Rob Suisted

What would you do with a million hectares?

Stewardship land has gone from obscurity to primetime in 2022. All eyes are on a new national panel of experts, a new mana whenua panel of iwi representatives and the Minister of Conservation as they decide the fate of nine per cent of Aotearoa’s total land area—with the first million hectares to be dealt with in eight months.

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

It’s entirely possible to sleep badly in a beautiful place.

You need a stifling summer night, an overcrowded hut, a snap decision to sleep outside, mosquitoes and sandflies. After a memorable day spent carving perfect singletrack down the Old Ghost Road, it was a forgettable night and I was consoled by one thought: at least I wasn’t underwater. If things had gone differently a decade ago, my campsite here on the grassy margin of Specimen Creek, near its confluence with the mighty Mokihinui, would have been at the bottom of a 225-hectare lake.

During the free-market shakeups of the 1980s, how Crown land was managed underwent a radical change. All land deemed economically productive was sold or transferred to state-owned enterprises. All land deemed potentially worthy of protection went to the newly minted Department of Conservation. Overnight, DOC became the largest land owner in New Zealand, with 30.7 per cent of the nation on its books.

With the exception of farmland and a handful of small scenic reserves and ecological areas, everything else in this shot of Lake Mahinapua is stewardship land, right back to the Divide.

Most of what DOC received back in 1987 was bush-covered land that hadn’t previously been assessed or protected. It went into a legal holding pen known as stewardship land. The plan was to assess each block for its conservation values, then classify it to provide the appropriate level of protection: national park, scenic reserve, conservation park and so on. Or, if land was found unworthy of protection, it could be sold—or swapped for private land with higher conservation values.

Stewardship land has a lower level of protection than national park land: many see it as vulnerable because, under the right circumstances, outside parties can acquire it through swaps.

Which brings me back to that 225-hectare lake and the Old Ghost Road.

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Phil Rossiter first got involved in what became the Old Ghost Road on Christmas day 2006, at the opening of the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge—a neo-Wild-West affair, all rough-hewn timber and colonial memorabilia, sitting among beech forest at the mouth of the Mokihinui Gorge. There, among the clink of glasses and laughter, Rossiter got talking to the owner of the place, a charismatic American known as Weasel.

“You might like to see this map I found,” Weasel said in his North Carolina drawl, showing Rossiter a weathered copy of an 1886 survey plan. Beautiful linework captured the ranges and rivers outside the lodge. And there, crossing rugged, spectacular terrain, linking the goldfields at Lyell and Mokihinui, was the outline of a road. It was already the stuff of legend: locals knew construction had started from either end, but no one knew how far the old timers had got or where the road was meant to have gone. The plan had fallen into Weasel’s hands a few months earlier. And already he, his wife Susan, and another man known as Stacky, were obsessed with resurrecting the road.

Most is located on the West Coast—such as at Shearer Swamp, left, a single coastal peat bog ecosystem that’s legally divided into a patchwork of stewardshp land, wildlife reserve, scenic reserve and marginal strip.

“Weasel could sell anything to anyone,” Rossiter says. “But there was something really romantic about it. The route started right outside the back door of the lodge.”

Rossiter was hooked. Over the next year or so, he, Weasel, Stacky and an ever-expanding crew became consumed with exploring and planning.

Then, in 2008, Weasel and Susan spotted a headline in the paper: “Dam planned for the Mokihinui”. Meridian Energy was proposing to build an 85-metre-high dam at the mouth of the gorge to generate renewable energy. If it went ahead, the dam would create a 14-kilometre-long lake, flooding most of the original road cut into the side of the gorge.

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Why did Meridian choose the Mokihinui? One factor was the legal status of the gorge—it wasn’t in a national park or an ecologically protected area, but rather on stewardship land. “Given all the hoo-ha about national parks recently,” said a Meridian spokesperson at the time, “I think it’s quite an important point.”

According to Bob Dickson, then DOC’s Buller operations manager, that was a common attitude among Coasters and political figures alike—that “stewardship land was largely worthless and shouldn’t be ‘locked up’”.

The Mokihinui Gorge was stewardship land, and not potentially a national park, because it had never been assessed. When Meridian applied to DOC for the concession required to proceed, that assessment took place, and DOC found the gorge had high conservation values. So Meridian proposed a swap: 225 hectares of public conservation land for 794 hectares of nearby lowland coastal forest that they owned. DOC didn’t grant the swap, but Meridian had already gained resource consent for the dam from the Buller District Council and the West Coast Regional Council, which saw DOC lodging an appeal against the consents in the Environment Court at a cost of $1.4 million.

