Why should New Zealanders be concerned?
Converting vast areas of former rangeland into Department of Conservation parks cannot be justified environmentally, economically or socially. Photo copyright: Paul Collins
Already the Crown owns and manages more than 40% of the South Island. The establishment of more parks and reserves will take this total to more than 50% and carries with it huge costs.
If there were no alternative policies available, perhaps these costs would be acceptable. But the Labour-led government consistently refused to contemplate policies that would ensure sustainable economic development and improved public access to the high country at much less cost to the taxpayer.
Yet there was no demand from ordinary New Zealanders for more than half the land area of the South Island to be locked into Crown ownership and management indefinitely. To the contrary, a growing number of South Islanders were becoming concerned about the way the government was going about implementing tenure review. It was one of the worst examples in recent years of mis-use of government powers and abuse of property rights.
How should the high country be protected for future generations?
The high country is a national treasure thanks to 150 years of farmer stewardship. Leaving most of it in farmer hands, subject to RMA protection of iconic sites and landscapes, is in everyone's interest. Photo copyright: Paul Collins
Some eco-systems and geological, historical or cultural sites are so endangered – or are of such great public interest – that protection in a reserve or park is justified.
However, this does not apply to most of the land being targeted by the Crown for inclusion in parks and reserves. This could continue to be protected while still remaining in private hands. There are many mechanisms for achieving this, including sustainable management covenants, walking access easements, QE2 Trust covenants, and Significant Natural Area protection under the Resource Management Act.
There is no evidence to show the Crown is a better land manager than farmers. In fact, there are many examples of land in Crown ownership that is poorly managed, usually because of a lack of funding for weed control.
Scientific research shows that most tussock rangeland is being sustainably managed by farmers. The fact that the land still has conservation values after 150 years of grazing is a testimony to farmer stewardship, especially in the last 50-60 years.
Overseas, especially in Europe, there are many examples of National Parks which combine public land, private land and public access ways.
This sort of formula ensures economic, environmental and social sustainability, which is what we want to retain for the high country. It's a commonsense approach.
Aren't farmers just trying to extract more money from the Crown?
Quite the reverse. By setting price records with its purchases of whole properties in the High Country, the Crown pushed up the land values that are the basis for calculating the rents paid by those farmers who don't want to sell.
For the majority of farmers who simply want to make a living from their land, and secure it for their children and grandchilden, this has grave implications. The levels set by the Crown have effectively priced farmers out of the market.
Accord members have the right to farm their Crown Pastoral Lease land in perpetuity. Because of this secure title, many farms change hands at close to freehold prices. Indeed, recent valuations show that the farmer owns around 85% of the fair sale value of each pastoral lease property. The Crown's equity interest in the land is based on its value as if no improvements - roads, fencing, buildings, fertility, pest and weed control - had ever been made.
Effects on the Merino industry
New Zealand's brand-leading Merino wool industry is being threatened by the loss of grazing land under tenure review. Photo copyright: Paul Collins
A confidential report compiled by Glen Greer of Lincoln University for MAF calculates that tenure review - if it continues along current lines - will lead to a loss of 663,000 stock units from the high country - a 31% cut. The loss of gross economic output at the farm gate each year was estimated at $33 million.
Greer concludes that in addition, "it may be expected that some farmers will change away from Merinos as a response to the need to change their entire farming system to adapt to a distinctly different balance of country after tenure review. It is not unreasonable to assume that the reduction in Merino numbers as a result of tenure review could be as high as 750,000 stock units – a devastating change for an industry presently comprising approximately three million animals."
The one-in-five properties which will end up carrying fewer than 4000 stock units post-freeholding will be non-economic from a farming perspective.
This, combined with whole property purchases, will mean that at least 70 to 80 of the current high country farming families will be down the road, with significant ramifications for high country communities.
Post tenure review, most properties will also be more drought-prone, due to the surrender of higher altitude land which tends to have more assured summer rainfall that the flats and 'home country'.
