Private stewardship or more public parks?
What does the government want from the High Country?
The government has 10 stated objectives for the high country. The first six are derived from the Crown Pastoral Lands Act (CPLA) and the remaining four are based on Labour Party policy.
- Promote the management of the Crowns high country land in a way that is ecologically sustainable.
- Enable reviewable land capable of economic use to be freed from current management constraints.
- Protect Significant Inherent Values (SIVs) on reviewable land by the creation of protective measures, or (preferably) by the restoration of the land concerned to full Crown ownership and control.
- Secure public access to and enjoyment of high country land.
- Take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
- Take into account any particular purpose for which the Crown uses, or intends to use, the land.
- Ensure that conservation outcomes for the high country are consistent with the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy.
- Progressively establish a network of 15-20 high country parks and reserves.
- Foster sustainability of communities, infrastructure and economic growth and the contribution of the high country to the economy of New Zealand.
- Obtain a fair financial return to the Crown on all of its high country assets.
In practice, the government has emphasised some objectives and ignored others. At the top of its list has been Objective 8, the creation of parks, and Objective 4, securing public access. Tenure review is the tool it has used for achieving these objectives.
Since 2006, as the cost of tenure review has grown, the Government has increasingly focussed on a biased interpretation of principle 10 obtaining a fair return on its high country assets to force farmers to negotiate tenure review or grace-and-favour settlements on the Crown’s terms.
Why is the Accord concerned?
Accord members are privileged to farm some of New Zealand’s most magnificent landscapes. We accept that our fellow New Zealanders want the right to enjoy these landscapes too. We also accept that examples of New Zealand’s unique native flora and fauna need to be protected.
Our objection is to the scale of the government’s plans and their emphasis on using state ownership as the main way to protect conservation values.
Instead of establishing a handful of reserves in areas where endangered species need protection, it is in the process of buying up farmland to create 22 major parks and reserves. About 1.3 million hectares are involved a larger area than Fiordland National Park.
Most of the farmland being acquired by the government in tenure review is mid-altitude tussock grassland that is being grazed sustainably and is already well-represented in the conservation estate. Nothing is gained from locking it away from productive use forever.
As high country farmers we are particularly concerned, because we will lose most of the tussock rangeland which we need for summer grazing, making most high country farms non-viable. Many tourist and other economic activities associated with farming will be threatened.
The creation of government-owned parks and reserves should not be at the expense of the families who farm this land sustainably. Nor at the expense of downstream jobs and communities.
Why should New Zealanders be concerned?
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.
- The land has to be purchased at great cost to the taxpayer.
- It has to be maintained. Weed and pest control is currently carried out by farmers at their own expense. Once the Crown takes over, it has to be funded by the Department of Conservation that is already struggling to operate within its budget. Money used to control weeds in the high country is money that can’t be used to protect endangered species like kiwi, kakapo and mohua.
- Rangeland that is currently being farmed and used for other economic activities, is locked out of economic use forever. Many high-value tourist activities like trophy hunting and resorts need to be located on land where visitors have exclusive access.
- Our Merino industry, which is such a proud example of innovative design a flag bearer for Brand New Zealand will be gutted. MAF estimates 30 per cent of the Merino flock will go.
If there were no alternative policies available, perhaps these costs would be acceptable. But the government has 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.
Ultimately New Zealanders need to ask whether they want more than half the land area of the South Island locked into Crown ownership and management indefinitely.
As a matter of principle, every New Zealander who owns land, shares or other investments should be also concerned about the way this government has gone about implementing tenure review. It is 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?
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. The Crown has set price records with its purchases of whole properties in the High Country.
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 being set by the Crown threaten to price farmers off 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
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 estimated loss of gross economic output at the farm gate each year will be $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
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 irrigated areas. 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 tol 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
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
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.