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Media releases 2008


High Court rejects Crown’s high country u-turn
Nats high country policy welcomed by runholders
St James Park – an irresponsible last hurrah
Brower book should be read with a ‘pinch of salt’
Fish & Game won't find Christmas in a courtroom
Merino supply collapse as predicted
Government blows out DoC budget
Government stalls high country rent hearings

High Court rejects Crown’s high country u-turn
Released 31 October 2008
A High Court judgement has ruled against the Crown for reneging on a deal to offer a special lease to a group of high country farmers.

In 2003 the Commissioner of Crown Lands (CCL) decided to grant a special lease on the expiry of a pastoral occupation licence to the group, known as the Soldiers’ Syndicate.

In 2005 the CCL changed his mind and decided to designate the land, comprising 4,400 hectares in the Hawkdun and Ida ranges near Ranfurly in Otago, as a conservation area. The syndicate appealed to the High Court and was vindicated by the decision released yesterday (30 October).

Syndicate spokesman Philip Smith said, “We are elated by the verdict and are thrilled that the court has overturned what we consider to be a bad faith decision by the Crown.

“The farmers now have more confidence that their livelihoods will not be threatened by a unilateral decision to transfer to the Department of Conservation (DoC) land that they have grazed and managed for nearly 100 years.”

High Country Accord Chairman Ben Todhunter also welcomed the decision.

“This is one of three court cases where high country farming families are defending their legal rights against the Crown, or Crown entities.

“Basically, you have a government determined to convert tussock grasslands that have been grazed by farmers for generations into high country parks and reserves. Because the government hasn’t been able to achieve this on the scale it wants through good faith bargaining, ministers, and the agencies that report to them, have been abusing legal processes.”

In the review of tenure of a pastoral occupation licence such as that granted to the Soldiers’ Syndicate, the Crown must consult DoC before designating land.

Mr Todhunter said this effectively meant that once the decision has been made by the Commissioner, DoC cannot then have “another bite of the cherry”.

The Commissioner of Crown Lands is not obliged to consult with the landholder, but the court ruled that, having made a decision, the Crown could not renege on the deal made to the syndicate.

Hon. Justice French ruled that the Commissioner must give effect to the decision made and conveyed to the syndicate. Her ruling also stated that the interpretation of the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998 by the syndicate was more consistent with the overall scheme of Part 3 of the Act, and with common sense, than the interpretation by the Crown.

The case is the first where a court has been asked to rule on the interpretation of Part 3 of the Act, which deals with reviews of land held under a non-renewable occupation licence.

For more information, contact Philip Smith Tel 021 100 1787, or Ben Todhunter, Tel 021 140 3760

Nats high country policy welcomed by runholders
Released 24 October 2008

The High Country Accord says the National Party’s high country policy would be good for the environment, farmers and taxpayers.

Accord chair Ben Todhunter said the party’s promise to ensure that the setting of high country rentals is tied to the earning capacity of each property was absolutely critical to the continued survival of traditional high country farming.

“Last year the Labour-led government unilaterally changed the rental formula, so that farmers are rented for non-productive values like mountain views. As a result some farmers are now liable for rents which are larger than their gross farm income.”

Releasing his party’s agriculture policies yesterday, National agriculture spokesperson David Carter said National supported the principle of high country tenure review. He said the party believes a new approach is needed to restore confidence in the tenure review process and to ensure that the intent of the Crown Pastoral Lands Act is fulfilled.

“National will implement voluntary, good-faith negotiations between run-holders and government, ensure that the setting of high-country rentals is tied into the earning capacity of the farm property and is such that run-holders can continue to maintain properties at an acceptable level.”

Tenure review under Labour has been highly controversial.

The process enables farmers to freehold their land by buying the Crown’s interest in their perpetual leases, in return for the protection of land with ‘significant inherent values’. But Mr Todhunter says this has provided a pretext for the government to force farmers to hand over large areas of tussock grassland that have been well-managed by farmers for generations.

“Because many farmers have refused to yield to these tactics, the government has changed their rental formulas to try and force their hand.”

Mr Carter said National recognises that high-country run-holders can be as effective in their stewardship of the land as the Crown – a fact borne out by recent independent research that the removal of stock from tussock grassland under tenure review had not resulted in any increase in native biodiversity.

Mr Todhunter said policies such as those announced by Mr Carter had the potential to provide positive outcomes for all who have an interest in the high country. He would welcome similar policies from other parties.

“Private landowners – and the high country is a prime example -- can be great stewards of the environment. Low intensity grazing of the high country is sustainable and is the heartland of New Zealand’s iconic Merino sheep industry.”

