What a difference a day makes

02:24, May 24 2013

In the immortal words of Dinah Washington, "What a difference a day makes," when it comes to the fate of the unique ecology of the Denniston Plateau, not to mention the legal process in New Zealand.

The tiny gnarled native trees of the Denniston Plateau snake among the distinctive sandstone formations (Photo: Rod Morris).

Yesterday, the Minister of Conservation made a big hand-shaking show of approving access for Australian-owned company Bathurst Resources to have the right of access to the Denniston Plateau, which is on public conservation land, and therefore held in trust for the owners - you and I, the public of New Zealand.  

Regardless of how you feel about the proposed mine, the issue here is one of process.  Now if we can just cast our minds back to the promises made after the dramatic u-turn that the Government took after the Schedule 4 debate about mining on conservation land, this was what the Ministers of Conservation and Energy and Resources assured us at the time at the time:

"...significant applications to mine on public land should be publicly notified."


And from today, that is true.  Starting from now, the access arrangements (negotiated with the Department of Conservation for conservation land) under the Crown Minerals Act will require public consultation for applications to mine on public conservation land. (NB:  Just a note about "access". It's easy to read that as simply road access to the Plateau. While there will be roads, the access is about access downwards - down through the soil down to the depths where coal can be found. This is where the damage will occur.)

Tim Watkin over at Pundit has grave concerns over this attempt to cut out public input into the process (on the day before the law changes no less!) and says that the "... process again seems to be an example of politics trumping democracy."  He also queries the appropriateness of the Government approving access to the mine when the consent is still before the courts.

Nick got busy on the airwaves yesterday, explaining that the Escarpment mine on the Denniston Plateau would be a piffling 106 hectares, a mere 5 per cent of the plateau, and everybody wins in this instance.  But during an interview with Duncan Garner on RadioLive, he went on to say (when pressed by Garner) that there were already more applications to mine other parts of the Plateau and that he was "not opposed to that". 

The Escarpment mine is clearly the first toe in the door. Forest & Bird lawyer Peter Anderson stated his concern yesterday saying that miners "...have indicated their intention is to eventually mine the majority of the Plateau".

Will the ensuing rush of additional applications simply create the "death by a thousand cuts" of the Denniston Plateau?

The Denniston Plateau (left) is similar to what was the Stockton Plateau (right), which we opened up for coal mining, while the Denniston was left protected. 

Shedding light on some grey areas:

There have been a few things thrown around in the media that require a more careful inspection in order to have an informed debate on the topic, so I've collated a few I've seen in the media over the last couple of days.

Low-grade conservation area?

The Conservation Minister said that the land proposed for mining is low-grade conservation land.

"This area is not national park, nor conservation park. Nor does it have any particular reserve status. It is general stewardship land, which is the lowest legal status of protection of land managed by the Department of Conservation."

While it's true it doesn't have a category of National Park or Conservation Park, this is simply a reflection of a situation where the legal categorisation of the land was never got around to by DOC, and in a climate of rapidly dwindling resources, such categorisation of 'stewardship land' got put on the backburner.

The Minister will have been informed by his Department of the high biodiversity values of the plateau.  These values were also made perfectly clear in the Environment Court hearing about the resource consent for the plateau. 

The wildlife

In March last year Forest & Bird held a "Denniston Bioblitz", and were joined by 150 volunteers from the West Coast and as far away as Auckland and Bluff, who for two days combed the landscape, finding over five hundred native species on the Plateau.

And the wildlife is spectacular. I've spent a lot of time up there, in the undulating landscape, paved with sandstone formations that drive the ecology of the area.

Tiny, gnarled, ancient trees of manuka and rata crawl across the landscape, reaching heights of thirty centimetres over decades, as they have adapted to the harsh climate.  While the trees grow small, the invertebrates grow large, with gigantism common among the Plateau's weta, snails and slugs. 

