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Thirty years ago, the Labour government of the day sent groups of scientists off on a mission. They were asked to find the parts of the landscape that still reflected the way New Zealand was before people began making changes. One of the Recommended Areas for Protection (RAPs) they came up with was a 590ha area of land above the Clutha River at South Hawea Flat, near Wanaka. Last month that RAP went under the plough. Mark Price reports.
On the road between Luggate and Hawea Flat your eye is drawn west to the majestic snow-capped mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park.
The flat land in the foreground barely registers.
But this land - 590ha of half-cultivated dry grass and tussock along Kane Rd - has suddenly become a battleground between conservationists and farmers.
Two months ago, a digger began dragging kanuka, scrub and the odd pine tree into heaps.
Two weeks ago, a tractor towing a chunky set of discs started turning over the topsoil.
By the time the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society obtained an Environment Court enforcement order on Monday, the agricultural contractor had already left the field.
However, the order means the farmer cannot seed, water or fertilise the land until the matter has been settled in court.
Conservationists know the land in question as South Hawea Flat, Lindis RAP (A12) - RAP standing for Recommended Area for Protection.
Correspondence between Forest and Bird and the Queenstown Lakes District Council over the farmer's cultivation has focused on the rarity of the land's native plants.
But the man who helped establish Lindis RAP (A12) and other RAPs in the Upper Clutha emphasises there is more to the issue.
Now retired from the Department of Conservation and living in Gisborne, Dr Chris Ward told the Otago Daily Times last week Lindis RAP (A12) was recommended for protection 30 years ago because it represented a landscape that was in danger of disappearing entirely.
''The essence of the value of places like this is not simply the rare species.
''It's actually about having the whole system of the landform and the ecological and geological history of the land and the soils and the vegetation that goes with the whole system.
''It reflects a large proportion of the character of the Upper Clutha.''
Dr Ward said when they started looking for places still in their native state, they already had ''very little to start with''.
''The whole context was to identify the best of what remained and then seek its protection rather than see everything degraded to minuscule remnants. These areas - whatever their degree of modification - they still had very high natural values.''
Dr Ward said Lindis RAP (A12) combined the high terrace of Hawea Flat and the drop-off to a set of low terraces leading to the Clutha River.
''The whole point of it was that it was very much undeveloped in the pastoral sense and had large amounts of its indigenous character - though obviously highly modified through grazing and fire.''
The report he helped produce noted the area's ''excellent terrace sequence''.
''The total extent of the RAP, although considerable, is little more than 1% of the original extent of terrace landforms dominated by fescue tussockland and shrubland in the Upper Clutha, and barely sufficient to give an adequate visual impression of the earlier landscape.''
While its vegetation had been ''strongly modified'' by grazing and fire, the report described what remained as ''substantially native communities''.
The report suggested the reasons the land had not been developed further were because the soils were ''among the poorest of the flatlands'' and irrigation water was relatively inaccessible.
Reflecting on the many RAPs he helped identify in the 1980s, Dr Ward said there had been ''more grief than satisfaction'' over how they had fared.
While some had been formally protected, many had not.
''It's the old problem that every success in conservation is temporary and every loss is permanent.''
''When an area is protected, or a decision is made not to destroy something, it can be seen as a victory or a gain for conservation. But it's always temporary because these things can be reversed.
Dr Ward said the cultivation of Lindis RAP (A12) was another of the losses in a world system with a bias against conservation.
''What's left of the natural scheme of things is always being whittled away, and every generation seems to take another chunk of it.
''I'm sure there will be people who will say there was an awful lot of this [Upper Clutha land]. But if every generation takes 60% of what's remaining and leaves 40%, thinking that's being generous, then that becomes two-thirds of five-eighths of [not much].''
Revealing his geological background, Dr Ward said a ''key part'' of the value of an area like Lindis RAP (A12) was its soil.
''The discs turning over the soil have already done irreversible damage. You can't undo that.
''The actual soil profile ... is a reflection of the geological and human history up until now.
''Getting to the guts of natural character is recognising that an undisturbed soil is a key part.''
RAPs were a product of the Protected Natural Areas Programme (PNAP) that began in 1983.
The programme was intended to protect native landscape features and provide the government with a basis for negotiation with landowners about formal protection.
It was controversial at the time, with some landowners refusing survey parties access, believing they could lose the parts of their properties identified as RAPs.
Philip Woollaston, associate minister for the environment (1987-88) and minister of conservation (1989-90) told the ODT the surveying ''tapered off'' after the 1980s, for economic reasons.
''It was never formally abandoned but just withered on the branch because of cost-cutting.''
Some RAPs got protection via the tenure review process, and by other means, but Lindis RAP (A12) was not one of those.
A report done for the QLDC in February last year by ecologist Rebecca Lawrence did, however, recommend part of the RAP be ''taken forward'' for further consideration as ''significant indigenous vegetation and fauna habitat''.
That would put Lindis RAP (A12) in the district plan and would require the landowner to gain resource consent before carrying out the type of work that has now been done.
Recommended Areas of Protection (RAPs):
The land known as South Hawea Flat, Lindis RAP (A12) is one of 19 RAPs in section 4 of a 1980s document called the Lindis, Pisa and Dunstan Ecological Districts Survey Report for Protected Natural Areas.
The others are:
Double Peak, Chain Hills, Dip Creek (two), Morven Hills, Grandview Creek, Hospital Creek, Lagoon Creek, East Camp Creek, West Camp Creek, Long Gully, Long Gully Terrace, Upper Smiths Creek, North Lindis Pass, Mid Breast Creek, Grandview Tops, West Chain Hills, Lindis Crossing.
The report also lists RAPs in the Pisa and Dunstan areas.