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West Coast councils 'need access to conservation land' for mining

A tramper in the Paparoa Range, above Westport, walks between the the Paparoa Wilderness Area and an area of stewardship land. Conservation land makes up about 84 percent of the West Coast's total area, and a third is stewardship land. Photo: Supplied / Copyright : Neil Silverwood

West Coast councils want to be excluded from conservation mining ban.

West Coast councils are lobbying the government to exclude the region from its mining ban on conservation land.

They want to wait until conservation land known as stewardship land has been reviewed and potentially reclassified.

In November 2017, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced there would be no new mines on conservation land, and a consultation document on the matter was supposed to be released last September.

Correspondence between the West Coast mayors and the Conservation Minister released to RNZ show the mayors were floored by the announcement and they believe they were entitled to be consulted on the matter.

Earlier this year, the mayors of Buller, Grey and Westland districts, as well as the chairman of the West Coast Regional Council all signed a letter to five ministers saying the region should be excluded from the ban.

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Conservation land makes up about 84 percent of the West Coast's total area and the Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said this left only 16 percent of private land available for economic development.

He said no other region would survive under the same circumstances.

"On Department of Conservation land there is huge amounts of rare earth minerals, there's moss, there's gravel, there's granite extraction for protection works for flooding, so there's a lot of minerals including gold, so what we're saying to the government is we do need access to conservation land."

Until stewardship land had been reviewed and potentially reclassified, the letter said the region should be kept out of the ban.

A third of the conservation estate is stewardship land, which is the term given to a swathe of land that was allocated to DOC when it was formed in 1987.

It is managed as conservation area and is protected for its natural values, but it is essentially in a holding pen waiting to be given either additional protection, or it can be sold or swapped for other land.

Stewardship land is the only category of conservation land that can be sold or swapped.

Mr Kokshoorn said the councils understood there was a need to transition away from carbon, and a review of stewardship land would be an opportunity to find out what development could be done with the land, such as rare earth mineral extraction like lithium used in electric car batteries.

Mr Kokshoorn is adamant in the proceeding months since the ban was announced the government has softened its stance.

"I think the government has slowed it down and I think that's a good thing, I think the government is having a second look and saying well hang on we do need economic development in New Zealand, so let's make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, the West Coast needs economic development."

Eugenie Sage. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

But Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said it was not the plan to exclude the West Coast from the ban.

"The no new mines policy will look at all conservation land," Ms Sage said.

When asked if the government's stance had softened, Ms Sage said the mayors had not seen the consultation document yet and should wait before drawing any conclusions.

"They have made it very clear to me both in meetings and in their correspondence what their views are. They are very good advocates for resource extraction and the mining sector on the West Coast."

Ms Sage said there were "ongoing discussions" when questioned whether a stance on the ban had softened because of pressure from the likes of New Zealand First.

Forest and Bird's Debs Martin said protecting the biodiversity of the land was fundamentally more important than what the councils were trying to dig up.

She said New Zealand needed to think much more sustainably about the way we lived in this kind of valuable environment.

"We've got over 4000 plants and animals that are in trouble, now they're things that will go extinct in the future unless we turn the whole economy around and start thinking differently about the way that we try and extract from our environment," Ms Martin said.

The consultation document has yet to go to Cabinet and Ms Sage could not give a date for when it might be released.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.