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David Round: The Conservation Issue

There is gunfire every night in the streets of the country’s largest city. The health system is on the verge of collapse. Somewhere around 40% of school pupils regularly play truant. Cabinet Ministers openly talk of replacing elected democracy with an apartheid regime. In the face of widespread opposition a law is pushed through the legislature seizing the water assets of local councils and handing them over to the governing party’s racially-selected mates. Mainstream news media are silenced with strings-attached public funding. High-ranking well-paid positions are given to family members of Cabinet Ministers. Supposedly independent and impartial judges take their instructions from government officials, and decide cases not by the law but by racial ideology. The government appoints an extremist anti-white bigot as co-leader of a new ‘violent extremism research centre’.

The Third World? Well, look in the mirror, New Zealand. This is us.

You may not, however, have heard of the public conservation land rort. The conservation estate, around one third of our country and perhaps our greatest treasure, is managed by the Department of Conservation. About one third of that, 9% of New Zealand, is currently classified as ‘stewardship land’. The name is something of an historical accident, but the term refers to land not yet given any higher classification ~ such as national park, national reserve, various sorts of other reserves or protected areas or even the lowly ‘conservation park’. Conservationists have long urged Ministers of Conservation and the Department to assess stewardship lands and give these areas, which include much absolutely wonderful country, the higher protective classifications they deserve.

The Department, whose speed makes glaciers seem lively, has eventually begun the process. The first part of the country reviewed is Westland, from Karamea down to Haast. The deliberations have actually been made not by Departmental staff themselves but by a panel of ‘independent technical experts’, people with expertise in scientific fields, conservation, outdoor recreation and matauranga Maori. That is all as it should be. Maori history and lore is certainly a valid consideration like all the others when making such big decisions.

And then, for obscure reasons, the Crown allowed itself to be bullied into adding a ‘mana whenua panel’, to represent the interests of the local tangata whenua, the Ngai Tahu sub-tribes, as well. There can be little doubt that Ngai Tahu invoked section 4 of the Conservation Act, which states very briefly that ‘[t]his Act shall so be interpreted and administered as to give effect to the principles of the Treaty’. No further details are given as to what this might mean, and so it is open to mean anything and everything. The Act is still supposed to come first ~ and a good argument could be made that after a full and final settlement of outstanding grievances, there simply are no further Maori interests beyond the settlement which require protection ~ but needless to say, section 4 is invoked at every turn to justify any further demand for special treatment.

Both panels, of independent experts and local Maori, have made draft recommendations. This is where the process is at present. The public may now make their submissions to the expert panel on their set of recommendations. (There will be no public submissions on the mana whenua panel’s recommendations, of course.) The expert panel will then refine its recommendations appropriately, and then both panels will send their recommendations off to the Minister or, where the recommendation is to enlarge a national park, to the Conservation Authority. It is then up to the Minister or the Authority to act on them, or not, as they please.

Before going any further, it bears repeating that despite its name, much of this West Coast stewardship land has both the most amazing natural, ecological and scientific values and also wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The member of the expert panel with particular knowledge and expertise in outdoor recreation was obliged, for the most innocent reasons, to resign from the panel late last year. The panel’s chair, Dr Jan Wright, a former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, also resigned about that time, just as work began. The then Minister did not bother to replace them. Such, presumably, is the respect she held for the interests they represent.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Ngai Tahu is not keen on national parks. This might surprise us. Who could possibly oppose national park status for our country’s most wonderful natural areas? And after all, in 1998 there was a ‘full and final settlement’ ~ yet another one ~ of Ngai Tahu’s eternal grudge. But the mana whenua panel has announced that Ngai Tahu ‘opposes all additions to national parks’ within its 1840 tribal boundaries ~ because they would ‘alienate Ngai Tahu from [their] ancestral lands’. This is, in effect, to renounce the full and final settlement. Ngai Tahu’s word is worthless. It is also to predetermine the reclassification issue even before the process has begun. The mana whenua panel is asked to consider future land status ~ and it begins by completely excluding one such status, that of national park, from their list of possibilities. Nor is Ngai Tahu keen on any other high levels of protection. Section 4 encourages their high and mighty aspirations, and their ambitions to advance well beyond the terms of the full and final settlement they signed not very long ago.

