The Basin back from the brink

MACKENZIE HIGH COUNTRY: The home of the Godley Ghost, the 'Devil's Daughter', brought to life by Ernie Slow.
MACKENZIE HIGH COUNTRY: The home of the Godley Ghost, the 'Devil's Daughter', brought to life by Ernie Slow.

The Mackenzie Basin, and its flora and fauna, is under huge pressure but its future is looking brighter, writes JAY HARKNESS .

New Zealand is famed for the variety and beauty of its natural landscapes, which include the Mackenzie Country running south-east from the base of Mount Cook.

The Mackenzie's tussock- lands may look rugged and barren, but in fact they are part of a network of eco-systems that are at least as fragile as any other.

The Mackenzie Basin
The Mackenzie Basin

The species that live there include an alpine weta that survives being frozen solid during winter, and moths, beetles and grasshoppers that are only found in the basin.

The beds of the Mackenzie's braided rivers, which run with huge volumes of crystal-clear snow melt, provide food for native birds like the critically-endangered black stilt, and the only bird in the world that has a bend in its beak, which the wrybill uses for searching for food under small riverstones.

Sixty rare or threatened plant species grow in the Basin, many exclusively.

Despite a long history of modification, starting from when the first humans arrived, much of its natural values have held on.

But with an increase in irrigation, including the industrial scale irrigation- projects that are proposed for the Mackenzie, things are changing far faster than ever before.

As anyone who has recently driven State Highway 8 between Twizel and Omarama knows, the Mackenzie, and its flora and fauna, is under huge pressure.

If native grasslands that have evolved to survive the area's extreme climate are irrigated, and artificial nutrients are added, these unique ecosystems are lost forever.

The speed of the growth of irrigated farming in the Mackenzie might give the impression that the region is lost, and that like the moa or the huia, another part of this country's natural history is destined to be known only through the history books.

But the future of Mackenzie is now looking a lot brighter.

In 2010 the true extent of the problems facing the Mackenzie became clear when it was revealed that there were 110 applications to take water for irrigation purposes from within the basin.

This led Forest and Bird and the Environmental Defence Society to call for all those who had a bearing on the basin's future to come together to jointly find a way forward.

So, the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Forum was convened. It involved farmers, tourism operators, fly-fishers, community boards, hunters, fish farmers, and conservationists.

After a lot of listening, discussion, and negotiation, a shared position was agreed upon and announced this month.

Essentially, the forum has recommended that 100,000 hectares of the Mackenzie's most ecologically-valuable land be set aside, while accommodating the needs of irrigators.

Conservationists would like to see more land put aside for protection; some of the area's farmers (though not all by any means) would like less. But this is what has been agreed upon and, as such, this is great news for the region.

The announcement should also be celebrated as the outcome of hundreds of hours of work on the part of all those involved, who laboured for the sake of a vision that included the retention of the area's famous landscapes, its wildlife, sustainable farming operations, and tourism enterprises.

Now the hard work will really begin; deciding which areas should be protected to retain their natural values. This will require good faith and open minds on the part of all. This should be achievable, thanks to the Government having committed itself to supporting the outcome of the process, and hopefully - and importantly - not just "cherry-picking" the easy-to- do bits from among the forum's recommendations.

The Government in this instance will have to involve several different agencies; the tenure review process will be crucial to achieving the vision set out in the agreement.

If the Minister of Land Information is not talking to the Ministers for Conservation and Environment, for instance, we won't get the progress that needs to happen.

All of this may seem like a fantasy. But there is a genuine desire on the part of all to get there.

The Land and Water Forum - which was tasked with jointly finding a solution, at a national level, to the problems of freshwater pollution and over-use - showed that when all the parties get together in good faith, progress can be made.

If local and central government was not to live up to its commitment to support the recommendations of the Mackenzie Forum, and allowed the current "death by a thousand cuts" situation to prevail, we would all lose a lot.

That would include the economic contribution the natural resources of the Mackenzie make through the local tourism and agriculture industries (tourism is the largest employer in the area).

And a host of our little- known but nonetheless very precious native species would be left much closer to extinction.

It is imperative that this great opportunity is not lost.

Jay Harkness is the media and communications officer for the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.

The Press