Hostilities renew between pro- and anti-irrigation lobbies in Mackenzie Basin

by Rebecca Macfie / 10 January, 2017
Greening of the high country: intensive irrigated dairy farming south of Twizel. Photo/Peter Scott

A nor’wester is whistling down the lake and rattling at the windows of Mike and Louise Neilson’s Lake Ohau Lodge.

The snow has mostly gone from the slopes of the Ohau Range, from where skiers and boarders at the Neilsons’ small skifield can look eastwards across a vast ­landscape sculpted by glaciers and desiccating wind, and rippled by the ancient movement of meltwater and braided rivers.

These days, the summers are busier than the winters for the Neilsons, thanks to the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway. The trail takes cyclists beside the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki and the giant Ohau hydro canal, and up the western shoreline of Lake Ohau to the lodge. When the Neilsons wave them off in the morning, they pedal along the foot of the mountains and gaze across the broad, dry expanse of the Ohau glacial outwash plain. On a fine day, they can see Aoraki/Mt Cook shimmering to the north.

They come for the grandeur of the scenery, the crispness of the air, the delicate colour palette of tawny brown and blue and the clarity of the high-country skies. Few go away disappointed. Last summer, occupancy at the Neilsons’ lodge was up 22%. Across the Mackenzie and neighbouring Waitaki districts, guest nights now exceed a million a year.

When Mike Neilson isn’t tending to his guests and dealing with the myriad daily challenges of running a small tourism business in a remote location, he is chairing the recently formed Mackenzie Country Trust and thinking about how the dramatic landscape that his visitors come to experience can be protected from the juggernaut of development that is turning huge areas of the arid Mackenzie Basin into bright green pasture and crops.

For the past five years, his business has been testing an “eco-points” scheme, which invites buyers of ski season passes to put $25 towards the protection of the basin’s unique biodiversity; his business matches their contribution with $15. Through the trust, he is planning to promote the idea to other tourism operators in the district. He thinks the scheme has the potential to generate up to $2 million a year. If philanthropists and international environmental groups can be encouraged to chip in, and if the Government can be persuaded to give up a slice of the $2.8 billion in GST revenue collected annually from tourists, Neilson believes the trust will be in a position to pay farmers to protect valuable areas of this celebrated landscape.

The notion of paying landowners to conserve rather than intensify their land was formalised three years ago in the Mackenzie Agreement, an aspirational document signed by 22 environmental groups, farmers, irrigators and tourism operators and enthusiastically backed by central and local government.

After years of legal warfare over the expansion of irrigation and dairy farming in the Mackenzie Basin – recognised by the Environment Court in 2010 as an outstanding natural landscape – the agreement signalled a new era of peace, in which everyone got something of what they wanted.

The deal’s signatories acknowledged that the region needed farming, tourism and the environment to prosper together. There was room for a further 25,000ha of irrigation development to help shore up the economic viability of high-country farming, and 100,000ha of scenic tussock-clad landscape and endemic flora and fauna would be protected. The long-term vision was the formation of a drylands park. 

Lake Ohau and the Mackenzie Basin. Photo/Peter Scott

In the trust we trust

The trust was to be the engine room of the agreement. It would be set up under special legislation and charged with negotiating with farmers to set aside areas of high conservation value and paying them to look after it. It was a novel approach that embraced the idea of a working landscape in which native ecosystems, farming and tourism would co-exist and thrive.

But nothing has happened to bring the vision to fruition; it is business as usual. Environment Canterbury issued resource consents for irrigating thousands of hectares of the basin. High-country leaseholders have been granted approval to irrigate and increase stocking rates from the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who considered the Mackenzie Agreement to be irrelevant to his role as high-country landlord. The process of tenure review – the carve-up of Government-owned high-country stations into mountainous areas to be handed over to the Department of Conservation while lower country is privatised under freehold title to farmers – continued unabated.

Despite expressing strong support for the Mackenzie Agreement, the Government refused to pass legislation giving it legal teeth (although Environment Minister Nick Smith says that remains “an option”). It took until February last year to set up the trust, with $200,000 in establishment funding from DoC and the Ministry for the Environment.

In the meantime, the greening of the Mackenzie Basin has continued apace. Irrigation, direct drilling, top dressing with fertiliser, oversowing with pasture seed and intensive stocking – especially with dairy cows and beef cattle – have wiped out swathes of dryland habitat for rare native species that had survived hundreds of years of ecosystem stress from the fires of moa-hunting Maori and high-country farmers, overgrazing by sheep and rabbits, and competition from wilding pines and the invasive ground-cover weed hieracium (hawkweed).

