The battle for the Mackenzie Basin

Sheep on a high country station.
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

Sheep on a high country station.

A story that began thousands of years ago, when the desert-like Mackenzie Basin was formed by the retreat of vast, ice age glaciers, may end its latest chapter here: a drab meeting room in a Christchurch hotel.

The Environment Court is hearing a case that has entered its 10th year.

It has been held up by a tangled web of appeals, hearings, re-drafted amendments and several earthquakes; but this, its participants hope, will be the end of it all.

Judge Jon Jackson sums up the feeling in the room: "We want to be here as little as anyone else," he says. The lawyers laugh, somewhat beleaguredly.

READ MORE:
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Bid to double irrigation in threatened species' stronghold
Farming in the fragile Mackenzie Basin at Haldon Station

They're discussing Plan Change 13, a blandly named amendment to the Mackenzie District Plan that has consumed the council for a decade.

Irishman Creek in the Mackenzie Basin, beneath the famous dark sky.
BENJAMIN DOBBS/SUPPLIED

Irishman Creek in the Mackenzie Basin, beneath the famous dark sky.

It has spent at least $1 million defending the plan change, which it first notified in 2007.

That it's still going a decade later speaks to its importance.

At its heart, it concerns the future of the Basin, one of the country's most rugged and spectacular landscapes.

Where does its future lie: in the traditional hands of pastoral farming, or the preservation of untouched natural splendour enjoyed by tourists, or some uneasy mixture of the two, if such a thing can exist?

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DEVELOPMENT COMES AT A COST

The story of the Mackenzie Basin has largely been one of extraction.

When the Southern Alps rose on the back of clashing tectonic plates millions of years ago, forming a 600-kilometre barrier that split the South Island into two, it helped create a harsh and unusual landscape.

Desert-like land dried by strong winds and warm temperatures, in the rain shadow of the Alps, lent themselves to life. Ancient totara forests were home to moa and weka; rivers and streams were home to tuna (eel). 

Maori travelled through the Basin for food, staying for months at a time before crossing the inhospitable Southern Alps in search of pounamu.

The Pukaki hydro project, Mackenzie district.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

The Pukaki hydro project, Mackenzie district.

They burned the totara forests to hunt moa, floating the carcasses on rafts to a coastal settlement near the mouth of the Waitaki river. European farmers soon followed, setting-up sprawling sheep-runs on the mountains. They were followed by the hydro-electric schemes, large dams harnessing glacial water from the Alps for electricity.

Then came the dairy industry boom, which demanded more land, turning the Basin's barren tussock-land into bright, green pasture. Now tourists flock to the Basin's inherent beauty, swelling local infrastructure and leaving scars on the landscape.

For centuries, the Mackenzie has been a blank canvas for whomever wants to use it. It has undeniably come at a cost.

RULES GO TOO FAR

Plan Change 13 sought to "provide greater protection of the landscape values of the Mackenzie Basin from inappropriate subdivision, development and use."

It was in response to the latest issue affecting the district: sporadic developments in rural areas, particularly lifestyle blocks and holiday homes, the council said at the time. 

There had been growing pressure to protect the Basin's natural values from development, which was loosely regulated.

The plan change effectively restricted where new buildings could go, but also where farmland could be intensified.

More than 150 submissions were received, largely from aggrieved farmers and business owners, who felt the rules went too far.

Irrigation circles in the basin.
PETER SCOTT/SUPPLIED

Irrigation circles in the basin.

A panel of hearing commissioners approved the plan change, with amendments. Landowners saw it as too restrictive, appealing it to the Environment Court.

The court's interim decision went much further than the commissioners did: It declared the entire basin to be an Outstanding Natural Landscape, rather than merely a landscape with outstanding features, which the commissioners had decided.

Several years later, it has once again returned to the Environment Court.

In that time, there have been changes to the plan, but the core question has remained largely the same: at what point does the balance between farming and conservation tilt too far in one direction?

RATE OF CHANGE MOST RAPID IN NZ

For the ecologists and environmentalists involved in the proceedings, there is increasingly little to protect.

There are more than 100 native flora and fauna species in the Basin, among them threatened lizards, insects and plants, not visible from afar but special ecosystems up close.

Dr Susan Walker, an ecologist at Landcare Research, is firmly of the view that the basin is rapidly disappearing.

Her studies of the area show an alarming rate of land clearance, she says. The rate of change from indigenous to exotic vegetation since 1990 had been the most rapid anywhere in New Zealand, except for the Upper Clutha basin floor, she said.

Pivot irrigators linked across pasture.
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

Pivot irrigators linked across pasture.

