Claims land is being cleared at an unprecedented rate in the Mackenzie
The rapid clearance of land in the Mackenzie Basin is causing "permanent harm" to the landscape, an ecologist says.
Politicians have waded into the battle over the environmental impact of land conversion in the district, as the Mackenzie District Council prepares to head to court over the issue.
The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has filed an application with the Environment Court to stop land conversions in the region.
In an affidavit included in the application, Landcare Research programme leader Dr Susan Walker says the clearance of indigenous vegetation in the Mackenzie Basin was resulting in "rapid, widespread and permanent harm" to vegetation, the habitats of indigenous fauna, and "other matters of national importance".
READ MORE: Council headed to court
That was a results of pastoral intensification with irrigation on land that had previously been used for extensive, dryland, low intensity sheep grazing, she said.
"I'm not an agricultural expert, but as an ecologist I can say this land has extremely low natural productivity – it dries out extremely over most summers, is frosty in winter, and is among New Zealand's most challenging environments for plant growth."
The issue was "very significant", she said.
"The scale and pace of clearance I have observed across the Mackenzie Basin in the last year is unprecedented in my 20 years' experience," she aid
"The values being cleared very rapidly and on a very large scale are already threatened and recognised as highest national priorities for protection."
The decision by the EDS to take the council to court over the issue has been praised by Labour environment spokesman David Parker.
Parker said he was aware of concerns about both the loss of biodiversity and the effect on the appearance of the landscape.
"Lots of New Zealanders will be concerned about what's happening in the Mackenzie Basin," he said.
"There's been a dramatic change."
He was "very pleased" the EDS had decided to take legal action.
He was also concerned about the impact it could have on tourism.
"Most tourists don't come to New Zealand to see our natural parks," he said.
"What they look at, and what we trade on, is the appearance of our country."
In a statement, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Nick Smith said Smith was "reluctant to comment" as the matter was before the Environment Court.
"The minister's comments could be misconstrued as trying to influence the proper and independent scrutiny of this issue by the court," the spokesperson said.
"The minister believes the future of the Mackenzie involves a mix of both protection of landscape and agriculture development."
Smith had been "very supportive" of the Mackenzie Accord and was committed to further funding its "collaborative approach to resolving these tensions".
"The minister would prefer the parties were finding compromises through the Mackenzie Accord rather than contesting issues through the court process and believes the accord will, over time, provide a better outcome for the community."
Mackenzie District Council chief executive Wayne Barnett said he could not comment on the issues as they were "likely to be traversed in the court process".
EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said the group was concerned about the "thousands of hectares of land" being converted into intensive agriculture without any consenting process being undertaken by the district council.
It was unclear when the case would proceed to court.