Opposition grew strongly in late 2011 to Australian-owned Bathurst Resources' plans for an open-cast coalmine on conservation land on the West Coast's Denniston Plateau.
Already half of the adjacent Stockton Plateau has been ripped apart by open-cast mining and more mining will start soon at nearby Happy Valley. One of the consequences is much of the remaining world population of the Powelliphanta augustus carnivorous land snails now live in icecream containers in a fridge.
Denniston is a unique treasure and the public dismay and anger at Bathurst's plans to destroy it will continue to build in 2012. The Government seems intent on promoting mining as a cure for our economic doldrums. This comes less than 18 months after 50,000 people marching in Auckland, along with thousands in other centres, forced it to backtrack on plans to mine in national parks and other special conservation areas protected under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act.
When the Government gave in to public opinion in 2010, it promised to give the people a chance to have a say on proposals for significant mining proposals on public land. Despite this promise, Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson told Forest & Bird just two days after the November election that there would be no public consultation on mining access for Denniston, despite assuring our organisation just months earlier there would be.
So now the proposals to totally destroy the protected area of the coal plateau and its unique ecosystems and plants and animals will be considered behind closed doors. The public will only have a chance to comment on a proposed coal processing plant, the impact of which is minor compared with the destruction from the planned series of open- cast mines.
In mid-December, Forest & Bird and seven other organisations that formed the 2precious2mine coalition in the Schedule 4 debate again joined forces in defence of our publicly-owned conservation land. Earlier in the month, the high-powered Pure Advantage business lobby group also backed Forest & Bird and urged the Government to keep its word on public consultation.
Pure Advantage and 2precious2mine joined Forest & Bird in condemning the creation of another coal mine at a time when the world is trying to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Bathurst received resource consent in August for its 160-hectare open-cast mine, despite the commissioners hearing the application expressing "considerable reservations and anguish" over the environmental impact on Denniston Plateau. The company has made it clear it later expects to be able to mine most, if not all, of the coal in the plateau.
The evidence commissioners heard about the unique environmental character of the plateau and the damage that would be done by mining was presented by non-government groups such as Forest & Bird; DOC decided not to take part, even though it is the custodian of the plateau's natural values on behalf of all New Zealanders.
Why should we care about this remote patch of the West Coast?
The plateau - along with Stockton Plateau - forms a collection of ecosystems found nowhere else in New Zealand and the world. Open-cast mining has already ravaged more than half of Stockton Plateau and Denniston represents our last chance to save some of this unique area.
Some have argued Denniston Plateau has already been heavily modified by past mining, but the truth is only a small part of the plateau was targeted and these mines were underground.
The plateau lies around 600 metres above sea level, northeast of Westport. Sandstone pavements which cover the coal seam are home to pygmy manuka and other plants struggling for existence in the harsh winds and thin acidic soils. Life on the plateau is not luxuriant but shares the kind of grandeur seen in other harsh environments such as Tongariro National Park's volcanic plateau or the Mackenzie Country.
Deep gullies and gorges gouge the plateau, providing more sheltered forest habitats, which are home to great spotted kiwi, western weka, fernbird, kaka and other native birds.
The populations are healthy because harsh weather and acidic soils appear to have deterred an invasion of introduced pests, such as stoats, rats and possums.
The plateau's ecosystems are home to rare tussocks and other native plants, another carnivorous giant land snail, Powelliphanta patrickensis, the West Coast green gecko and rare invertebrates.
Much remains to be discovered and that's why Forest & Bird is organising a BioBlitz there in early March when sample plots over a range of 18 different ecosystems will be carefully explored to see what lives there.
A bottom line for conservation in New Zealand must be to attempt to preserve a representative range of all the remaining ecosystems. Denniston Plateau is the only intact environment of its type and for that reason Forest & Bird is proposing a 5900ha reserve covering the plateau and surrounding areas.
Denniston Plateau is a national treasure and by protecting it we can preserve part of what makes our country unique.
- © Fairfax NZ News