The trustee vanishes

Stewardship in the 21st century

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It is raining on Denniston Plateau tonight. As I drove up here this afternoon, five big truck-and-trailer units passed me coming down the switchback road, carrying coal to Westport. Again I am wondering what is to become of this incomparable place.

Earlier this year, when Conservation Minister Nick Smith approved an access arrangement for open-cast coal mining to proceed on the plateau, he defended his action in Parliament by saying that the land concerned was “general stewardship land… the lowest conservation category of land managed by the department”.

I winced at that. In emphasising the lowly status of stewardship land, he conveyed the impression that such land is of lesser ecological value than land designated a national park, conservation park, reserve or sanctuary. But is that impression correct?

In August, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, released a report on stewardship land. She expressed concern that a 25-year failure to determine the actual conservation value of this land was exposing areas of important biodiversity to threats from economic development—including large-scale land swaps—by virtue of its “vague and undefined” purpose. She feared that a signal was being sent to the private sector that stewardship land was “open for business”.

It is an important document and a timely warning. What captured my attention, however, was a supplementary report from Philip Woollaston, who was the conservation minister at the time when the category ‘stewardship land’ was created. The great value of his report arises from the fact that he was there. And the plan he and his colleagues envisioned is not what has transpired in the two-and-a-half decades since.

First, he writes, stewardship land was not low-grade land. These areas were never considered to be the also-rans of the conservation estate. This was land that had no existing conservation category when it was allocated to the Department of Conservation’s care; it was the remaining land after other Crown lands had been assigned to either ‘production’ or ‘protection’ at the time of the passing of the Conservation Act in 1987.

“However,” writes Woollaston, “the term ‘remaining’ should not be interpreted as ‘left over’ and therefore of less value than the rest. In fact, precisely because the exact conservation values of stewardship areas were unknown (though known to exist), stewardship areas were to be accorded the highest level of protection as the precautionary principle requires.”

Second, stewardship land was not covertly earmarked for future development. It was not production land in disguise. Woollaston: “It was not the intention… that it was to be more available for commercial, industrial or extractive activities than other conservation land. On the contrary, the intention was to give it a high degree of protection for the period it took to fully assess its conservation values and determine the appropriate category for it.”

There has been noticeable ‘mission drift’ on this point. Twenty-five years on, stewardship land is regarded as an inviting target by developers.

Third, stewardship land was never intended to stay that way. Woollaston finds it reprehensible that a quarter of a century has gone by and the assessment of stewardship land appears to have ground to a halt. When the Conservation Act was being debated, he says, there was “no doubt that the process of assessment would take some years to undertake properly. None of us foresaw that it would be strangled at birth!”

Instead, this land—one-third of the public land administered by DOC, or roughly 10 per cent of the country—has languished in what has been called a “statutory holding pen”, awaiting classification.

In whose interests is it to perpetuate this limbo? It seems self-evident that spending money to achieve clarity on stewardship land would not be a priority for a development-oriented government. What is less obvious is that DOC—the land’s custodian—appears to also have reasons to accept the status quo on stewardship land. In her report, Wright noted that for DOC staff, “the flexibility inherent in the vague purpose for the protection of stewardship land is seen as an advantage when dealing with applications for commercial use and land swaps”.

Fourth, stewardship land was to be held in trust for future generations. Woollaston says that when the radical changes to land management that resulted in the establishment of DOC were being made in the 1980s, a core principle was recognising “trusteeship responsibilities for future generations”. He believes there was a keener appreciation of that principle 25 years ago, when conservation legislation was framed, than there is today.

We don’t hear a lot from government officials about their responsibilities as trustees, safeguarding the options of those not yet born. It was refreshing to hear that principle reasserted, albeit by someone who has been out of politics for 23 years. Woollaston’s a Nelson winemaker now. He probably thinks a lot about terroir, that quintessentially French concept that combines ideas of soil, weather, rootedness in the local landscape, authenticity, genuineness, identity, home.

For many New Zealanders, our national terroir (if I can make that stretch) is our public conservation land. It is not seen as a revenue-making resource but a character-making heritage. It is the slice of the wild world to which we feel umbilically connected and to which we owe a duty of care. And if that is the case, it is well past time to assess the one-third of that inheritance whose value is uncertain and whose protection is weak.

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