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It is now nearly 18 months since the Dunedin City Council indicated its intention to buy the site near Middlemarch which has been described as the most important terrestrial fossil site in New Zealand.
At that time thousands of people supported a campaign, including former prime minister Helen Clark, to save Foulden Maar from diatomite mining by Plaman Resources, a foreign-owned company which went into receivership in mid-2019.
The council’s expressed intention was to buy the land under the Public Works Act which allows for the forcible acquisition of land to create public reserves.
Under the Act the council had a year to decide whether it wanted to proceed with this and had to demonstrate at least three months of good faith negotiation before being able to seek compulsory acquisition.
That time has long since passed and although we know the council has a valuation for the site, it has not said what that is and a report which went to the council in October was discussed in secret.
Attempts to get the report released have been refused on the grounds of maintaining legal professional privilege, to enable the council to carry on without prejudice or disadvantage and allow negotiation including commercial and industrial negotiations.
Last year the then DCC chief executive Sue Bidrose told Newsroom the council was in discussions with the Department of Conservation which was supportive of the intention to protect the site and that it would help the council prepare an application to the Nature Heritage Fund (NHF).
Set up in 1990, the NHF is a ministerial fund, administered by an independent committee appointed by the Minister of Conservation, and designed to help private landowners, local government, and community groups to protect high value ecosystems.
So far it has protected more than 349,000 hectares of indigenous ecosystems and in the current financial year it was allocated $1.8 million by the Government.
It hit the headlines in 2016 with its controversial contribution towards the purchase of the Awaroa Beach site after a Givealittle fundraising campaign raised more than $2,000,000 for it. The NHF initially only intended to spend a total of $150,000 towards the purchase. The Government was accused of cashing in on the feel-good factor of the campaign when it upped its contribution to $350,000 to secure the site.
At the time, inaugural member of the NHF committee, Dr Gerry McSweeney thought the asking price for the land was ‘‘almost extortion’’ and, while the land had high recreational value, it had low conservation value.
We do not know what the most recent valuation of the Foulden Maar site revealed, although in 2019 the capital valuation was reported as $365,000 and the land bought by Plaman for about $650,000 in 2014.
We would hope if an application went to the NHF, or money is sought through some other government vehicle, there will be no need for political game playing. As we said in 2019, it would not be difficult to make a case for a hefty government contribution to this internationally significant site.
We note the next funding round for the NHF will ‘‘likely be announced’’ by May and the fund has confirmed it has had no application to date.
It seems to us that buying it should be the easy part. The sooner this can be achieved the better so the scientists can get fully back to their work uncovering the mysteries of this taonga and the secrecy can give way to a process about what should happen next about the management of the site which fully involves all of those interested.