1.3 million hectares of the high country will seriously affect the economic sustainability of individual farmers and the Merino industry.
In a report for MAF, Glen Greer of Lincoln University calculates that tenure review – if it proceeds along current lines – will lead to a loss of 663,000 stock units from the high country – a dramatic cut in the present 2,120,424 stock units. The estimated loss of gross economic output at the farm gate per year will be $33 million.
One-in-five properties will end up carrying fewer than 4,000 stock units, making them non-economic from a farming perspective. A peer review of the Greer Report by Professor Keith Woodford says that the reduction in Merino numbers as a result of tenure review could be as high as 750,000 stock units.
The Merino wool industry believes that a reduction in stock numbers of this magnitude is likely to threaten its continued viability, because of the loss of critical mass. Merino sheep produce high quality wool in the high country environment – one of the few areas of New Zealand where this is possible.
The Government and DoC say they do not agree with the conclusions of the Greer report, but have not seriously challenged its findings.
DoC’s demand that farmers forfeit their summer tussock country will make tenure review impractical for many farmers, because much winter country is drought-prone during summer.
However, the Department of Conservation is very unusual among government agencies in that is both a policy and delivery agency. This old-fashioned model has been abandoned in most other areas of government activity.
The Accord is very concerned that DoC wants to greatly increase its mountain land holdings when there are no performance audits in place for the lands for which it is already responsible.
7. What does the Accord want?
The Accord is seeking the following Government policy initiatives:
For more information, please contact:
DoC gets first cut
In the article “Land threats a smokescreen” (ODT 12.03.05) Forest & Bird’s Kevin Hackwell says high country lessees are freeholding land at giveaway prices.
In fact, each property is independently valued, along with the Crown’s and the lessee’s interests. Depending on how much land goes to DoC and how much to the farmer, a balancing payment is required. Every property is different, as are the sums involved.
Mr Hackwell also says “Conservation ends up with the leftovers. These are the areas that lessees don’t want to freehold”.
Untrue. The process, as Mr Hackwell knows, begins with secret meetings between the Department of Conservation and conservation lobby groups who produce a wish list which they present to the farmer. This does not take economic or cultural considerations into account.
Farmers who decide to go ahead with tenure review, end up with “the leftovers, the areas conservation groups do not want.”
More high country protests likely
The government should expect more protests if it presses ahead with its high country parks plan regardless of the environmental, economic or social consequences, says the High Country Accord.
Accord project manager Rodney Patterson says the Accord was not involved in the protest which disrupted the opening of the Ahuriri Conservation Park yesterday, but could understand the motives of those that were.
A group of farmers and their supporters parked a grader across the main access road, where it crosses private property.
“The protest was peaceful and was on private land. This contrasts with the Department of Conservation’s decision to lock the gate to the new park, which involves permanently blocking a public road,” Mr Patterson says.
This protest action forced conservation minister Chris Carter and visitors to relocate the launch function to a former woolshed on the other side of the park.
Mr Patterson says the protests reflects the increasing frustration of high country farmers at being steamrollered by the present government.
“It is clear that parks will be established on up to another 1.2 million or more hectares of privately-held land, regardless of the cost.
“Last month Cabinet reversed its earlier decision to have a public review of its high country policies. Submissions challenging these policies will not now see the light of day.
“It dismissed expert reports on the likely catastrophic impact of the Merino industry. It increased the number of parks from 10, then to 15-20 and now 22, and then decided to see if could increase rents on the properties it wants to include in those parks.
“If you were the third or fourth generation of a family farming one of those farms, wouldn’t you feel bullied? Wouldn’t you feel frustrated?”
Even more frustrating for farmers, says Mr Patterson, is the presumption that high country tussock grasslands are better off in government hands. He says the public is being fed ‘spin’ by politicians to justify their land grab.
“Farmers are told that DoC needs their land to improve access for all New Zealanders. Then, as soon as DoC gets control of Birchwood station it chains the gate, preventing 4WD access along a public road through the station.
“They are told DoC needs their farms to protect biodiversity. No mention is made of scientific evidence showing that sustainable grazing by sheep in many cases enhances biodiversity in the high country.
“DoC ownership of their land is also apparently needed to protect its natural values. Yet these natural values exist on land which has been farmed for 150 years – how is this possible, if farming and conservation are meant to be incompatible?
“The bitter irony is that farmers who have done the most to protect their natural environment are the ones who are most likely to lose their land to DoC.”
Mr Patterson says most farmers take a lot of pride in farming their properties sustainably, controlling weeds and pests, and preventing fire. They look at DoC land across their fences and despair at what they see.
"If farmers feel that there is no opportunity to influence policy through reasoned discussions and submissions, more public protests are inevitable.”
High country farmers may say ‘no’ to the Crown
High country farmers have asked their association to investigate whether they should suspend their tenure review negotiations until an independent review of their leases has been completed.
High Country Accord chairman Ben Todhunter says farmers believe they are being unfairly manipulated by a government which is hell-bent on converting most South Island tussock country into 22 parks.
“The land involved is in Crown Pastoral Leases which, from a legal and market value point of view, are so close to being freehold it’s not funny.
“It’s hard to know whether government ministers are unaware of this, or whether they are cynically running a disinformation campaign.
