Boost for Foulden Maar fans

Foulden Maar. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Foulden Maar. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The thousands of people who supported the campaign to save Foulden Maar will be encouraged at the Dunedin City Council's moves to ensure the site is protected.

Last Monday, the council announced it had issued notices under the Public Works Act for the 42 hectares of land owned by Plaman Resources Ltd, a firm which is now in liquidation.

It was not the previous council's finest hour when the then-mayor sent a letter to the Overseas Investment Office, after a briefing from the mining company, in support of Plaman's plans for a diatomite mine on the site. It later had the sense to backtrack once it came to grips with the scientific significance of the area. No doubt the increasing opposition to the mining also helped in the change of heart.

The Public Works Act allows for the forcible acquisition of land to create public reserves, but it is not yet clear this will happen in this case.

The council has a year to decide whether it wants to proceed with this and has to demonstrate at least three months of good-faith negotiation before being able to seek compulsory acquisition.

While the council is adamant the site must be protected with access to research maintained, various options for the land still need to be explored.

It is possible some farming could continue on the site or it could be developed as a geopark.

The land, near Middlemarch, has been described as the most important terrestrial fossil site in New Zealand, comprising a complete ecosystem, and has been compared favourably with the famous Messel Pit Unesco geopark in Germany.

Foulden Maar's 23million-year-old crater lake contains a huge array of fossils including insects, spiders, leaves, fish and flowers. Finds already include two of only five orchid fossils found anywhere, the oldest whitebait species in the world and the oldest freshwater eel fossil in the southern hemisphere. All this, even though only a tiny amount has been explored so far, likened to about two teaspoonfuls of a 200m-deep rugby field.

As well as this treasure trove of fossils, at its deepest point, the lake contains a unique climate record spanning 120,000 years, and information from this can be used in predictive global climate models.

At this stage, there has been no official indication of the likely amount of money required for the land, although Newsroom has reported the capital valuation of the land is $365,000 and that it was bought by Plaman for about $650,000 in 2014. Whatever the cost, it would seem unreasonable for the council to have to stump up the full amount.

It would not be difficult to make a case for a hefty Government contribution.

This is a site of international significance, one which the Geoscience Society of New Zealand has said is well suited to becoming a Unesco global geopark. It has also been suggested it could link up with the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark which is working towards Unesco accreditation.

Such parks use their geological heritage, along with other aspects of the area's natural and cultural heritage, to enhance understanding of key issues facing the world, such as sustainable use of resources, mitigating climate change effects and reducing natural disaster-related risks. This may involve geotourism. The geological resources of the area would be protected.

There are 147 geoparks in 41 countries, none of them yet in Australasia.

Apart from the funding, and exploring the options for the land, there will be much work to be done to establish how it will be managed and what ongoing involvement the council might have, if any. This should not be rushed and needs to involve a thorough inclusive process, making the most of both scientific expertise and community enthusiasm.

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