The Meridian hydro scheme divided locals in a pattern that has played out on the Coast many times over the years. Many fixed their positions at the outset: either they felt the dam would bring jobs they needed or it would wreck the environment they loved. Threats were made, restraining orders taken out.

The Old Ghost Road team simply kept going, full speed ahead. Despite having no idea how they would complete the track at the northern end, they roped in volunteers, forged partnerships with DOC, courted the support of Solid Energy, raised funds, and got on the tools. Thousands of volunteer hours went into building track from the south end at Lyell. Teams flew into the middle of nowhere to build from the middle out. At one point they scouted an alternative to the gorge, ascending Mountain Creek and crossing the Glasgow Range, only to discard it due to hellish terrain.

“For the next four years—from us dreaming to proving a route to starting the build—[the dam] was the elephant in the room,” says Rossiter. “We just had to stay out of that northern end.”

Rossiter was away from the Coast when the news came through: Meridian was abandoning the project, citing high costs and risks. “I remember calling Weasel, and I’d heard some whispers,” he says, grinning at the memory. “It was like, ‘Wow, okay. Game on.’ We were into it the next day. We had a crew in the Mokihinui Gorge going for it within two or three weeks.”

[Chapter Break]

The morning after my long dark night of the mosquitoes, I strapped my gear back onto my mountain bike and began the 13-kilometre ride through the Mokihinui Gorge. Navigating singletrack cut into sheer cliffs by miners of old, I hung back, watching my speed, enjoying the frisson of the plunge to the Mokihinui where it roared through the gorge below. I passed parties of trampers, squeezing back to make room, and cheered on two biking parents with their kids mounted up front on shotgun seats. I stopped to mihi to the huge green-and-black pou at the end of the gorge that marks Ngāti Waewae’s mana whenua. It was erected in 2019 when the Mokihinui and its surrounds were finally added to Kahurangi National Park.

“[The Old Ghost Road]’s a total success story,” says Dickson. “It’s upgraded access, the huts are always full, they’ve got their trapping programme, it provides great recreation and heritage opportunities, and it generates around $4 million a year for the local community. It’s been very worthwhile.”

Most of the Denniston Plateau is stewardship land—it’s home to unique flora and fauna, and holds one of the most valuable coal seams in the country. It’s been at the centre of debates about how stewardship land should be used.

If it’s been a successful period for the Old Ghost Road, it’s been an uncertain one for the Mokihinui. If DOC had been resourced to reclassify the land back in the 1980s, the area would have been a national park long ago and unavailable for a dam, saving $1.4 million on behalf of DOC, and who knows how much by Meridian. The track could have been built without the threat of a dam. Right?

Wrong. I ask Dickson whether the Old Ghost Road would exist if the land had already been classified as national park. “The legislation would have precluded any opportunity,” he tells me over the phone. “No.”

[Chapter Break]

Over the decades, many have called for stewardship land to be reclassified. Successive governments have made noises about taking action, but nothing has eventuated. Finally, in May 2021, the government announced a new fast-tracked process—they’d protect the land that need protection, and dispose of the land that didn’t.

Two new national panels of independent experts would be appointed to assess all stewardship land and advise the minister on appropriate classifications or sale. Legislative changes would make the process more efficient. The public would have the chance to provide input. The country would be divided into segments, with the west and north of Te Waipounamu, the South Island, up first. After 34 years of inaction, each segment would be dealt with in eight months. The process would be streamlined, simple and fast.

Stewardship land is dotted around the country in patches that range in size from whole ranges to oddly shaped paddock-sized forest fragments.

Given we’re talking about a third of all conservation land, comprising nine per cent of the entire country, stewardship reclassification was never going to be simple or fast. Environmental non-profits came forward with questions and fears. Why now, and why so fast? What was meant by low or no conservation values? Why bypass established conservation boards? Why was the government allowing mining companies who wanted access to stewardship land to pay to have their desired block assessed first? Was this all a smokescreen for selling off parts of the conservation estate for new mines?

All of this came later. The most direct challenge came four days after the announcement. Ngāi Tahu filed urgent proceedings in the High Court, stopping the process in its tracks.