Ngai Tahu also dislikes national parks because the taking of native plants and animals is not allowed there. We might think that such a prohibition is fair enough. There should be somewhere in the country, surely, where native flora and fauna are safe from human predation. Cultural supplies can surely be sourced elsewhere. And if they are unavailable elsewhere, surely they are so rare that they should not be sourced anywhere?

And as it happens, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps to your surprise, some national park management plans do actually make provision for takings for Maori cultural purposes; although none for anyone else’s…

So ~ Ngai Tahu is opposed to national park extensions. Ngai Tahu is not very keen on any higher levels of protection at all, and would prefer that stewardship land should either retain that status, or, if it were to receive a higher status, should receive as low a higher status as possible. As I say, this stance ab initio is surely enough of itself to deprive their recommendations of any respect.

We should note here that the status of ‘conservation park’, does not, despite its name, offer much more protection than stewardship status does. Subject to the relevant planning documents, over which, of course, Ngai Tahu has significant influence, coal mines, gold mines, hydro-electric developments and who knows what else may be developed there.

The main panel of experts has openly acknowledged that it has been influenced by Ngai Tahu’s attitude. And what do you know? The expert panel’s final recommendations, when they surfaced several weeks ago, propose only a handful of additions to two national parks. They also propose giving many absolutely wonderful areas, entirely worthy of national park status, or national reserve (almost as good) or ecological or scientific reserve or wildlife management area (for areas of amazing natural values) only the lowly status of….conservation park.

The wonderful Waitaha Valley, for example, between Ross and Harihari, is destined for conservation park, which would allow hydro-electric generation. Several years ago Westpower applied for a ‘concession’ ~ the term used in the Conservation Act ~ for hydro-electric development in the Waitaha, and that application was declined by David Parker, the then Minister of Conservation, in 2019, specifically because of the valley’s natural beauty and wilderness qualities. But just a few days after the release of the current recommendations, the Greymouth Evening Star announced that an application has been made to reconsider Mr Parker’s decision. The reconsideration is sought by a partnership of Westpower and….Ngai Tahu ~ specifically, Arahura Holding Ltd, the business entity of Ngai Tahu’s Ngati Waewae sub-tribe, and Te Runanga o Makaawhio, another sub-tribe based at Bruce Bay.

If the Waitaha does not deserve to be national park, then what area does? Yet the mana whenua panel had recommended that the land remain stewardship land ‘to allow for local community hydro aspirations’. Obviously influenced by this recommendation, the main panel has recommended merely that it become conservation park.

The chair of the mana whenua panel is Mr Francois Tumahai, who is also the chair of …Ngati Waewae! And also the CEO of…Arahura Holding. His wife, Lisa Tumahai, is also a director of Arahura Holding, as well as the current chairperson of Ngai Tahu and the deputy Chair of the Climate Change Commission. Mr Tumahai is also on the West Coast Regional Council, Development West Coast, the Westland District Council, and also the West Coast Conservation Board, where he has been prominent in frustrating the Board’s attempts to promote conservation. When does he find time to sleep?! He and Mrs Tumahai are obviously busy people. So busy, in fact, that they did not declare, at the time the mana whenua panel made its recommendations, that Arahura Holding was in partnership with Westpower.

Makaawhio’s chair is Paul Madgwick, also on the West Coast Conservation Board and also on the mana whenua panel.

In fairness, the Department did not oblige members of the mana whenua panel to declare any conflicts of interest. The Department might well have been unable to. Members of the main panel were obliged to declare and manage possible conflicts, in accordance with the Auditor-General’s guidelines, but the Ngai Tahu members ~ the mana whenua panel ~ were not. Presumably they insisted on their own special privileges to organise things their own way ~ and their way evidently is not to worry about conflicts of interest. This is obviously the Te Tiriti way. Unless we are more careful than we have been, it will obviously be the way of the future.

Even more insulting to accountability ~ and to conservation legislation, and to conservation itself ~ is the case of the Denniston Plateau, north of Westport. It has a rich and absolutely unique mix of native flora and fauna, including species that exist nowhere else in the world; it is an outstanding natural landscape with high conservation, recreation, historic and landscape values. There is of course coal under the plateau. Nevertheless, from a conservation point of view, the plateau deserves a very high level of protection.

