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Media Releases 2005


Gov’t says to hell with biodiversity on farms 
Successful Crown-farmer partnership in the high country
High country farmers hope Brash policies will be adopted by other parties
FACT SHEET
DoC gets first cut 
More high country protests likely
High country farmers may say ‘no’ to the Crown
Government turns up the heat in the high country
Govt plays games with 'market'

Gov’t says to hell with biodiversity on farms 
Released 10 May 2005
 
AgResearch is being given $1 million in government funding for a research project which the High Country Accord says it is willing to do for free.

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
Supplied to the Southland Times Farming Review, May 2005

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
Released 21 March 2005

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:

  • Triple bottom line sustainability in the high country: economic, environmental and social.
  • The role of the Department of Conservation: Conservation policy making needs to be separated from the management of land with conservation values. The role of private land owners in conservation also needs greater recognition.
  • Pastoral lease land is private land: The legal position is that Crown Pastoral Leases give farmer lessees a valuable bundle of property rights including sole rights to occupy the land, the right of peaceful and quiet enjoyment of it, the exclusive right to graze it, and exclude trespassers, in perpetuity. All the improvements are owned by the lessee. In the case of Birchwood Station the value of all these ownership rights was $10 million as assessed by the Crown and paid to the Lessee.
  • Good faith bargaining: Land Tenure Review negotiations (the exchange of property rights) between lessees and the Crown must be conducted in good faith and on the basis of a fair valuation process.
  • Most land with conservation values does not need to pass to the Crown: Most tussock country is being sustainably grazed and managed by farmers now. This should continue, with wider use of covenants as provided for in the Crown Pastoral Land Act.
  • Tenure review: This process, which is legislated for under Part 2 of the Crown Pastoral Land Act, is one of review of tenure. It is legally incorrect and mischievous for ministers, Government departments and conservation lobby groups to refer to it as an allocation of Crown land. It is therefore hard for farmers not to agree with Dr Brash’s description of the Crown’s actions as a “deliberate, planned Government land grab”.
     

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."


FACT SHEET
21 March 2005         

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.

This confusion has been reflected in much recent media commentary.

The following questions and answers address some of the main issues. Since the country is debating the future of the high country, let’s do it on the basis of the facts and an understanding of what high country farmers are concerned about.

Contents

1. Who owns Crown Pastoral Lease land?
2. A land grab?
3. How much is a lessee’s interest worth?
4. Are farmers paying market rents?
5. Isn’t this debate about sustainability?
6. Is the Accord anti-DoC?
7. What does the Accord want?


1. Who owns Crown Pastoral Lease land?

Most New Zealanders understand leases and tenancies because they are familiar with the legal ownership situation which applies to student flats, state houses, office premises, Maori land and the like. A very different legal situation applies to Crown Pastoral Leases.

The following points are supplied by solicitor and specialist in land tenure law Kit Mouat. Mr Mouat is a former solicitor for Lands & Survey (23 years) and Landcorp (14 years). He has acted as Counsel in the High Court, Waitangi Tribunal and Planning Court on valuation and Public Law (Maori issues), advocating for both conservation and commercial interests. He is regularly called upon for advice on tenure issues by senior practitioners and Counsel.

  • Crown Pastoral Lessees have ownership rights to the land they farm. A Pastoral Lessee can stand on his hill, with the tussocks that he has improved and maintained blowing in the breeze being judiciously grazed by the Merino, point to the four corners of his lease and say, “This is mine, it belongs to me.”
  • However, the Crown is the absolute owner of all land in NZ. Everyone who has a legal right to occupy land is, in a strict legal sense, a tenant. Tenant simply means “holder”. A person who holds land is a tenant, a landholder. There are several different types of tenancy, but the most common ones are a tenant in fee simple (called freehold); and a tenant for years (called leasehold).
  • Unlike normal residential or commercial leases or tenancy agreements, a Crown Pastoral lease document says that the Crown “doth hereby demise and lease” to the farmer all the land. The use of the word “demise” creates an estate (ownership interest) in the land and secondly implies an agreement on the part of the Crown to protect and preserve that estate, in particular the implied covenants for title and quiet enjoyment.
  • The lessee is granted a title to the land by the Crown of perpetually renewable terms of 33 years. As to quiet enjoyment, the lessee is granted exclusive occupation. A reservation to the Crown under the lease or the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998 (CPLA) of a limited right of entry, is not inconsistent with a grant of exclusive occupation. Subject to such reservation the lessee can exclude his landlord as well as strangers from the demised premises.
  • Land tenure review under the CPLA is about reviewing the relationship between the Crown and its tenant, to determine if it can change from a tenant for years to a tenant in fee simple over all or part of the land.

2. A land grab?

The minister of lands, Pete Hodgson, said in parliament on Thursday 17 March that about 35% of the former Crown leasehold land which has so far been settled under the tenure review process has gone to the Crown; 65% has been freeholded by farmers.