Mike and Louise Neilson.

Although highly modified by burning, farming and massive hydroelectric development, the basin has nevertheless remained a stronghold for more than 80 threatened or at-risk native plants – many of them small, dull-coloured species perfectly adapted for fierce dry summers and freezing winters – as well as eight species of threatened birds and a range of rare invertebrates and freshwater fish.

But Landcare Research ecologist Susan Walker estimates 68,000ha of indigenous vegetation have been wiped out since 1990. More than half of that has gone in the past seven years, and more recently still, the rate of clearance has accelerated, she says in a court affidavit.

“The scale and pace of clearance I have observed across the Mackenzie Basin in the past year is unprecedented in my 20 years’ experience. It is happening at a landscape scale.”

Walker’s analysis chimes with that of DoC ecologist Nicholas Head in evidence to the Environment Court over the Mackenzie District Council’s controversial plan change 13, which the council initiated a decade ago to protect the landscape from subdivision and inappropriate farm intensification, and which is still bogged down in court hearings.

Head says even though most of the basin’s alluvial outwash ecosystems are “extensively depleted”, those that haven’t been intensively developed for farming retain “significant ecological values and require careful and sensitive management. They provide habitats for threatened ‘desert flora’, such as ‘spring annuals’, and breeding habitats for banded dotterels.”

But he cites “widespread destruction” of moraine and alluvial outwash ecosystems since 2000, with up to 47% ecosystem loss in the Omarama area and the almost total loss of the “nationally significant” grasslands of the Twizel-Omarama zone. The primary cause has been farming changes that have gone ahead with “little scrutiny of the significant ecological values that may have been affected”.

Outstanding landscape: the Pukaki glacial outwash plain, which is to be irrigated and developed for dairying and intensive sheep and beef farming. Photo/Peter Scott

Horse-trading to protect environment

More recently, the land development juggernaut has moved north from the Omarama-Twizel area to the broad Pukaki glacial outwash plain, much of which is still owned by the Crown and leased as part of Simons Pass high-country station. Along with the neighbouring freehold property, Simons Hill, Simons Pass is owned by Dunedin accountant Murray Valentine, who recently won a nine-year legal battle with environmental groups Forest & Bird and Mackenzie Guardians to irrigate 4800ha of the Pukaki flats with water piped from the Tekapo hydro canal.

It has been a bruising contest, which Valentine’s opponents agreed to settle a few weeks ago on the condition that he set aside 1800ha of land to be destocked and controlled for predators and wilding pines. Similar horse-trading between farmers and the two environmental groups has resulted in deals to set aside areas of ecologically valuable land on several other properties in the basin, including Ohau Downs, whose owner once had controversial plans for massive dairy development.

Valentine told the Listener he has investors “earmarked” to fund the $150 million-odd cost of intensively developing the land. Over the next seven years, the dry glacial flats will probably become the site for up to 30 pivot irrigators, 5500 dairy cows, three milking sheds and a large beef and sheep platform. His original plan was to farm 15,000 dairy cows, but he now says the operation will support both dairying and intensive beef and sheep finishing, with irrigation making possible the production of enough lucerne, silage and grass to feed the stock year-round.

During the tenure review process, large parts of the Pukaki flats were cited by DoC as an area of significant biodiversity and landscape values, but Valentine has oversown and direct-drilled with the fodder crop ryecorn over the past four to five years, with the approval of the Mackenzie District Council. Contrary to some ecologists’ assessments that the area was important habitat for rare biodiversity, Valentine claims it was mostly hieracium and bare land, and tonnes of soil were lost to wind erosion every year.

Forest & Bird’s Jen Miller mourns the loss of the “beautiful alluvial outwash plain”, but Valentine says he has done exactly what was envisaged by the Mackenzie Agreement by setting aside a significant area of land for protection.

Much of the rest of the expansive Pukaki plain is being developed by the owners of Bendrose Station, who have been granted resource consent to irrigate more than 1000ha and plan to go into intensive cropping and seed production.

Including the recently settled Simons Pass irrigation consent, almost 12,000ha of new irrigation has been approved by Environment Canterbury in the past three years, although this week an application by the Benmore Irrigation Company to double its area under irrigation to more than 7000ha was declined by a hearings panel.

At the same time, many farmers have responded to the prospect of tighter land-use restrictions under the Mackenzie District Council’s proposed plan change 13, and new biodiversity rules imposed by Environment Canterbury, by rushing to cultivate the land more intensively while they still can.