For more information, please ring Ben Todhunter, Tel 021 140 3760

St James Park – an irresponsible last hurrah

Released 8 October 2008

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.”

For more information, please ring Ben Todhunter, Tel 021 140 3760


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 research shows that low intensity grazing systems are both sustainable and help control weeds.

Christmas won’t be found in a courtroom
Opinion column for NZ Farmers Weekly, supplied 24 September 2008

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 a track record as an environmental activist. Her first publication here was a 2006 paper claiming that high country tenure review process was biased in favour of farmers.

Victoria University professors Neil Quigley and Lewis Evans said these claims were "entirely unfounded” and "entirely erroneous". Her errors included an incorrect understanding of the property rights of lessees and the Crown, and a lack of understanding of the nature of a pastoral lease.

Clearly, Fish & Game would be unwise to break out the Christmas sherry just yet. Going to court on the basis of a discredited academic paper co-authored by a controversial activist does not make a lot of sense.

Also the notion, advocated by Fish & Game, that hunters should have open access to high country farmland doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Clearly it would pose major risks to farm staff, livestock and other members of the public.

Even the Department of Conservation doesn’t allow open access to parks and reserves for hunting. Their permits normally allow only one hunting party per block and even then they are suspended in holiday periods when there are large numbers of visitors.

Most high country lessees allow trampers, hunters and fishers access to their land, while taking care to ensure that visitors are aware of natural hazards and those posed by livestock and other visitors. Most of this access requires driving over farmers’ tracks to access the remote hunting and fishing.

It’s an arrangement that works well. It’s also an approach that has been endorsed by Parliament which has recently given its overwhelming support to the Walking Access Bill. The Bill is based on the findings of the Walking Access Panel which recognised that co-operation and goodwill has traditionally underpinned public access to private land in New Zealand.

Going to court without even talking to us first is confrontational and puts at risk the goodwill that exists between individual farmers, hunters and fishermen. Members of Fish & Game I’ve spoken to recognise this reality. How long will it be before their leaders in Wellington do?

Brower book should be read with a ‘pinch of salt’
Released 2 September 2008

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 have had wide media coverage, in contrast to the expert rebuttals of her allegations.

He says individual farming families have found Ms Brower’s past actions to be extremely distressing and her new book will add to that distress. Mr Todhunter says Ms Brower’s willingness to play fast and loose with the facts in order to achieve a political goal is foreign to the high country culture where straight talking and honesty are highly valued.

“When an American academic who knows how to work the media challenges your personal integrity, your livelihood, your culture and your role as a guardian of a fragile landscape, it’s both infuriating and disempowering.

“Yet, as a tactic it has worked, especially with those who share Ms Brower’s activist agenda. Despite her lack of experience in New Zealand, she is being treated as an expert on high country land tenure, while respected judges and senior academics - including some of Brower’s senior Lincoln University colleagues - are being ignored.”

Mr Todhunter encourages media to take Ms Brower’s book with a pinch of salt and have it reviewed by such experts, rather than relying on vested interests on either side of the high country debate.

“Many people have a passionate interest in the high country, but passion alone cannot be allowed to determine the future of our precious tussock country. Decisions need to be based on facts and those include the legal rights of existing land holders.”

Merino supply collapse as predicted
Released 8 June 2008

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 is essential for summer grazing on most properties.”

The Lincoln University report, prepared for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry by economist Glen Greer, predicted that the loss of tussock country would make many farmers move out of Merinos.

Mr Todhunter says the loss of summer grazing forces farmers to adopt intensive farming systems that are not suited to Merinos, which do best in low intensity sustainable grazing systems.

“The minister is being too clever by half when he says the land farmers have to surrender is ‘generally of low productivity and includes bare rock and mountaintops’,” he says.

“It may be of low productivity for most of the year, but in summer and early autumn it provides good quality feed when little or nothing is growing on drought-prone flats.

“The tussock country is absolutely crucial. Lose that and you lose the Merino industry.”

Mr Todhunter says a better policy, which is provided for in the law governing tenure review, would be for the government to allow farmers to buy out the Crown’s interest in their properties in return for safeguards to protect the environment and to provide public access.

“Everyone would win. The Merino industry would thrive. Farmers would manage the land – not the taxpayer. And the Department of Conservation could use its limited funds to protect endangered species.”

Government blows out DoC budget
Released 22 April 2008

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 that the state will do a better job.”

Government stalls high country rent hearings
Released by Federated Farmers, 11 April 2008

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.