The recent announcement by Forest and Bird that they will be seeking judicial review of the Department of Conservation (DoC) decision to exchange part of the Ruahine Forest Park to enable the damming of the Makaroro River in the Hawkes Bay was expected and is justified.
In New Zealand we have a tiered system of protection for public conservation land. The land areas set aside for National Parks, as the jewels in our crown, can only be revised by Parliament. On the other hand, stewardship land – land which is still awaiting assessment for conservation values and final classification – may be exchanged for other land in limited circumstances.
The Ruahine Forest Park sits between these two extremes. Forest Parks are one of several land classifications known as “specially protected areas”. Other land classifications in this group include Wilderness Areas and Ecological Areas. These are all places important to many New Zealanders such as the Tararuas, the Adams Wilderness and Aotea Conservation Park. The status of these areas, or parts of them, may be revoked, but only if the conservation values of the specific land in question do not merit the status.
Regrettably, in the case of this specially protected area, the decision to revoke the status was made not because of its own conservation values, which are unquestionably sufficient to justify a specially protected status, but in order to reclassify the area as stewardship land and so enable it to then be swapped. Such manoeuvres collapse the distinction between specially protected areas and stewardship land, making decades of work to properly classify specially protected areas irrelevant.
FMC accepts that there will be occasional cases when the greater public good warrants development of small parcels of public conservation land. However, rather than stretching the law beyond breaking point and undoing decades of hard work to protect the natural areas that are so important to our national identity, lifestyle and wellbeing, proper mechanisms must be used. Indeed, the Public Works Act, which enables land to be acquired compulsorily for infrastructure projects and requires a rigorous public-good test, should have been invoked here.
Ironically, this decision comes at a time when there are calls for urgent classification of stewardship land, which amounts to a third of all public conservation land, or roughly ten percent of land in New Zealand. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has called for DoC to make headway in its classification program, which has largely lain dormant for 28 years, a call actively amplified by FMC through our Forgotten Lands campaign. DOC staff, Conservation Boards and the New Zealand Conservation Authority have been actively gearing up for this and the question now is, aside from land to be added to National Parks, is there any point?
To add insult to injury the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has already asked whether DOC’s approach to land exchanges is appropriate even in the case of bona fide stewardship land. Arguably, the real intent behind the law that allows exchanges is to enable minor boundary adjustments to be made, where land of little conservation value can be ceded to a landowner in return for adjacent land that does have conservation value.
Previous examples of questionable land exchanges include the swap of Crystal Basin, adjacent to the Porters skifield in Canterbury, for a patch of bush on Banks Peninsula, a deal that only benefited the applicant’s asset valuation. Crystal Basin had been purchased by the Nature Heritage Fund, a government fund that exists to protect indigenous ecosystems, as an important future addition to Craigieburn Forest Park. It seemed to us that lessons from then had been learned and progress was being made, but the Ruahine Forest Park situation shows us that this is not entirely the case and DOC’s decision-making processes – referred to earlier this year by the Ombudsman as “nonsense on stilts” in regards to the extension of a guiding concession on the Routeburn – is again in the spotlight. There seems to be less focus on applying the law than there is on achieving political agendas.
Robin McNeill – FMC President