The stewardship area on the plateau does, however, adjoin a small block of land owned by Arahura Holding Ltd. ~ which is, of course, 100% owned by Ngati Waewae. As the Department has long known, Arahura Holding has publicly expressed its desire to allow Bathurst Resources Ltd to mine that block for coal, and thereby obtain access to the adjoining public conservation estate. (Bathurst attempted to purchase this private block some years ago, but was blocked by the Overseas Investment Act. Arahura Holding purchased it instead, and has been working with Bathurst in attempting to allow mining ever since.) And so the mana whenua panel recommended that this area also remain as stewardship land. The national panel, obviously influenced by that recommendation, disagreed only slightly, recommending conservation park status ~ which would still allow mining.

And then we discover that Mr Tumahai, chair of the mana whenua panel and of Arahura Holding, has been appointed a director of Bathurst Resources Ltd, on a salary of $90,000 a year.

This is corruption. There is no other word for it. It may all be quite legal, but then corruption often is. This is what we expect in some shabby little African republic, where we read that the cousin of the president’s wife has just been appointed to the board of the big oil company that has been granted the drilling rights….This is exactly the same thing. The chair of an influential government advisory panel influences decisions which would have the effect of enabling mining on public land, and he is also on the board of the mining company. In the case of the Waitaha Valley, the mana whenua panel directly advocated the hydro scheme in its recommendation.

It is regrettable, but perhaps not all that surprising, to find such behaviour in private citizens, especially ones who have trumpeted their virtues and victimhood as much as Ngai Tahu. What of the Department itself? We would certainly like to believe that the Department is unhappy about this blatant conflict of interest. It would be nice to suspect that the mana whenua panel was forced on the Department by a Minister determined to put Maori interests before conservation ones. Nevertheless, the Department’s ardent Treaty sympathies have long been notorious; and in the last resort, Departments of State, like everyone else, must be judged by their actions, not by whatever private feelings they may or may not have. Actions speak louder than words. The Department of Conservation has long been aware of Mr Tumahai’s attitudes, sympathies and connexions. The Department did nothing to avoid very obvious conflicts of interest. If the Department replies that it could not, then ~ so much the worse for the Department. We can obviously have little faith in the integrity of its decisions. Its staff on the ground are generally very good, but its senior management have long left much to be desired. There are some among them anyway, who appear to be very relaxed about the possibility of handing over large areas of their sacred trust to their racially-selected mates. Presumably the corruption which the Department countenances is considered to be the inevitable concomitant of its obligation to recognise ‘Treaty principles’. A serious shakeup is obviously called for.

There can be no guarantees, but it may be a good sign that the Conservation ministerial warrant changed hands in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. Kiri Allen has been replaced by Poto Williams. As Police Minister Ms Williams was blamed unfairly for her response to Auckland gang warfare and ram raids, which are problems long in the making and to which there are no quick and easy answers. Her arrival in conservation provides an opportunity to review and reset the whole reclassification process. The Minister’s response to these recommendations is up to her.

Of perhaps wider significance is that this whole disgraceful affair has also been largely ignored by the mainstream news media ~ many of which have happily accepted funds from the ‘Public Interest Journalism Fund’, which is administered by New Zealand on Air and which requires active promotion of the government’s take on ‘Treaty principles’. These principles now evidently include acceptance that conservation statutes are more wishlists than actual law, and that conflicts of interest do not matter if you are Maori.

There is more to be angry about. Even though there was a full and final settlement of the Ngai Tahu claim in 1998, the national panel is recommending handing over 180,000 hectares of the public conservation estate in central Westland~ about 450,000 acres ~ to Ngai Tahu as an ‘historic reserve’ which they would administer, and, in effect, all but own. Under the Reserves Act no camping or campfires would be allowed in this vast area, and public access is at the managing board’s discretion.

This proposed reserve also contains numerous opportunities for hydro-electric generation, and that would be permissible in such a reserve ~ where, incidentally, there are no physical historic remains actually requiring reserve protection. In fact, as the Department is well aware, one such hydro project is being pursued in the reserve right now, at Griffin Creek, the site of perhaps the country’s best canyoning experience. If that land were to be vested in a Ngai Tahu historic reserve board that board might well be able to profit from that venture and others like it.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is the age-old question. Who shall guard the guardians themselves? Guardianship by a spineless and inept Department and a corrupted news media is obviously inadequate.

David Round is a sixth generation South Islander. He recently retired from teaching law at the University of Canterbury. He has a lifelong love of nature and the outdoors, and has long been involved in conservation issues. He is a former national president of Federated Mountain Clubs. He stood for Parliament in 2005 and was almost elected. He has written substantially on Treaty issues. He lives on Banks Peninsula.

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