“It is only reasonable for farmers to seek a fair price for their interest in the land or if they wish, to retain their lease. Anyone being asked to relinquish their property to the Crown would do the same.”
He says the lessee’s financial interest in most high country properties ranges from 70-80 per cent. Valuations are carried out independently and are based on long-established legal principles.
Mr Todhunter says most high country farmers supported the tenure review process in principle when it got underway. But negotiations have stalled over most properties which have entered the process.
“In most cases, the Crown wants so much land for conservation that what’s left would be unviable for farming. Alternatives proposed by the Accord, like covenants – which would balance environmental, social and economic factors – have been rejected by the Crown. It wants any land of conservation value under DoC control.”
With negotiations on more than 70 properties stalled, Mr Todhunter says the government has started using tactics which farming families see as manipulative.
“The refusal by Cabinet to review its high country policies was bad enough. But this has been followed by the Government threatening to change the legal basis of our leases.
“The Accord and individual farmers are very willing to negotiate in good faith with the Crown over the future of the high country. This is clearly indicated by the number who have entered the process. But it has to be a two-way street.”
Government turns up the heat in the high country
The Government has turned up the heat on farmers in the South Island's iconic tussock grasslands with its announcement that it is examining changing the terms of their leases, so they pay a higher rent.
The move comes in the midst of a bitter battle over the future of the high country. On one side is the government, with its stated aim of acquiring up to 1.3 million hectares of pastoral lease land to create a network of 22 parks along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps, and on the other, the farmers who have perpetually renewable rights to graze this land.
"The Crown is the only landlord in the country with the power to change the terms of a lease that no longer suits its purpose. But just because it has that power, doesn't make it right," says Accord chairman Donald Aubrey.
"Reviewing the impact of introducing market rentals at this stage in the tenure review process seems inconsistent with good faith negotiation principles.
"We pastoral lessees are paying rentals based on the market value of the land in its most depleted state without any improvements, and subject to a myriad of restrictions on how it may be used (apart from grazing an agreed number of sheep).
"To make an urban analogy, it would be like leasing a gorse-covered section in a town with no right to clear the gorse or right to build a house, with no services laid on such as water, power and sewerage etc. You would have to ask the Crown for permission to undertake any works on the land.
"If you were in this situation, you wouldn't expect your rent to be based on the same formula as a tenant with no restrictions.”
Mr Aubrey says the Government is single-mindedly pursuing its goal of creating state-owned and operated parks and reserves in the high country, regardless of its effect on the South Island economy or communities, and without clear evidence that wholesale removal of grazing from the land is likely to achieve its conservation or access goals.
"Recent Cabinet papers warn that 'removal of the forecast amount of land from Merino production will have a significant impact on the Merino industry resulting in a direct annual loss of $33 million to the South Island economy'."
He says farmers who wish to buy out the Crown's interest and freehold their properties should be able to do so without being 'heavied' by their landlord or by the Department of Conservation. Equally, those farmers who want to continue with Crown leasehold tenure, should be able to do so without the Crown unilaterally changing the terms of their leases.
The Accord does not object to Crown Pastoral Lessees paying a fair market rental for their leases provided that proper allowance is made for the constrained bundle of property rights involved, the related uncertainty from the need to seek consents to undertake “discretionary activities”, the rationale for the current rental basis and its implications for the Crown’s lessor’s interest in such leases.
"But talk of market rentals now is at best is questionable timing, and at worst simply a tactic designed to weaken the negotiating position of farmers," he says.
"What we are seeing here, are individual families farming in remote and sometimes quite hostile environments being forced against their will to do battle with the Crown, over what they thought were legally binding water-tight leases.
"The normal word used to describe a one-sided fight, where one of the parties has all the power, is 'bullying'. It's totally unacceptable."
Crown Pastoral Leases forbid the lessee (the farmer) from doing the follow things without the express permission of the lessor (the Crown).
In addition, lessees must comply with regional and district plan requirements under the RMA.
Stock type and numbers are by approval only and must be within set limits. In addition the Crown must approve the transfer (sale) of the lease.
The Crown's financial interest in a pastoral lease property is normally much smaller than that of the farmer-lessee, who owns all the improvements (fertility, pasture, fencing, tracks, water supply, buildings etc).
That is why the government paid the lessees of Birchwood Station $10 million dollars. The land exclusive of improvements (LEI) already belonged to the Crown, but in this case a recognised valuer estimates it was worth only 8% of the market value of the property.
The fact that high country land is occupied by farmers who have leases giving them the right to farm the land in perpetuity, is a legal fact of life. If they were simply squatters, the government might be able to resume full ownership without negotiation.
Govt plays games with 'market'
News that the government is reviewing rents for high country farms, is yet another tactical move in the battle over the future ownership and management of the South Island's tussock grasslands.
Clearly, talk of changing rents is designed to pressure lessees currently negotiating with the Crown over the future tenure of their properties.
The Crown's high country pastoral leases are unique. Because they have no private market equivalent, the term 'market rents' is misleading.
Current rentals are fair and are based on a market value of the land as if no improvements had ever been made and because lessees are restricted to pastoral farming they exclude potential for any uses other than pastoral farming.
All New Zealanders should ask their MPs why the Crown is so eager to lock-up vast areas of the high country in DoC estate, at the expense of communities, the economy and the environment itself.