Geckos that are not found on the nearby Stockton are found a stone's throw away on Denniston. Great spotted kiwi roam the plateau and kaka whirl overhead.

Gullies of native bush are found throughout the Plateau, the only place where the trees stretch overhead, and the streams are full of tiny freshwater crayfish.  Fernbirds flutter between branches and a myriad native moths and butterflies softly make their presence known.

Two of the inhabitants of the Denniston Plateau, a Westland green gecko (photo: Nic Toki) and a great-spotted kiwi chick, relatively safe from predator impacts up there (photo: Rod Morris).

Apples and oranges - the $22million package for pest control

During the court hearings about the Denniston Plateau, and in official advice, a bevy of ecologists have stated that the biodiversity of the plateau is unique, has very low predator numbers, and due to the climate and altitude of the plateau, sitting high above the lowland areas, it acts very much as one of our predator-free offshore islands does.

Predator control is a much-needed tool in many areas, but perhaps not in the Denniston.  Which is why the large chunk of the $22 Million is diverted to the Heaphy area of Kahurangi National Park.  Great stuff, but how is that any kind of mitigation for the devastation about to be wrecked on the Denniston Plateau which doesn't seem to need any such predator control? 

This is an example of off-site mitigation, which has been the subject of much international discussion about whether it's possible or appropriate to mitigate destruction of one habitat for the protection of another - especially if they don't align ecologically.  This morning the Minister says that the package will save species, which may be true, but they won't necessarily be the species unique to the Denniston Plateau.

Local input

There has been much talk of "outsiders" trying to press their views on the people of the West Coast, but the truth is it was West Coast locals who first flagged the issue of proposed mining on the Denniston Plateau with Forest & Bird.  Public meetings concerned with the impacts of mining have drawn large numbers of West Coast locals as well.

But when it comes down to it, while there is a great deal empathy for the economic issues facing the people of the West Coast, this is a situation about public conservation land.  Anybody in New Zealand has a stake, and is entitled to view their opinions about their stake in this.  This is not a situation where private land is involved.

Keen "Bioblitzers", locals and those from further afield, sweep the vast sandstone pavements of the Plateau for native wildlife. Note the height of the 'forest' of tiny rata, manuka and native pines. (photo: Rod Morris).

It's all been mined before?

While some of the Denniston Plateau, particularly lower down have been subject to underground mining in historic terms, where Bathurst proposes to go has not (to my knowledge) been mined, and certainly not open cast mined. 


The fragile, ancient nature of the landscape and the species on the plateau will not simply be "rehabilitated". How will a nurseryman be able to replicate the hundreds of years old "bonsai forests" of rata, manuka and other native trees, that grow tiny and gnarled across the sandstone instead of up in the air?  Where will the wildlife that depends on those trees go in the meantime while we wait 50, 100, 400 years for them to grow back? In short, it's impossible.

Where does it end?

The other issue is one of fairness. Stockton Plateau was divvied up for mining and Denniston was left protected - so that we might at least have one representative area of this incredible habitat and wildlife.  It seems a bit on the nose to many people for us to now start digging into the protected area because we've destroyed much of the nearby Stockton Plateau.  Where does that end? Fiordland? Aoraki Mount Cook?

A diminutive rata bursts forth in bloom through the sandstone formations of the Denniston Plateau (photo: Rod Morris).

The bottom line

The bottom line on this issue is one as I have said, of process. The Government has been quick to paint the people opposed to the open-cast mining of the Denniston Plateau as 'greenies', but if that was the case, if it really was just a minority of hemp-suit-wearing hippies who would protest, why didn't the government wait until today to allow for public input into the decision? What were they afraid of?

Oh and if you haven't been to the Denniston, please watch this video for an idea of the landscape and wildlife at stake.

Forest & Bird and others are calling for a large reserve on the Denniston to protect what remains from future incursions.

Have you visited the Denniston Plateau? Do you think the process is right here? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

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