DOC approves land swap, paves way for Ruataniwha dam
The Department of Conservation has agreed to a land swap that would allow the controversial Ruataniwha dam to proceed.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council wants to build a 7km-long irrigation reservoir near the foothills of the Ruahine Forest Park, to feed an irrigation network for farmers on the drought-prone Ruataniwha Plains, west of Waipawa.
But plans to create the 372-hectare storage lake hinged on the council securing the right to flood 22ha of protected DOC land on the fringes of the forest park.
The council, through its investment company which is driving the dam project, applied to DOC to have the land's conservation park status revoked.
Department director Lou Sanson announced on Monday that the exchange had been approved as it would result in a net gain for conservation.
The decision meant the department will receive about 170 ha of private land containing beech forest and regenerating native bush, in return for 22ha of the Ruahine Forest Park.
He said the private land included wetlands and had promising habitat for skinks and geckos, while the former forest park land "has been heavily logged in the past, is partly infested with weeds such as willow and Darwin's barberry and contains a former house site".
"The public will gain three times the area of black beech forest under this proposal, plus the new land will extend and complement the adjacent Gwavas Conservation Area," Sanson said.
Forest and Bird lawyer Peter Anderson said the organisation was considering the decision closely before it made a decision as to whether take legal action.
Anderson said the organisation could apply for a High Court judicial review of the decision.
"Our immediate concerns are about the precedent this may set, and the fact that this is specially protected land. It contains wetlands and a number of threatened species and is or more ecological value than the department is saying," he said.
The Director General has decided to revoke the protected status of the 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park to enable the exchange to take place.
Under the Conservation Act, proposed land exchanges must result in an overall conservation gain for public conservation land and promote the purposes of the Act.
Sanson said the exchange was conditional on the investment company undertaking extra conservation programmes to help eradicate wilding pines from the exchange land and to restore whio/blue duck habitat.
The company would also be required to trap and transfer native fish species present at the dam site.
The exchange is also conditional on the Ruataniwha water storage scheme going ahead.