Environment Court judge says 'strong case' for freeholding moratorium

A stunning view in the Mackenzie Basin, South Canterbury.

A stunning view in the Mackenzie Basin, South Canterbury.

An Environment Court judge says there is a strong case for an "immediate moratorium" on freeholding parts of the Mackenzie Basin, due to the rapid rate of ecological values being lost.

In the latest instalment of a decade-long legal battle over land use in the Basin, the court criticised the extent of farming intensification in the area.

The Mackenzie District Council has been defending its proposed Plan Change 13 (PC13) since 2007. It has been subject to 11 court decisions and cost the council more than $1 million.

A mountain range on Ben Ohau farm in the Mackenzie Basin.

A mountain range on Ben Ohau farm in the Mackenzie Basin.

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PC13 would restrict the capacity for farmers to intensify their land through irrigation, an issue sometimes known as "greening of the Basin". It also placed limits on other farming methods and restricted where they could construct buildings.

It was opposed by nearly all of the district's farmers, who said it was overly restrictive and would make farming unviable.

An aerial view of irrigation circles near Lake Benmore in the Mackenzie Basin.

An aerial view of irrigation circles near Lake Benmore in the Mackenzie Basin.

They argued they were dedicated caretakers of the land, particularly through pest control funded largely out of their own pockets, and they were being penalised for certain practices they said enhanced values, such as over-sowing seed and top-dressing fertiliser.

In a 184-page decision, Judge Jon Jackson confirmed the plan change with some amendments.

He largely sided with the ecology experts, who gave evidence arguing that ecological values were being lost at a rapid rate, particularly since 2011.

The Mackenzie Basin between Twizel and Omarama.

The Mackenzie Basin between Twizel and Omarama.

They said there were 83 threatened or at-risk plant species in the Basin that were threatened by development, which had accelerated in recent years.

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"The accumulative actions of farmers throughout the Basin have . . . brought the Mackenzie Basin to a point where its landscape values have been modified and its values (and status) as an ONL [Outstanding Natural Landscape] is being threatened," Jackson wrote.

"We consider management by the council is overdue."

He said in some parts of the Basin there was a case for an immediate moratorium on further freeholding, a process largely carried out through the Crown's tenure review process.

Large areas of leases containing outwash gravels in particular were being lost through development, he said.

"There is quite a strong ecological (and economic) case for an immediate moratorium by the CCL [Commissioner of Crown Lands] on further freeholding of any land in the Mackenzie Basin containing such gravels while a comprehensive 'all-station' review is carried out."

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

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

He said it seemed "counterproductive" for the Crown to freehold land without covenants requiring removal of wilding pine.

The decision was welcomed by environmental groups, as was the statement regarding a moratorium.

"Many tenure review outcomes to date have been unlawful because the requirement to prioritise ecological values has not been achieved," Environmental Defence Society (EDS) chief executive Gary Taylor said.

PC13 put effective regulatory controls over future intensification and was an important step towards protecting the district's ecological values, he said.

Forest & Bird said the need for a moratorium was urgent.

"They [ecological values] are being lost essentially before our very eyes," Canterbury conservation manager Jen Miller said.

The decision was a step forward because it recognised the rate of ecosystem loss, she said.

"It recognises the extent of loss and the impact that some of the farming activity has had.

"I have a tinge of sadness, too, because in a sense it's happened almost too late. A moratorium is utterly vital if we're going to protect these outstanding landscapes."

John Murray, of The Wolds station, who has been involved with the proceedings and was a former Federated Farmers branch president, had yet to read the entire decision but said from what he understood it was disappointing.

A key issue was whether over-sowing and top-dressing were considered intensifying the land, similar to irrigation. 

Murray and other farmers argued those practices improved the land, and restricting their use would impose difficulties on their ability to farm economically.

"We've been doing it for 30 years. We've got existing use rights and in actual fact it's improved the land. It's certainly kept the wilding pines under control but the judge doesn't accept that," he said.

"We've pretty much accepted we're going to need some sort of consent to change anything from here on in, but EDS and co were actually seeking to stop what we're currently doing."

He was a fourth generation farmer in the Basin and his family had been good caretakers of the land, he said. Increasing restrictions were making farming difficult.

"It's not easy farming here, you've got a number of things against you.

"I'm still financially viable here but my accountant would call it a reasonably expensive hobby." 

He believed there may be grounds to appeal the decision further. 

"The Environment Court's not a nice place for a farmer. You're guilty until you basically prove you're innocent."

 - Stuff


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