High-country conservation

What many farmers consider a concerted series of attacks on the way South Island high country farmers have managed their special lands and landscapes has ended rather unspectacularly.

There was a bland press release recently from the Government announcing the passing of the equally bland sounding Crown Pastoral Land (Rent for Pastoral Leases) Amendment Act, which in turn was met by a parting salvo of criticism from the Labour opposition claiming a "sweetheart deal" for a select group of farmers.

The passing of the Act, however, signalled a common-sense solution to a divisive issue that could be seen as a grab for control of the high country; a dispute pitting conservationists against farmers, each claiming to know what was best for this land, which is New Zealand's international signature.

The tussock and native forest South Island high country landscape of today has been progressively modified by humans, and even by the early 20th century much of it was degraded.

Vegetation had been eaten away, rabbits were endemic and it was eroding; the degradation linked to pastoralists having short-term tenure which encouraged short-term management.

The passing of the 1948 Land Act provided lessees with a more secure tenure of 33 years with the perpetual right of renewal, giving lessees the confidence to invest and nurture the land.

As a result rabbits were controlled and the land and vegetative cover started to recover.

Lessees own any improvements to the land, including fertility, have the right to privacy and trespass powers.

The lease conditions are such that leases have been likened to the equivalent of outright ownership.

For this, farmers pay an annual rental of 2.25% of the unimproved value of the land.

Conflict over how the high country should be managed came to a head with the decision in the 1980s to allow lessees to freehold parts of their properties in return for surrendering to the Crown areas of high conservation value, a process called tenure review.

Because the Crown owns the land in its unimproved state and the lessee the improvements, the net result of this tenure review transaction is usually a cash payment from the Crown to the lessee, a fact that has alienated some who saw it as the taxpayer being exploited by hard-nosed farmer negotiators up against push-over civil servants.

It must be said that it seems fair that lessees had the right to recompense for their investment, whether that be fencing, fertility or seed.

In some cases, however, farmers not only received cash payments but also were able to on-sell freehold land for high prices, especially for subdivisions near lakes.

In these cases, farmers were making substantial profits from raw land value well beyond the combination of its farming value and the farmer paid-for improvements.

Diversification on newly freehold land into dairying also caused concern.

One of the previous Labour government responses to concerns was to change the rent methodology to include a charge on amenity values such as location.

This approach divorced the cost of leasing the land from its earning capacity, pushed up rents several hundred percent in some cases, and risked a return to short-term, quick-return land management.

Successful legal action by lessees before the Otago Land Valuation Tribunal, known as the Minaret case, overturned that policy.

A recent investigation by the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment on the impact of tenure review generally found it was working well from a conservation point of view.

Instead of the current two-way split of pastoral lease land into either conservation or production, that report called for flexibility and the use of covenants and other conservation measures, tools often not favoured by the Department of Conservation and environmental groups.

High country farmers could be forgiven for feeling they have been under siege in recent years, that their way of life and knowledge and - perhaps most significantly their intergenerational attachment to the land - was being disregarded by some.

The key issue is surely what is best for the land and its greatest immediate threat is from the spread of wilding conifers, broom and rabbits.

At a time when the Department of Conservation is having its budget squeezed, it makes sense to rely more on the emotional attachment and land management skills of those on the land.

 

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