Former Land Information Minister is behind the move to end tenure review.

If ever a well-intentioned Government policy backfired, it was “tenure review”, which has seen South Island high country farmers hand over some of their land for conservation purposes in return for the ability to freehold their remaining land, which was leased from the Crown.

There are currently 171 Crown pastoral leases covering approximately 1.2 million hectares of the South Island. The majority are located across Canterbury and Otago, with the remainder located across Marlborough, Southland and Westland.

The leases are largely located in the South Island high country. Characterised by expansive tussock grasslands, beech forests, and snow-topped mountain ranges, it is home to many habitats and ecosystems that support rare indigenous wildlife and vegetation.

The leases have 33-year terms but are perpetually renewable, which means that the leaseholder enjoys exclusive possession of the land indefinitely.

The leaseholder can only use the land for pastoral farming (i.e. the grazing of stock, such as sheep and cattle) and cannot disturb the soil without consent from the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

But the practical effect of tenure review with its opportunity to freehold parts of the leased land meant saw the tussock  “tops” of the properties go back to the Crown while the runholders retained the flats (often river flats) and their homesteads.

Tenure review had its genesis in the environmental restructuring of the 1980s.

The objectives of the Crown Pastoral Land Act of 1998 were to promote the management of high country land in a way that was ecologically sustainable but also to enable enable land capable of economic use to be freed from management constraints.

The Act also sought to make it easier to secure public access to high country land and to enable the freehold disposal of land.

Basically there was to be a tradeoff which saw runholders surrender the “conservation” land while they were able to freehold the rest and more or less do what they wanted with it.

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Freed from the obligation only to run sheep or cattle on the land, the runholders were able to sell the flats and homesteads, often to overseas buyers, who were looking for large scale lifestyle properties.

High profile buyers included the country-music singer Shania Twain and the now-disgraced New York breakfast TV host, Matt Lauer.

In 2015 Lincoln University’s Ann Brower produced research that showed that over the previous 20 years, land sold to farmers by the Crown for $11 million had been on-sold for $300 million.

Brower said the land involved stretched the entire length of the South Island and included some of the country’s most iconic pieces of landscape.

“A lot of it is near some of those southern lakes, and not surprisingly, land near southern lakes sold for a whole lot more,” she said.

“And the land that was close to tramping tracks and things like that, that sold for more.”

Brower described the tenure review process as “a huge transfer of land and money from the Crown to a few hundred runholders. To call it anything but a boondoggle is strategic hypocrisy.”  

So in February 2019, then-land Information Minister Eugenie Sage announced that the process would end.

Finally, nearly 33 years after tenure review was first introduced, the legislation to do that is before a Select Committee.

It has provoked widespread debate within the South Island farming and environmental communities.

South Island Environmental consultant Phil Murray told the Committee that removing tenure would be a mistake because it did not address the underlying problem of pastoral leases.

Experience has shown us quite clearly that those indigenous grasslands aren’t suited to pastoral farming,” he said.

“You only need to drive over the McKenzie Basin or get up in a helicopter and look at our broader high country landscapes to get an appreciation of what grazing indigenous grasslands without replenishment has done to them.”

Murray argued that Tenure Review should remain an option to allow the Crown to negotiate its way out of a tenure system that alienated the two very rights that were going to be needed to protect its main interests in crown pastoral lands; ecological services and public access.

Murray got to the core of the argument; how to protect the unique biodiversity of the South Island high country lands.

In a 2019 Cabinet paper, then Land Information Minister (and also Conservation Minister) Green MP, Eugenie Sage, argued that the  Crown pastoral land regulatory system needed to make three key shifts.

It needed to move to an outcomes-based approach that considers cumulative impacts on the whole Crown pastoral land estate over time.

And it needed to  move “from a system where it is unclear whether the land is being managed in the best interest of New Zealanders and leaseholders to a system that has clearer, more transparent decision-making, stronger accountability, and more opportunity for public and leaseholder involvement.”

And it needed to  recognise and provide for the Crown’s obligations” under Te Tiriti to one that supports strong and evolving relationships between Māori and the Crown and recognises the relationship of Māori with their ancestral lands.”

In a nutshell, Sage proposed that tenure review be ended and that the leases with the runholders would provide the mechanism to achieve the environmental objectives through effectively tighter regulation of the farming activities on the properties.

Not surprisingly, Federated Farmers objected.

Kim Reilly, Federated Framers South Island regional Policy Manager, told the Committee  the government had not provided any real evidence of widespread issues or of degradation and the high country “such that would justify the significant intrusion on leasehold rights as proposed within the bill.”

“The existing contractual relationship is based on trust and reciprocity,” she said.

“It will be replaced by an approach of regulation, policing and enforcement.

“This diminishes the future constructiveness and openness of relationships.

“It reduces the certainty of leases and the incentivisation to continue to invest and enhance environmental outcomes, given there is no accompanying or ability to address changing pastoral nature.

“The bill adopts a one size fits all approach, which is completely at odds with the realities and the diversity across high country properties.”

The Committee is to hear from Anne Brower, who in her written submission says that, under tenure review, the more rare and threatened the values, the more likely the land was to be freeholded And the more common and already protected a value was, the more likely it was to shift into conservation.

“In other words, the process has freeholded the most rare values and protected those that least need it,” she says.

Brower presents a number of proposals to make the Bill more accountable for environmental management and advocates a stronger role for the RMA.

What is at stake in these hearings is the economy of high country farming along with a complex mix of the romantic history of the sheep stations and musterers and shepherds and shearers and the recognition that these same properties are some of New Zealand’s most iconic landscapes.