An opinion by Tony Orman
The government is considering proposals to change the way the high country is being farmed.
But how well qualified is government and its bureaucracies to formulate a constructive set of management proposals?
How well has government managed it in the past?
The high country is essentially South Island running from Marlborough to Southland in the rain shadow eastern side of the Southern Alps. Over a million hectares was Crown owned, (publicly owned) leased by way of pastoral leases to high country farmers at pepper corn rentals.
This largely changed in the 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act. A decade earlier the Department of Conservation was formed from a mishmash of absorbing functions of the Departments of Lands and Survey, the Forest Service and Wildlife Service.
Within the 1998 legislation was a process called tenure review where government negotiated with the high country farmer leaseholders offering them freehold title in exchange for land surrendered to conservation and the bright new shining bureaucracy of the Department of Conservation.
Now 22 years later government with Green MP and Forest and Bird Society loyalist Eugenie Sage as Minister of Conservation is looking to scrap tenure review. Sage, who plans to introduce new law before the election later this year says there was strong support to end tenure review.
Why has it taken the government juggernaut so long to realise its mistake?
High country tenure review has been a disaster.
For that matter so has the Department of Conservation been a failure. It badly needed reviewing, even scrapping and a new set of priorities, something the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations has called for in its election charter produced before each election for the last dozen or so years.
At Council of Outdoor Recreation annual meeting the subject of the high country frequently surfaced. A scan back through annual reports shows in 2013 myself and the late Bill Benfield as co-chairmen voiced our concerns about public lands such as pastoral leases. “In New Zealand the “raiders” are getting a red carpet invitation laid down by the current government. The “scramble” is on to use public resources for private profit. And it’s “crisis” time!”
Tenure review was one major area for concern. I recall arguing years earlier that tenure review on paper might sound good but in practical terms was fraught with danger as making public land freehold (i.e. privatisation) would make it open slather for exploitation allowing residential subdivision of prime recreational and scenic lands and worse still, sale of stations to foreign interests.
A prime example of the “wheeling and dealing” was a Lake Wanaka sheep station, one of the earlier leases to go through tenure review. One slice of land on the lake-front was sold on the free market to property developers for around $10 million. The developers could not get necessary resource consents to subdivide. Ten years later, they sold the bare land to interests associated with American billionaire Peter Thiel for $13.5m – nearly double its value at the time.
I don’t mean to be smug if sad, after the event.
If a humble land surveyor/town-planner turned journalist/author could see the potential disaster back around 2005, why didn’t politicians or government politicians see it?
Dr Ann Brower
I was not alone in my concern. Californian Dr. Ann Brower, senior lecturer in environmental management at Lincoln University a dozen or more years ago was shouting her alarm publicly. In 2008 she wrote the book “Who Owns the High Country – the controversial story of tenure review“.
“It was a startling exposé of bureaucracy gone wrong. This controversial story tells how large areas of high country in the South Island were sold off to run holders for knock-down prices, in a process that was hidden from public view” is how the book’s publicity described it.
It was termed a “quiet scandal”. She even discovered government had been paying run holders to freehold parts of the pastoral lease farms, subsequently leaving them open to subdivide or sell out to foreign buyers.
Who could blame the run holders particularly if they were nearing retirement in the autumn of their years? Not surprisingly, Federated Farmers denounced Ann Brower’s concerns and her startling book.
The point Federated Farmers missed was pastoral lease land is very arguably public land. The public were often unaware of the “behind doors wheeling and dealings” of bureaucrats. Land that has gone into private ownership in these deals included shores of lakes Wanaka, Tekapo, Hawea and Wakatipu.
Since about 2007, the Mackenzie District Council was showing concern and tried to amend its district plan to protect the Mackenzie from “inappropriate subdivision and development”, particularly on the new freehold land.
It is wrong to say this is high country farmers’ greed. It’s not.
It was government’s choice and doing.
It is the old bogey of Rogernomics, simply that once publicly owned land was privatised.
Ann Brower commented “If this was the scenario envisaged when tenure review began – society’s wealthiest people extracting value from land which, for more than a century, had been tended by farmers on behalf of the public – it was a vision that had not been articulated to the public, who was footing the bill for the process.”
The losses through ministerial and departmental shortsightedness are irretrievable. There is no getting back the land that was privatised along once pristine lake-fronts. Today there are mansions, wineries, and luxury golf courses on land once owned and managed on the public’s behalf.
Farmers had, in the greater majority, been good stewards, on the public’s behalf for the high country and its environment when they farmed it.
It was government and their public servants (a rather ironic term!) who allowed the land to be freeholder and shifted sooner or later to a privileged wealthy few – not infrequently non-New Zealanders – and using public money.
In doing so, intrinsic parts of landscapes have been marred or even destroyed.
It can be argued there have been some pluses such as five new conservation parks and in some areas, public access has been improved.
As Ann Brower put it the pluses “are dwarfed, however, by what has been lost.” She cited a Crown lease called Hillend just behind Alphaburn that was largely privatised through tenure review then bought by a property developer, who then sold it to Trademe founder Sam Morgan for an eye-watering $25m. The land has since been split up into numerous sections, which are now for sale for around $1m each.
The formerly public owned high country has become a mecca for the very wealthy. Wyuna Station, above Lake Wakatipu, has a gated subdivision now “adorned”with ultra- expensive homes such as a mansion listed for sale by its Norwegian owner for $33m. On the same road around Lake Wakatipu, the former Crown pastoral lease at Closeburn station has houses that sell for between $10m and $25m.
The tenure review has turned the high country into “lucrative real estate for wealthy bolthole seekers, at the expense of others” i.e. the New Zealand public.
So how can the public have confidence in government to serve the public interest?
Decisions have been formulated by department bureaucrats who have no or very little experience or appreciation of the high country. Nor have the vast majority of cabinet ministers an appreciation or even a vision.
I remember well a Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations deputation meeting with a newly appointed Minister of Conservation. His candour and honesty was remarkable for a politician for he said immediately “I know absolutely nothing about this port-folio, please enlighten me.”
Eugenie Sage comes with a much better knowledge of the outdoors and environment than that hapless minister. But there are some major flaws in thinking such as her lack of practical knowledge of browsing animals/birds in the ecological history of New Zealand aggravated by an anti-exotic phobia.
But she is better qualified than most past ministers, so there’s a glimmer of hope.
But the doubts linger strongly. How did the major balls-up happen in the first place and get cemented in? Why did it take two decades to realise the folly and the losses of precious values, now irreplaceable?
How can a New Zealander have confidence in those architects who conceived the disastrous tenure review way back in 1998, to get it right this time?
© Marlborough high country