Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones dropped some heavy hints yesterday indicating he is determined that so-called DoC stewardship land on the West Coast continue to be available for mining.
At first glance this will put him at odds with Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage who said over the weekend that the current policy was no new mining on conservation land.
And the debate looks like becoming a proxy for the NZ First versus the Greens ongoing struggle to be the most important minor party in the Government.
Jones is unashamedly lobbying for mining.
“Rest assured, the coast and New Zealand in general will hear a clear voice from myself reminding everyone of the importance of the extractive sector,” he told Parliament.
What is at issue is a complex debate about so-called “stewardship land”.
This is land that was owned by other Government departments which was given to DoC to administer when the department was created in 1987.
In a review of stewardship land in 2015, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, noted that much of the land was covered in bush.
But it was agreed that the land would be administered – and protected – by DoC until its value had been classified.
Thirty-one years (and four governments) later that valuation process has not been completed.
Had it been, then land that had little or no conservation value would have been identified, and a debate could have been begun on its future use which may well have included mining.
Stewardship land is very much concentrated on the West Coast. 850,000 of the total two million hectares are located there.
Much of it is native bush, but the West Coast Economic Action plan says that some of is leased out for grazing.
“Where there is no conservation driver to hold the land, allowing it to be used for higher value purposes could assist the local economy,” it says.
“This action involves DOC considering options for land disposal where it holds land with low or limited conservation value.
“ It is not intended that this action will encompass land with native forest cover.”
That approach was supported by the previous Government, but on taking office the Labour-led Government in the speech from the throne said there would be no more mining on conservation land.
The Federated Mountian Clubs, on the other hand, runs a campaign called “Protect our Forgotten Lands” intended to keep stewardship land in the conservation estate.
But Sage argues that much of it does have conservation values.
“There is a mistaken understanding among some that the review of stewardship land will lead to large areas of conservation land going out of the conservation estate,” she said.
“Stewardship land is conservation land.
“It has to be managed to protect its natural and historic resources. It’s a third of the conservation estate, 2 million hectares nationally.
“A million of those are on the Coast. It’s high-value land.”
Jones holds one very strong card in this debate — he is in Cabinet, and Sage is not.
“We are currently undergoing a process of categorising land that is known as stewardship land, and, as that process unfolds, as the former parliamentary commissioner advised, we will assign appropriate values to those lands,” he told Parliament.
“ As that process reaches some conclusion on stewardship land, at that point I will be in a better position to know as to what proportion should be dedicated to economic development and what proportion to preservation.”
Jones reminded the House that the process of reclassifying the land stretched back to 1987.
“The actual formal and legal decisions lie with other Ministers, but, rest assured, the coast and New Zealand, in general, will hear a clear voice from myself reminding every one of the importance of the extractive sector.”
The mechanism to open up stewardship land is for it to be exchanged for other land which has conservation values.
But Jones is up against it.
In a lengthy report issued last year, the New Zealand Conservation Authority maintained that the High Court decision on the Ruataniwha dam restricted the ability of DoC to exchange stewardship land for other land.
“The implication of the decision is that stewardship land is not eligible for exchange unless it has no, or very low, conservation values,” it said.
“It might also be the case that the Court’s decision means that the exchange of land which presently has no or little conservation value, but which has the ‘potential’ for conservation, including recreation value, to be created, will also be unable to proceed.
“This may potentially ‘catch’ almost all those exchanges of land which are continuing to take place.”
The other side of the coin is that another Minister, Megan Woods, has promoted the potential of the West Coast to be a source of so-called “green” or rare earth minerals which among other uses are as components in wind turbines and hybrid cars.
This is a delicately balanced debate which echoes the politics of the coast.
Labour’s Damien O’Connor holds the West Coast Tasman seat, but at the last election National won the party vote by a narrow margin. NZ First was third with 9.3%, and the Greens got 8.2%.
This debate can only have one ending – either the Greens or NZ First will have lost.