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Niall Watson warns of dire and irreversible consequences if tenure review proposals for two properties in Central Otago's Nevis Valley proceed unchanged.
There is something rotten about Land Information New Zealand's (Linz) preliminary proposals for tenure reviews on Ben Nevis and Craigroy pastoral leases in Central Otago's Nevis Valley.
And there will be dire consequences for outdoor recreation, biodiversity and river conservation if the proposals for the two lease properties go ahead unchanged.
This is a complex tangle of an issue, but it's important.
Tenure review is the process by which Crown pastoral lease land is assessed and split into the land suitable for freeholding to private interests for economic use, and the land to be retained by the Crown as reserve land for conservation and recreation purposes.
The primary objects of tenure review under the Crown Pastoral Lands Act are the ecological sustainability of land under review, and the protection of significant inherent values on the land, so the public's interests are clearly the first priority.
Submissions on the two Nevis Valley reviews closed on November 30 last year and are being analysed by Linz.
However, there is clear evidence that the preliminary proposals put before the public will neither achieve the ecological sustainability of the land concerned, nor adequately protect significant inherent values present on the Nevis Valley floor.
Rather than reflecting the important biodiversity, landscape, recreational, historic and cultural values present on land earmarked for freeholding, the tenure review deals are based on a prior agreement that the Department of Conservation developed with power company Pioneer Generation Ltd (PGL).
The agreement trades off mostly high-altitude pastoral land, which Doc wants as extensions to conservation parks, for Nevis Valley floor land that Pioneer wants as freehold for a hydro-electricity power scheme.
Doc initially tried to claim the agreement came about as a result of the Water Conservation (Kawarau) Order 1997, but that is not correct.
It's an agreement that was first revealed to Linz as recently as 2008 and it has predetermined the shape of the preliminary proposals before the only opportunity the public has to be involved in the process.
Pioneer Generation bought the two pastoral leases in 1997.
It is a small Central Otago-based power company, wholly owned by a community trust (Central Lakes Trust) that makes annual grants to community groups within its catchment area.
Pioneer Generation has plans to develop a 40MW hydro-electricity dam on the Nevis River, despite the area's high environmental sensitivity, importance for biodiversity and for outdoor recreation.
It wants freehold title to land on the Nevis Valley floor, including a dam footprint, to advance those plans.
The valley floor land proposed for freeholding is to be subject to landscape covenants intended to protect the important values present in perpetuity, but there are a couple of serious problems with them.
First, not all the important values are mentioned in the covenants.
Rare fish, skinks and plants are not mentioned and nor is public access.
Second, the covenants require the Minister of Conservation to agree to move the protection to one side in the event of a hydro-electricity development proposal in line with the Doc agreement.
In reality, the covenants offer little or no protection to the significant values present.
The grim irony is that it is the vulnerable species and threatened habitats which are at risk if the valley floor is privatised.
The proposed freehold land is home to a unique native fish, Smeagol galaxias, which is now considered a species in its own right.
It lives mostly in smaller tributary streams draining pastoral lease land.
It also hosts rare and threatened skinks and plants, and a remarkably intact historic goldfield site; probably the most intact in New Zealand.
The river system supports a trophy brown-trout fishery and provides outstanding kayaking opportunity, as well.
By comparison, the high-altitude land to be retained by the Crown is not under any specific threat.
In terms of public access, the river and floodplain area is the focus for most Nevis Valley visitors, although the tops are used and enjoyed by trampers, hunters and cross-country skiers.
Some describe the area as an outdoor museum, and its location close to Queenstown makes it valuable for nature-based tourism and an obvious cycleway connection between the Central Otago Rail Trail and new cycle trails planned for Southland.
Tenure review is a closed process.
The final decision is made by the Commissioner of Crown Lands with Doc acting in an advisory capacity.
There is no right of appeal over decisions made.
The public has only one opportunity to influence the process, through public submissions on the preliminary proposal, but that has proven to be unproductive in the past; little or no change being the usual outcome.
There is one further disturbing aspect to this conservation horror story.
The land valuations on which the two tenure reviews are based do not make much sense.
Pioneer Generation is set to get freehold title to 7891ha of lower slopes and valley floor land.
This includes the best of the grazing land and the potential hydro-electricity dam footprint.
The Crown retains 11,118ha of mostly higher-altitude land which must be of considerably less economic worth than valley floor land, even if it is only the grazing value which is taken into account.
Yet Linz proposes to make an additional equalisation payment of $3 million of public money to Pioneer Generation to compensate the company for its interest in the high-altitude land returned to the Crown.
This can only mean that valley floor land with potential future use for hydro-electricity development has been seriously undervalued in the calculation.
That may be because the protective covenants proposed for the freehold land are presumed to actually restrict future use and so limit the value of the land.
But by design, the covenants won't protect against hydro-electricity development, the most likely future use.
So the public looks set to lose ownership of a heritage landscape no less important than the Shotover, and will also have to pay $3 million for the privilege.
• Niall Watson is chief executive of the Otago Fish and Game Council.