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:

  • The Crown is using whole property purchase – not just the land tenure review process – to achieve its high country goals
  • If one whole and three partial property purchases are added to the land acquired through tenure review, the freeholding percentage to date is 49.4%
  • The ‘easy’ tenure review settlements have been completed first, typically on farms with limited land of conservation value. The ‘hard’ settlements, on farms with large areas of some conservation value have now stalled, because the Crown wants up to 85% of the land, making the balance non-viable for farming. 
  • A recent Cabinet paper - Government Objectives for the SIHC: A Strategic Framework: POL (04) 159 said:  DoC envisages a network of 15-20 [increased to 22 in a February 2005 Cabinet Policy Committee paper] new high country parks … About 10 of the properties that could potentially contribute to the parks network warrant whole property purchase due to the significant inherent values that they contain and the location of the properties in relation to the potential park network.  One of these properties (Birchwood) has already been purchased.
  • Paragraph 31 of the Government’s Objectives for the South Island High Country released in August 2003 states: Tenure review will result in as much as 1.3 million hectares of tussock grassland areas east of the Southern Alps being added to the parks and reserves network.
  • 1.3 million hectares is 59% of 2.2 million ha of land in pastoral lease as at 30 May 2002.

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 Government has announced that it plans to investigate whether farmers are paying market rentals for their properties, with a view to changing the rental-setting formula under the CPLA.

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.

Crown Pastoral Leases are unique, and were originally created in order to encourage farmers to invest in their properties – a situation which does not normally occur in other leasehold situations. The leases also restrict activities on the farm to pastoral farming, and require the lessee to obtain permission from the Crown before undertaking many normal farming activities like applying fertiliser and re-grassing.

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:

  • The joint ministerial report-back paper refers to advice received by Government that pastoral lease rents are only 25-33% of normal rent for a freehold property in the market.
  • With due respect to that opinion, invalid comparisons are being made. The leasing of a developed parcel of land on a short to medium term is one thing; the occupation of land under a perpetual ground lease where the lessee owns all improvements and pays rent for the land in an assumed unimproved or LEI state is another.
  • Rural rentals as a percentage or rate of return on value are characteristically much lower than commercial or residential rent rates. Further, the imputed return rate on improvements that depreciate, or land development improvements that require ongoing maintenance such as the fertiliser and weed control, is obviously higher than the imputed return rate on unimproved land.
  • From an investment viewpoint, the intrinsic undeveloped land is the safest component within the overall developed or improved property value. It is this component that experiences the highest capital growth (without any inputs or risk) resulting in rental return rates below other property investments (and well below Government stock or bank bill rates).
  • The ministerial paper unfortunately takes the view that the difference between the statutory prescribed rates for pastoral lessees and so-called market rates is concessionary, although conceding that specific limitations apply (stock limits, burning, soil disturbance) that may not apply to so-called comparable arrangements.
  • In addition to considering the safe inflation-proof investment held by a lessor of unimproved land that is subject to a perpetual ground lease arrangement, and the consequent modest return rates applicable, there is also a considerable amount of case law on what has come to be known as the "prudent lessee test". [This requires valuers] to ascertain what a prudent lessee would give for the ground rent of the land for the term, and on the conditions as to renewal and other terms etc mentioned in the lease.
  • The issues surrounding rental return rates on pastoral leases are therefore much less simplistic than indicated by the Cabinet paper.

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 1 is to promote the management of the Crown’s high country land in a way that is ecologically sustainable.

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.

The minute notes that tenure review; and the purchase of the whole or parts of pastoral leases outside the tenure review process; are the key tools being used to progress all 10 objectives.

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.

Ecological sustainability

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.

Economic sustainability

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.

The higher altitude tussock country being targeted by the Crown for inclusion in parks is normally used for light summer grazing by Merino flocks. In winter, flocks are grazed on the lower developed land. 

A balance of summer and winter country is essential for the economic viability of a high country farm. When leases were established by the Crown, property boundaries were deliberately chosen so that this balance was achieved.

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.
§ In order to compensate for the loss of summer country, farmers would need to greatly intensify their farming operations on their flat developed country. This is not necessarily desirable from an environmental point of view.

For the nation as a whole, the Crown has not provided any benefit/cost analysis to show it is in the nation’s interest to take enormous areas of privately held land out of productive and economic use.

Economic sustainability will occur only where a farmer has a viable and robust economic unit after the completion of tenure review. For the majority of properties, this is unlikely to be the result if tenure review continues along current lines.

Social sustainability

Although the Government’s high country objectives commit it to sustainability of communities, this does not feature in the negotiations associated with land tenure review, or its whole property purchases. Under current policy, DoC advocates for the land it seeks for inclusion in parks, and the farmer advocates for an economically viable farm.