She pointed to the rate of decline for threatened species – 17 "threatened" or "at risk" taxa in the Basin may warrant a higher threat status than they did in 2012. A further 11 taxa with "not threatened" status may lose it.

"The basin floor . . . supports the greatest area and variety of historically rare ecosystems of any part of New Zealand," she said in her written evidence.

"This rate of change and the habitat loss driving it are unprecedented in my professional experience."

More than half of land conversions for farming in the basin have happened since 2009. The rate is so quick it's too difficult to maintain an accurate map.

The view was supported by Department of Conservation ecologist Nicholas Head, who gave evidence about the loss of rare plant species.

He told the court farming was contributing to the widespread and permanent loss of ecosystems, which were "very poorly protected".

"Because the Mackenzie has such a distinct ecological character, the more you lose of these ecosystems, the less chance you have to protect representative examples of those ecosystems elsewhere," he said.

"It underpins why some of these remaining ecosystems are nationally significant."

'GOLDRUSH' ON NEW CONSENTS

Late last year, the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) filed an urgent motion in the court to stop land clearances in the district.

Its president, Gary Taylor, said there had been a "goldrush" on new consents for irrigation, with the looming threat of restrictions on the horizon.

"The Mackenzie Country is a truly iconic New Zealand landscape that is essentially disappearing by tens of thousands of hectares in the past few years alone, and the pace of change is unrelenting," he said.

The parties resolved the bulk of the dispute out of court.

In a decision on the remaining matters, Judge Laurie Newhook appeared to agree with the bulk of the EDS's argument.

"I agree that it is almost trite that the pending finalisation of PC13 and promulgation of the District Plan Review could lead beforehand to a gold rush that would undermine what might otherwise be achieved through those instruments if confirmed," he wrote.

"Indeed the evidence is clear that there is already a goldrush in progress." 

SURVIVAL OF FARMING UNDER THREAT

For the farmers who work in the Basin, many on stations which date to the mid-19th century, the regulatory issues threaten their very survival.

Farming on the harsh landscape is already marginal; it is among the driest parts of the country, making it an unnatural fit for dairy farming.

A wilding pine infestation has spread across the high country, which many landowners control largely at their own cost, and the need to intensify comes with a capital cost. 

Some are increasingly lucky to break even.

The costs of having to protect large swathes of land will fall largely on them, they say.

"There seems little doubt that the council is able to regulate farmers out of business," Federated Farmers counsel Richard Gardner told the hearing.

"Farming is part and parcel of the landscape. What happens on the pastoral farms is important to the rural areas and the townships and probably places beyond."

It was in farmers' own interest to look after their land, he said.

"In the federation's view, landowners are proactive resource managers who rely on their property's natural and physical resources to undertake their farming businesses . . . It is entirely in their best interest to manage their land sustainably.

"The best defence against invasion by wilding pines, as well as other weeds and pests, is profitable farming, which these days necessarily involves a degree of intensification."

The subtext of the plan change is that farming is no longer the district's greatest industry.

The intent is clear in some of the proposed rules. One, for example, restricts new structures within one kilometre of the state highway, where they could be seen by the growing hordes of tourists.

A BATTLEGROUND BETWEEN TOURISM AND FARMING

The Mackenzie district has the fastest tourism growth of any district in the country, according to guest night data from Statistics NZ.

For every permanent resident, there are 54 visitors from overseas.

They come to see the sweeping vistas of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the bright blue lakes and the inky night sky in their hundreds of thousands – a grand, untouched place.

The visual impact of intensive farming is not to everyone's taste. The interruption of large, metal irrigators visible from a long distance; large, green circles forming on glacial outwashes.

During the recent hearing, the council was quick to say it wasn't picking winners between its two major industries.

"It is not the council's position that this is a contest between the two," counsel David Caldwell said.

"[It] doesn't introduce a hierarchy of importance in terms of tourism and farming. It's not a favouring of one over the other.

"The council recognises that both are important for the economic wellbeing of the district."

But that's not the view of farmers. They said the changes amounted to "protection of tourism at the expense of farming".

"There is a lack of balance in the proposed provisions and a fundamental failure from the council to promote sustainable management," a joint statement from the owners of the Mt Gerald and The Wolds stations said.

"The economic and social factors – including the costs to landowners arising from the proposal – have been overlooked in favour of protection."

When a decision is made in the coming months, the decision will likely have large implications.

It could effectively crown a winner in the battle over two industries, a microcosm of a similar conflict nationwide.

Whatever happens, the Basin will remain the harsh, inhospitable landscape, almost certainly a battleground for fights far into the future.

 - Stuff

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