Department of Conservation appealing Ruataniwha land-swap decision to Supreme Court
The country's highest court is being asked to settle a dispute over a block of conservation land that stands in the way of the $330 million Ruataniwha dam project in Hawke's Bay.
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry is backing her department's decision to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal thwarted a land-swap deal pivotal to the creation of a 7km-long irrigation reservoir in the foothills of the Ruahine Range.
The regional council-owned Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company wants to dam the Makaroro River to create the reservoir, using the water to irrigate more than 25,000 hectares of drought-prone farming and cropping land in Central Hawke's Bay.
But its plans have been stalled because 22ha of the land it wants to flood, part of the Ruahine Forest Park, is protected with special conservation status.
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HBRIC has offered to swap the block for 170ha of nearby farmland, but DoC's process for approving the swap was successfully challenged by Forest & Bird in the Court of Appeal.
HBRIC said on Wednesday it had joined the department's application for leave to appeal and was seeking to have the matter heard with urgency.
DOC declined to comment, referring the matter to Barry's office.
In a statement, Barry said the Court of Appeal decision was being appealed "because the effect of the decision on the management of public conservation land is a matter of public importance".
"DOC needs absolute clarity on whether it can consider the broader conservation picture in decisions about the management of public conservation land, or not."
The Director-General of Conservation's decision to revoke the special conservation status of the land in question was made under delegated authority from the minister.
Forest & Bird acting chief executive Mike Kotlyar said it was baffling that Barry and the department were now seeking to overturn the appeal court decision.
"We doubt New Zealanders would consider it to be the conservation minister's role to support irrigation schemes like this," Kotlyar said.
"If it goes ahead, this land swap will set a precedent for up to 1 million hectares of specially protected conservation land, creating the possibility that these areas can be reclassified and destroyed."
Meanwhile, Greenpeace, which has been campaigning to stop the Ruataniwha dam, said it was outraged HBRIC had also been looking into the possibility of using the Public Works Act to compulsorily acquire land required for the dam – an option that was raised at a Hawke's Bay Regional Council meeting on Wednesday.
HBRIC said it hadn't ruled out the possibility of using the Act, and was investigating the matter "in parallel" with other aspects of the project.
Greenpeace campaigner Genevieve Toop said taking public land for a private irrigation scheme under the Public Works Act would cause a public outcry and "shows an extraordinary level of arrogance and presumption".