Tenure review and land development
Although some members of the public identify with the stark beauty of degraded landscapes in Central Otago, for those who farm these lands, green is a good colour. Also, the vineyards, skifields and golf courses that attract many people to the high country are all man-made. Photo copyright: Paul Collins
The high country of the South Island is a place of great beauty. Each year tens of thousands of New Zealanders and overseas visitors come south to share the experience of being in this landscape. It's an individual experience. A relative few come just because of our wild spaces, camping out in the tussocks by a mountain creek. Others love the traditional settler and farming landscapes captured so well by painters like Graham Sydney.
But most like to enjoy modern facilities in a dramatic landscape. They enjoy skiing on groomed fields, playing golf on manicured greens, fishing for introduced trout or salmon, rowing or boating on a hydro-electric lake, shopping in reconstructed goldrush towns, visiting a local vineyard, or taking a gondola ride in an exotic pine forest.
Indeed, much of that which attracts people to the high country is either manmade or highly modified by man. When the first European settlers came to the Mackenzie basin, they had to burn the dense vegetation to make a route for themselves. Their Maori guides fed them with weka they snared. In less than a generation much of this land had become a near-desert dominated by scabweed and hieracium.
For farmers who are irrigating some of this land, green is a good colour, especially in years of drought. They have turned a virtual desert into productive and sustainable pasture. It may not be natural - any more than the hieracium was - but soil no longer gets blasted away by the wind and rabbits are much easier to control.
For some of the community, these changes are negative and in order to stop further development they want to stop tenure review. But perpetual leases are not a barrier to pastoral development and many lessees have been given permission by the Crown to irrigate their flats. This is mostly on land below 700 metres - not in the true high country.
Similarly the freeholding of land does not mean that development floodgates will open. About a third of the land on the shores of Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau has been freehold for many decades, yet subdivisions are few. Partly this is due to the preferences of the owners and partly because of district plans that actively protect iconic landscapes.
The only two subdivisions resulting from tenure review around these lakes are large lifestyle blocks, each of 20-100 hectares, at the southern end of Pukaki. These areas are subject to Lakeside Protection Orders and scenic viewing corridors. Strict district plan rules allow for development to be restricted or declined.
In the end, the balance between the preservation of natural landscapes and development needs to be struck through the democratic process rather than by halting tenure review.
This process would be aided if the government amended its tenure review policies, replacing its current preference for drawing lines across landscapes - with one side to conservation, the other to intensified farming - with a more holistic approach. This would involve tussock land with both productive and conservation values staying in private ownership and managed under sustainable low intensity grazing systems.
The social implications
In seeking to nationalise 60 per cent or more of the land in perpetual leases, the Crown has ignored the commitment of farming families to the high country and the contribution they make to New Zealand culture. These families have proven themselves to be highly adaptable in the past and are already actively managing the conservation values on their land.
Today, with improved roads and electronic communication, the high country is not as remote and inaccessable as it once was. Nevertheless, our farms are in mountain rangelands where extreme weather events, major rivers and geography can still combine to put lives at risk.
As a result, we are a self-reliant community in which concern for the safety of neighbours and visitors is part of the culture. Indeed, we are usually the first port of call when visitors get into trouble.
It's a very different culture from that which the government would have us replaced with – that of the transitory visitor, supported by a seasonal and possibly itinerant workforce.
As high country farmers we are managers of the landscape and part of it. We are part of a living heritage which most New Zealanders and tourists value.
Effects on the environment
Rather than focusing on sustainable land-use, tenure review is drawing rigid lines across the landscape regardless of their effects on existing ecosystems. Photo copyright: Norman Mackay
Under present tenure review policy, a line is drawn across the countryside - with one side going to conservation and the other to intensified farming. Sustainable land use goes out the door.
Canterbury University conservation biologist Associate Professor David Norton says the interests of biodiversity would be best served by leaving most high country farms in private hands, but subject to sustainable management covenants. Limited conservation funds could then be deployed to the area of greatest conservation need - saving threatened species like the kiwi and mohua (yellow head). "Land tenure in itself is irrelevant to biodiversity conservation - what is far more important to the maintenance of biodiversity is the way the land is managed. There is no reason why covenanted private land could not be included as part of a high country park," Professor Norton says.
