Editorial: Saving the Mackenzie

19:17, May 13 2013

The accord to protect the Mackenzie Country, signed on Sunday, will have the support of a great many New Zealanders.

The area is lodged in the minds of the nation as a place of legend and beauty and its survival in as pristine a state as possible is therefore something of a national priority. The accord can help bring that about.

It arose from the squabbles of the last decade as the Mackenzie came under pressure from intensified farming, tenure review, environmental problems and tourism. Dairying, with its requirement for irrigation and in-barn stock management, came to typify the arguments. No structure for their solution was in place and the parties in dispute were shouting at each other.

The accord potentially solves both those faults by proposing the establishment of the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust. It would represent about 20 groups with interests in the area and advance its objectives by working with farmers to protect 100,000 hectares of sensitive land. It does not ban irrigation for greater production, and in fact identifies 25,000ha that should be opened up for that purpose.

That this has already met with opposition from Eugenie Sage, a Green MP who has long fought for the Mackenzie's protection, shows the accord is not a comprehensive peace treaty. Many people will agree that irrigating the basin is misguided given the extremes of climate and fragility of soils.

Other rows are bound to continue as run holders seek to subdivide land freeholded under tenure review agreements. The sight, for instance, of housing crawling up the Tasman Valley would be abhorrent and controversial.

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The accord also faces a fundamental problem of financing. The $3.7 million a year estimated to be required to manage its conserved land is substantial, given the squeeze coming on environmental protection in the form of a slimmed down Department of Conservation. The Government, in considering committing itself to the funding of the Mackenzie trust, must also be aware that the $3.7m now required would inevitably rise over the years.

But trust members would be Government-appointed - beholden to the minister of conservation - and that would put a break on grandiose spending. The disadvantage of the Government's control would be that it would lessen the trust's ability to make independent stands against Wellington's wishes.

Those potential problems, though, are insignificant when balanced with the advantages that the trust brings. The contending parties have a forum backed by legislation in which to air their views and reach consensus; an overall plan for the region's conservation and development can be drawn up and implemented; the future of the region as open to diverse uses - not just conservation or intensity farming - is agreed on.

Those balanced aims continue in improved form the practices that have marked the Mackenzie since the arrival of the first Europeans. The environment was a notion unknown to them and tourism inconceivable, but they had to manage their fragile land and look to all means of bringing income to the basin.

Over the generations the settlers' descendants have partially come to terms with both needs, and with all the other pressures their region now faces. But the response has been patchy and contentious. The accord provides a better way of dealing with the challenges.

The Press