Heritage site at risk of mining

03:12, Jul 24 2010

Pristine areas, including a world heritage site, could still be opened to mining despite a massive Government backdown on prospecting in national parks, environmental groups say.

The World Wildlife Fund said areas of the South Island in a planned minerals survey included parts of Unesco's Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand world heritage site.

Forest & Bird said it was also concerned that areas with important conservation values could still be subject to mining, despite the Government dropping its original plans.

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee confirmed yesterday that the Government had axed plans to allow mining on 7000 hectares of land presently protected under schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, after a public outcry.

The land included parts of Paparoa National Park and high-value areas of Coromandel and Great Barrier Island.

Mr Brownlee and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson said all national parks would now automatically be included in schedule 4, as would areas with similar status, such as marine reserves.

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The decision was branded a "humiliating backdown" by Labour leader Phil Goff, and a victory for people power by the Greens.

But Prime Minister John Key said the Government had stuck to its promise to listen to public feedback.

"New Zealanders have spoken reasonably strongly that they actually do support the expansion of our mining and exploration activities, but they don't support them on pristine parts of the national parks ... "

The Government would now consider supporting a bill from Greens co-leader Metiria Turei that would require legislation before any land put into schedule 4 could be removed.

Mr Key denied there were divisions between ministers over the extent of planned mining, saying Mr Brownlee had proposed scrapping the plans and the Cabinet was unanimous.

But both he and Mr Brownlee made it clear that they now considered the Government had a green light to allow mining on any areas outside schedule 4. "As the discussion has progressed, it's identified very clearly where the industry can go and where it can't go in the future," Mr Brownlee said.

The Government would fund a significant aeromagnetic survey of non-schedule 4 land in the West Coast and in Northland to identify mineral deposits, with an "expectation" of increased mining.

But WWF NZ executive director Chris Howe said the Government did not have a mandate to allow mining anywhere outside schedule 4, and the areas to be surveyed, including the world heritage site, had high conservation values.

"A lot of land has conservation value. This particular piece of land obviously has high value – it's in a world heritage area."

The Westland heritage site includes Fiordland, Mt Aspiring and Mt Cook national parks, as well as big areas of non-schedule 4 land.

Ms Turei said the Government had failed to make the economic case for mining on conservation land and the U-turn was a victory for common sense.

Mr Goff said the Government had seriously misjudged the public mood. "This is a humiliating backdown ... I think New Zealanders as a whole will ... celebrate this victory over a madcap scheme to dig up our most precious national parks and protected conservation areas."