The benefits of private ownership of tussock country
Many potential business ventures in the high country, like trophy hunting, rely on mid- to high-altitude grasslands the government wants to include in its parks. Photo copyright: Hossack Station
One of the potential benefits of tenure review is that it enables farmers to develop businesses on their formerly leasehold land - like tourism, trophy hunting and winter sports fields - that previously would have only been possible at the discretion of the Crown.
However, the land sought by the government in tenure review negotiations - middle- to high-altitude tussock grasslands - is the land that is often best suited to these ventures.
Most High Country farms (96 per cent) have some recreational activities occurring on their land. The three dominant activities are hunting (71 per cent), tramping (61 per cent) and Four Wheel Drive (4WD) driving (43 per cent). In addition to this, adventure activities such as climbing, mountain biking, skiing, and horse trekking are important.
Although tourism is permitted on Department of Conservation land through annual concessions, these do not provide the operator with exclusive or renewable rights. This means they are best suited to activities that do not require high capital outlay, little if any infrastructure development and which can be transferred to other locations relatively easily. DoC concessions are not suited to tourism developments requiring infrastructure development or investment.
In contrast, privately owned high country land can offer exclusivity to visitors and security to investors in infrastructure. This is needed to attract the high yielding tourists that are a major focus of New Zealand's National Tourism Strategy 2010. The strategy aims to raise quality so that New Zealand becomes a price-maker in the high value niche market for international visitors.
In the report Economic benefits and costs of freehold versus crown ownership of high natural value land with economic (or productive) values , Lincoln University Professor Caroline Saunders concludes there is an imbalance in how the tenure review is being implemented. It does not recognise the multi-functionality or the general sustainability of the New Zealand High Country.
Hunting, for example, can be an operation with low, if any, capital expenditure where the tourist provides their own vehicle and equipment and access is the only factor required. However, another strategy is to manage the hunted resource, to provide equipment and vehicles, quality roads and access, local knowledge and guides, and accommodation, and thus a quality product which can attract higher-yielding tourists, provide local employment and increase the overall benefits to New Zealand.
Saunders says experiences from overseas indicate there are four challenges facing nature tourism: to manage demand at peak periods and popular destinations so as to not exceed the carrying capacity of the land; to balance recreational and tourism activities with other uses in a multi-functional ecosystem; to control cumulative and irreversible landscape transformations; and to strengthen the landowners' incentives to invest in the land for high value tourism.
The potential economic output from commercial operations on private land far exceeds the output public conservation land generates.
The revenue of the Cardrona ski field (more than $12 million) is supported by many million dollars in investment. This development would most likely not have taken place if it was not for the incentives that exclusive property rights provide. The same logic applies to the $20 million invested in the snow farm and snow park at Waiorau station, says Saunders.
'High quality and high value infrastructure investments such as the Cardrona Skifield and Waiorau station generate turnovers of $12 and $8.1 million. Comparing this with the $15.2 million of direct output from the tourism operations that run on the 1.9 million hectares public conservation land on the West Coast, we can conclude that from a strict economic perspective the benefits from private land are likely to be substantially higher than from public land.
"That does not mean that the marginal benefits of more public conservation land at the moment are not higher than the marginal benefits of more private land. However, there is a balance to be struck so as not to severely limit the New Zealand High Country's economic potential."
Like Professor Saunders, the High Country Accord is not arguing that there is no justification for more high country parks.
However, the majority of the high country and most of the tussock lands on the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps are already in Crown ownership and nearly all of it is accessible for public outdoor recreation. Therefore the priority for the government should be to ensure that all factors - environmental, economic and social - are carefully considered during tenure review. Certainly, there is no logical justification for the Crown's over-riding high country policy, the creation of 1.3 million ha of publicly-owned parks and reserves.
As a general principle it is the Accord's belief, supported by a wealth of evidence, that the best interests of New Zealand will be served if most of the high country entering tenure review remains in private stewardship, subject to safeguards to ensure environmentally sustainable management.