Opinion: Will ‘Enduring Stewardship’ be a New Chapter for the High Country?

After nearly twenty years, Government has signalled the end of the Crown Pastoral Land Act and the Tenure Review Process. Ecologist Katherine Dixon examines the pros and cons of this often-controversial legislation; and what might take its place.

The South Island’s high country is characterised by expansive tussock grasslands, beech forests, snow-topped mountain ranges and braided rivers. Rich in cultural and natural values, these landscapes are a taonga for many New Zealanders.

Unsurprisingly, a process designed to remove ownership of vast areas from the Crown and transfer it to individuals as freehold land has been fraught with controversy. Known as Tenure Review, this process was initiated in 1998, and the intention to bring it to an end via legislative reform was announced this February in a bold action by Minster Eugenie Sage that raised as many questions as it did answers. What’s next for the high country? How should these iconic landscapes be owned and managed into the future?

For over 70 years, the Crown had pastoral lease properties in the high country and successive governments inherited an awkward role as landlord. High-country stations are leased to tenant farmers on a 33-year lease, with a perpetual right of renewal. Thus, tenancies can span multiple generations and many lessees come to view the land as their own property.

The rules of the lease allow for activities related to grazing stock, but demand additional consent for all other management practices. Consents were regularly granted for recognised sheep and beef farming practices, but diversification into other land uses was essentially prohibited. Many leaseholders felt compromised. Twenty years ago, in a changing economic climate and declining revenues for lessees, the government of the day was under pressure to enable the farming community to create more opportunities from the high-country land.  

Simultaneously, widespread concern over declining ecological and landscape values urged the government to improve conservation outcomes. Numerous studies indicated that the practice of burning tussock grasslands to encourage fresh plant growth for stock was unsustainable. Invasive ground-covering hawkweed was a colossal problem for both the farming and conservation communities. Wilding pines were quickly getting out of control in many areas. Furthermore, native biodiversity was in decline. Rare woody shrublands surviving in gullies and around rocky outcrops were among the most at-risk ecosystems.

A comprehensive solution came in the form of the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998 (CPLA), which detailed the criteria for a Tenure Review Process. This process would “safeguard natural landscapes” by dividing the leases into production land and conservation land. Long-term lessees could apply to become freehold owners of the land most suitable for production, and land considered worthy of protection for its conservation values was placed in reserves to be managed by DOC. It seemed everyone would be a winner.  

So, what went wrong? How did the Tenure Review Process become synonymous with political storms, and the loss of iconic landscapes and their fragile ecosystems?  With the benefit of hindsight, the good intentions now seem woefully simplistic.

In the beginning, the review process tended towards a binary model where higher altitude or very steep land became conservation parks and lower altitudes became freehold ‘production’ land.

Valuable lowland areas were privatised, but rather than remaining in production, many were on-sold for subdivision and development, often at a huge profit and sometimes controversially to foreign owners. Regional and District Councils were not prepared for this rate of development and their plans lacked the rigour to halt or even slow it.  Rare dryland ecosystems in the lowlands, such as those harbouring threatened woody shrubs, were subject to unprecedented development pressure.

Studies by scientists at Landcare Research suggested that Tenure Review was further threatening rather than safeguarding these remnant ecosystems. In 2008, environmental geographer Ann Brower’s book Who Owns the High Country? stated that the process only “half-heartedly” protected landscapes and biodiversity.

More than environmentalists were unhappy. Some farmers felt that the binary approach locked up the high country for conservation.  Areas that could be accessed for farming practice were reduced – a concern in drought years, when higher altitude pastures become an important asset.  

Recent dairy expansion in the Mackenzie Basin put the spotlight on the Tenure Review process and the Minsters overseeing it. The affordability of large-scale mechanical irrigation systems and the profitability of the dairy industry has changed the management options for farming in dryland regions. When the CPLA was passed, dairy farms in the Mackenzie were unimaginable.

It seems the Tenure Review Process was unable to keep up with the times. However, it must be recognised that great public benefit has been delivered.

Tenure Review contributed significantly to Hakatere, Hāwea, Ruataniwha and Ahuriri Conservation Parks and Pisa and The Remarkables Conservation Areas, and more. During its 20-year span, 129 properties went through the process — about 620,000 hectares of land. Of that, almost 300,000 hectares were retained by the Crown with most given to conservation purposes. The review of Mesopotamia Station resulted in over 20,000 hectares designated to conservation; and for Muzzle Station in the Kaikoura Ranges almost 11,000 hectares. 

Stopping the Tenure Review Process closes a chapter in an on-going story. It offers a chance to reflect and consider how best to manage the remaining 1.2 million hectares of land occupied by 171 leases in the mosaic of ecosystems that make up the high country.  

During the past two months, Minister Eugenie Sage has been leading a consultation process centred around a discussion document titled “Enduring Stewardship of Crown Pastoral Land”. Sage says, “We want to ensure that we are good stewards of the remaining 1.2 million hectares of pastoral lease land; that farmers can farm while safeguarding the high country’s landscape, biodiversity, social, economic and cultural values for present and future generations.” 

Whatever its shortcomings, Tenure Review was instrumental in a societal shift: we are using a different language. MPs are talking about “enduring stewardship” rather than “management”. This change in language recognises the breadth of values held in the high country. The Federated Mountain Clubs acknowledged this in their submission on the Enduring Stewardship document “Since the present Crown Pastoral lease system was established …appreciation of the high country’s extensive values, including intrinsic worth, has deepened considerably.”  

Land is far more than just a platform for farming or conservation. Its greatest worth is as an integrated whole; a landscape mosaic which can bring a wealth of benefits to many. Are there opportunities for a more collaborative management framework between leaseholders and the Crown? Or, is working with lessees to recognise their role as stewards of the land a laudable but unachievable aim?

Fifteen years ago, Dr. David Norton, from the University of Canterbury wrote: “The challenge is to make sure that we put in place management systems that recognise the tight interconnections between farming and biodiversity, and that we use farming and farmers as key management instruments for looking after the biodiversity that is present”.

At the time, this was a fringe viewpoint; but it now seems a logical next step.  

Some argue that an integrated management approach denies the option for uncompromised public ownership. Recently, the Environmental Defence Society emphasised the importance of “retaining the ability to use Tenure Review to achieve reversion of full ownership of highly valued land to the Crown”. But whilst increases to the conservation estate are seen by many as the best outcome of the Tenure Review Process, significant public funding is required to actively manage these lands. Put simply, can the government afford to manage any more conservation estate?  

The challenge for Minister Sage is to find a management model to account for divergent interests of legitimate stakeholders, including future generations of New Zealanders. Societal expectations have changed and so have the expectations that we place on the farming community. We want clean water, landscape integrity, biodiversity conservation, recreational access and more; but are we willing to support these values or will farmers struggle to provide all this within conventional pastoral land management models? 

We have come a long way in the past 70 years. As we move forward, we need to recognise the intrinsic values of these properties and the role of stewardship in an expansive, integrated landscape, rich in cultural and natural values. 

1 May 2019