Because much of the high country is isolated and prone to severe weather events, a strong self-help type culture has evolved there, with families helping each other, as well as visitors, during emergencies. For these high country communities and values to be sustained, farming families need to live on and maintain their properties into the future.

While tourism has much to offer high country communities, it is not socially undesirable to base these communities on transient and often single people who have no knowledge of the land or the environment.
  
6. Is the Accord anti-DoC?
The Accord is not opposed to conservation or to the objectives of the Conservation Act. It has also tried to maintain a constructive dialogue with the Department of Conservation, even though lessees and the department are put in an adversarial situation in land tenure review negotiations.

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.

DoC acts as advisor to the minister of conservation, has a mandate to advocate for conservation, and manages the Crown’s conservation estate. This gives it a vested interest in ‘growing its business’ and in protecting its favoured policies and activities.

This inevitably brings the department into conflict with those who believe conservation can effectively be carried out by private land owners, or who take a different view on the best way to achieve a conservation outcome. A challenge to a policy becomes a challenge to the department itself.

Compounding this situation is lack of any independent process for formally auditing  the department’s performance.

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.
Despite these policy concerns, the Accord recognises the commitment most DoC field staff have to the environment, and acknowledges the good personal relationships some of them have with individual farmer lessees.

7. What does the Accord want?

The Accord believes:

  1. Local, regional and central government policies for the high country should explicitly take into account the need for environmental, economic and cultural sustainability in the high country on both public and private land.
  2. In most situations this over-riding objective will be best achieved where the land capable of economic use is owned privately and managed according to sound integrated land management principles. This view reflects the fact that the conservation estate already comprises 6.1 million ha (or over 41%) of the South Island.
  3. The unique farming cultural heritage and the iconic tussock grassland landscapes of the high country must be retained for future generations. 
  4. Crown Pastoral Leasehold land is not public land. Leaseholders have property rights which are as legally binding as those held by owners of land with freehold title. These rights must not be degraded in any way without strong justification and fair compensation.

The Accord is seeking the following Government policy initiatives:

  1. An independent review of the Department of Conservation to:
    • Determine whether the current structure – that of a single advocacy, policy and delivery agency – is the most effective and accountable way to protect New Zealand's unique eco-systems, and endangered flora and fauna
    • Ensure systems are in place so that scarce resources are allocated to areas of greatest need
    • Objectively monitor the performance of public and private agencies which are publicly and/or privately funded to protect unique eco-systems, and endangered flora and fauna
      Provide for the integrated management of modified landscapes which are considered to have a mix of environmental, economic, cultural and other values.
  2. Full public consultation before the Crown acquires more land for high country parks and reserves. The Crown's plans should be accompanied by expert analyses of the likely environmental, economic and social outcomes
  3. A revision of the Government's high country and tenure review policies to ensure:
    • Negotiations between the Crown and land holders are fair and conducted in good faith
    • Economic and cultural sustainability are given equal weighting with conservation concerns
      There is an objective definition of what constitutes a Significant Inherent Value [referred to elsewhere in this document as a ‘Conservation Value’].
    • Tenure review remains voluntary, with the land holder able to withdraw at any time before an unconditional agreement is signed
    • Farmers entering tenure review emerge from the process with a property which is as viable as it was prior to tenure review
    • The use of the full range of measures provided in the CPLA for the protection of SIVs, including greater use of whole farm plans and covenants
    • All occupiers of high country land are accountable for their stewardship, based on objective monitoring.

For more information, please contact:
Geoffrey Thomson, co-chair, High Country Accord, Tel 03 442 5268
Ben Todhunter, co-chair, High Country Accord, Tel 03 302 8233

DoC gets first cut
Letter to the Otago Daily Times submitted 12 March 2005

Dear Editor

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.”

Yours sincerely,

Rodney Patterson
High Country Accord Project Manager

More high country protests likely
Released 8 March 2005

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
Released 11 March 2005

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
Released 22 February 2005         

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 High Country Accord, which represents most high country lessees, says the announcement by lands minister Pete Hodgson on Friday comes at a time when many farmers are negotiating in good faith with the Crown over the future tenure of their farms.

"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."

[ends]

BACKGROUND INFO

Crown Pastoral Leases forbid the lessee (the farmer) from doing the follow things without the express permission of the lessor (the Crown).

  • plant any tree or trees on the land
  • sow any part of the land with seed
  • crop, cultivate, drain or plough any part of the land
  • topdress any part of the land
  • form any path, road or track on the land
  • undertake any other activity affecting or involving or causing disturbance to the soil (except a garden beside a house).
  • clear or fell any bush or scrub on the land

In addition, lessees must comply with regional and district plan requirements under the RMA.
 
Only a government-approved person can acquire a lease and then it must remain their principal place of residence.

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'
Letter to the editor of The Press, submitted 21 February 2005

Dear Editor

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. 

Yours sincerely,

Rodney Patterson
Project Manager

High Country Accord