John Murray, who has farmed The Wolds station for decades, believes the proposed rules – which include the protection of tourist viewing areas and scenic tussock-clad zones near State Highway 8 – are an erosion of farmers’ property rights. He was a signatory to the Mackenzie Agreement, but says if the Government is serious about looking after the basin’s landscape and biodiversity, “it will have to get its chequebook out … Why should we [farmers] pay for preserving the Mackenzie Basin for the nation?”

Irrigated farmland south of Twizel. Photo/Peter Scott

Battle rejoined

So, after the ceasefire brought about by the signing of the Mackenzie Agreement in 2013, the land wars have broken out again. Farmers complain of entrapment by what they see as restrictive rules and green lobbyists determined to tie them up in endless consent hearings; environmentalists such as Forest & Bird’s Miller feel duped by a collaborative talkfest that distracted them while the forces of ecological destruction ploughed on.

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) – the group that six years ago launched the process that led to the Mackenzie Agreement – claims a “goldrush” of development is destroying a “truly iconic New Zealand landscape that is essentially disappearing by tens of thousands of hectares”. Next week, it is heading to the Environment Court in a bid to throw a regulatory spanner in the land developers’ works, alleging the Mackenzie District Council is wrongly applying a rule in its district plan that has enabled landowners such as Valentine to rip up rare dryland ecosystems.

EDS chairman Gary Taylor claims the Mackenzie Basin is at a “tipping point” that calls for “extraordinary intervention”. He says the legal challenge is an attempt to “create a window of time” to get a proper system of planning controls in place before the landscape is destroyed.

But despite the renewed legal skirmishing and the disenchantment of some environmentalists – particularly Forest & Bird, which walked away from participation in the Mackenzie Country Trust – many believe there is little choice but to continue working for the principles underpinning the collaborative agreement.

Haldon Station farmer Paddy Boyd, who was a signatory to the Mackenzie Agreement and is a trustee of the Mackenzie Country Trust , says green groups who seek to “take ownership” of the basin from afar would find the region overrun by rabbits and wilding pines if it was simply “closed up” for conservation and tourism.

“It would be an absolute disaster. The cost that farmers pay to maintain this land is very high, and the only way we can stay sustainable to do that is to stay competitive.”

Haldon Station has been granted resource consent to irrigate about 900ha of its 22,000ha expanse, and Boyd says that is needed to make the farm economically sustainable. Irrigation lets him grow enough feed to hold stock through particularly dry years so they can be sold in prime condition at the best prices, rather than under pressure at the bottom of the market. “Our returns are cut by a third if not a half in those bad years. That doesn’t make us sustainable.”

The property is going through tenure review, and Boyd says he aims to place “as much as possible” of the land to be freeholded into protective covenants, with weeds and pests kept under control. He sees little point in handing land over to DoC for protection, when “they can’t maintain what they’ve got. Their weed and pest control is abysmal. They don’t have the funds … The land has to have a caretaker and I think the best caretaker you can have is someone who is farming it, but they have to be able to stay economical to be able to do that.”

Tipping point: ecosystem loss in the Mackenzie Basin since 2000 as a result of agricultural intensification. Maps from Doc

Tipping point: ecosystem loss in the Mackenzie Basin since 2000 as a result of agricultural intensification.

Multifunctional approach

According to Mick Abbott, head of Lincoln University’s school of landscape architecture, the challenge is to shift away from our traditional approach to land husbandry. “One of the things that New Zealand has found difficult is the idea of multifunctional landscapes. We either have to have public conservation land with the highest protection possible, or it’s rip, shit and bust. And that holds us back.

“We need to see the Mackenzie Agreement as an opportunity to achieve conservation outcomes as well as pay for the likes of our hip replacements through having a vibrant economy and society … What is problematic is the idea that somehow we have to stop development because if we don’t, the biodiversity will be lost. But let’s try to imagine what kind of development would increase the biodiversity values,” says Abbott, who chairs the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board.

“The standard argument would be to buy the whole Mackenzie and set it up as a giant national park, but we don’t have the resources to do that. DoC can’t manage what it already has. It’s got 2000-odd employees looking after an area the size of Switzerland and Denmark combined. We have had 40,000ha in Canterbury alone come into public conservation land in the past two years through tenure review.

“So the model of just saying we need larger and larger tracts of conservation land is not feasible. The challenge is how can we imagine an improved ecology that also ­benefits us socially and economically.”

UPDATE: The Environmental Defence Society and Mackenzie District Council reached an out of court settlement late last year to halt further indigenous vegetation clearance. Hearings on Plan Change 13, which will establish new landscape protection rules for the district, will be held this year.

This article was first published in the December 17, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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