Over the last few decades, high-country farmers who have been leasing their pastoral land from the Crown have had the opportunity to obtain some of that land freehold under the Tenure Review Scheme. Tenure Review is the process where the Crown identifies and transfers land from a Crown pastoral lease. For example, a 10,000ha farm which a farmer has leased from the crown for the last 50 years is split in half and 5000ha becomes freehold to the farmer to enable more intensive farming, whilst the other 5000ha is transferred to the Crown for conservation. The farmer gives up the right to occupy, and the Crown gives up the right to own; then a price is put on the transfer, sometimes the farmer pays the government, sometimes the other way around.
According to the scheme design, “This enables land capable of economic use to be freeholded to the leaseholder, and land with significant inherent values to be restored to full Crown ownership for protection, usually as conservation land.”
Tenure Review has contributed significantly to 12 conservation parks and areas – including Hakatere Conservation Park, Hāwea Conservation Park, Pisa conservation area, Ruataniwha Conservation Park, Ahuriri Conservation Park and The Remarkables conservation area.
But the scheme has also seen large tracts of Crown land transferred into private freehold ownership which has then been on-sold for millions of dollars: Hawea Station was one such parcel which taxpayers actually paid the farmer $2.2 million who then pocketed a further $17.5 million in the sale to 42-Below founder, Geoff Ross.
The controversial American, Peter Thiel also owns a slice of Wanaka that he bought for $13.5 million; land that originally cost the farmer $50,000 to gain freehold under Tenure Review.
The government has taken 119 pastoral leases through Tenure Review on behalf of the Commissioner of Crown Lands. This covers about 620,000ha. Of that, almost 300,000ha has been retained by the Crown with the majority of that land given to conservation purposes. But now, Minister Eugenie Sage is calling halt on a scheme that costs the taxpayers money whilst millions are pocketed by a handful of individuals. After the sale of Hawea Station, Minister Sage said in her view, the Crown had historically undervalued its interests in the land, and the process needed to ensure a benefit to the public.
"I want reassurance that the Crown is getting a fair return," she said
But it’s not just the absurdity of someone making millions of dollars in profit from taxpayers that is bringing the Tenure Review scheme into the spotlight.
Dr Susan Walker, Conservation Ecologist and Research Programme Leader, at Landcare Research, says "Our studies a decade ago showed that Tenure Review was falling short of its first goal of ecological sustainability – protecting the remaining native ecosystems, animals and plants of the interior South Island pastoral land – and was having a clear opposite effect.
"The process did retire many higher elevation areas from grazing, which was generally beneficial for indigenous ecosystems and species of that cool, steep land. However, Tenure Review also systematically privatised the most at risk and threatened ecosystems and species lower down, and exposed these to rapidly growing development pressure.
"The legacy of Tenure Review for indigenous biodiversity is severe and will be permanent. The pattern of under-representation of lower altitude and more fertile ecosystems has been exacerbated, and loss of habitat has contributed to rapidly lengthening lists of terrestrial and freshwater plants and animals, and special dryland ecosystems, that are threatened with extinction in the high country."
The environmental impact of Tenure Review is mixed. For land transferred to DOC, the results have been largely good. The Hāwea Conservation Park which was obtained by DOC in the Hawea Station review, is home to many threatened birds, including kea, rock wren, falcon, black fronted tern, wrybill, kaka and parakeets, as well as gecko, and special plant species including the pittosporum patulum, the red flowering mistletoe, the tree daisy olearia lineata and coral broom. It is also home to numerous popular DOC hiking trails; Te Araroa trail, Dingleburn, Breast Hill, Hunter Valley, Kidds Bush, the Lake Hawea track and more.
But whilst land parcels transferred to DOC have been largely thriving and enjoying ecological protection, the freehold land is being degraded further through more intensive farming that would never have been previously allowed on Crown Land. So the net results, in ecological terms, appears to be zero.
As the issue enters parliamentary discourse with a guillotine falling over the scheme, Federated Farmers is concerned its members will get caught in the crossfire of debate.
“Federated Farmers is pleased with the assurances from Land Information Manager Eugenie Sage that negotiations with those properties already in tenure review will continue on a case-by-case basis,” says Simon Williamson, Federated Farmers High Country Chairperson.
“Eight leaseholders have already accepted a substantive proposal from the Crown, meaning there is a binding contract and an obligation on the Commissioner of Crown Lands to implement a Tenure Review. But there are 26 other leaseholders at other stages of the process. Federated Farmers strongly contends that negotiations should continue with them under existing legislative procedures. Budget provision should be available to ensure farming operations remain viable, with compensation for land and improvements returned to the conservation estate," Williamson says.
"We also urge that the current legislative and case-law property rights are respected for those leaseholders continuing under their current pastoral leases."
As to the way forward now, the Government has developed a set of outcomes it wants to achieve for Crown pastoral land. These outcomes would be included in the Crown Pastoral Land Act. They include: ensuring that the natural landscapes, indigenous biodiversity, and cultural and heritage values are secured and safeguarded through the Crown’s management of the land; allowing for pastoral and non-pastoral activities that support economic resilience and local communities; and enabling the Crown to obtain a fair financial return.
The upcoming consultation asks the public for their views on the outcomes, as well as what changes to the Crown pastoral land regulatory system are needed to achieve those outcomes. Feedback is also being sought on how the Crown can honour the Treaty of Waitangi in respect to Crown pastoral land, and what Treaty principles should be applied in decision making.
LINZ is encouraging people to read the discussion document and invites feedback on the proposals. Submissions can be made online or by downloading a form which can be posted to LINZ. For more information on the Crown pastoral land consultation, or to make a submission, visit the LINZ website: www.linz.govt.nz/cplc. The consultation closes on Friday, April 12.