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If you’re ignorant of Lake Mahinapua’s history and have swum in its waters, you’ll know they’re a gorgeous, deep red-brown, and that once you leave the shallows, the colour drops away to a profound blackness that evokes fear. If you’re from Ngāti Waewae or Ngāti Mahaki, the Ngāi Tahu hapū who hold mana whenua on the West Coast, you won’t have swum in the lake at all. It is a wahi tapu, a sacred place.

In the late 17th century, Ngāti Wairangi was the main iwi on the coast. Ngāi Tahu was based east of the divide. Once Ngāi Tahu learned the route through the mountains from Ngāti Wairangi chieftainess Raureka, a number of parties travelled west seeking pounamu—which led to fighting between the two peoples.

At Mahinapua, Ngāi Tahu forces led by the chief Tānetiki suffered a bitter defeat in a battle known as Tāwiri-a-te-makō. It’s said that, as Ngāi Tahu’s taua paddled across Mahinapua, the Ngāti Wairangi tohunga Tuaroaro-o-te-rangi chanted up a howling storm. Many warriors drowned, including a number of senior chiefs. The only surviving chief, Hikatutae, built a funeral pyre for the bodies of his relations there at the lake. Then he swam back across Mahinapua, carrying the heads of three fellow chiefs by the topknot, taking them home for burial across the mountains.

Between Joyce Bay and Constant Bay at Charleston, a small clearing among the flax is a tiny patch of stewardship land.

The battle proved pivotal. In response, Ngāi Tahu amassed its forces, then returned to conquer Ngāti Wairangi and claim mana whenua. “For us on the West Coast, as a people who stem not only from Ngāi Tahu but also Waitaha, Māmoe and Ngāti Wairangi, those bloodlines are still in our whakapapa,” says Lisa Tumahai, kaiwhakahaere of Ngāi Tahu’s central governing council, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, and Ngāti Waewae’s elected representative. “Our tūpāpaku are still in the lake bed, laid to rest where those wars were fought. So Lake Mahinapua is really dear to our hearts. It’s a significant part of our journey as Ngāi Tahu.”

As part of the iwi’s 1998 Treaty settlement, the Crown returned Lake Mahinapua—but only the lake bed. Not any surrounding land or the lake margin, which is managed by Fish & Game. “Now, I’m not sure which government agency thought, ‘We’ll give the iwi their lake back, but we won’t give them access to it,’” Tumahai says with a wry laugh, on a video call from her home on the Coast. “However, there is a small piece of stewardship land that goes right up to the lake bed. And, from the perspective of cultural significance, our place, our rights and our interests, if the stewardship land process is an opportunity to ensure access to our lake bed, then we should certainly take advantage of that.”

Zoom out from Mahinapua to the long green sweep of Te Tai Poutini/the West Coast, and there are many other such ancient places with contemporary significance on stewardship land. Pull back again to take in stewardship land nationwide, and you’ll find myriad similar sites: part of a deeper geography that lives on in the place names, practices and memories of local hapū. An increasingly vocal, self-resourced Māori world is seeking to haul such places back into the light, and is asserting its right to have a say in how they’re managed.

Given the vast majority of stewardship land is in Ngāi Tahu’s takiwā, and the majority of that is on Te Tai Poutini, it’s not surprising the iwi’s local and central leadership was paying close attention when the reclassification process was announced. But to truly understand why they picked up the phone to call their lawyers, you have to go back even further.

[Chapter Break]

In 1859, young Nelson settler and Crown agent James Mackay Jr was paddling the Māwhera when he upset his canoe.

The river, also known as the Grey, is significant to Poutini Ngāi Tahu. The river’s path to the sea was forged by Aoraki’s nephew, Tūterakiwhānoa, to drain the wrecked hull of his uncle’s island-sized waka. Later, in the time of mortals, the river was a trade and travel route. The principal kāinga of Ngāti Waewae was then at the river’s mouth. So it’s interesting that when Mackay had his mishap, among the items the river soaked was the freshly signed deed of sale for the entire West Coast. The signatures could still be read, but in places the ink had faded and bled.

The history of outsiders making unilateral decisions about Poutini Ngāi Tahu’s territory had begun two years earlier, when Mackay first visited. He told one of the senior chiefs, Tarapuhi, that the government had already bought their territory from arch-rivals Ngāti Toa in 1853 for £5000. The Crown had paid this and other amounts to various northern iwi for parts of Te Waipounamu, including portions of the Coast, without bothering to ascertain who actually owned the land. Tarapuhi and the other chiefs asserted their legitimate ownership.

Stewardship land designations are at times nonsensically small and isolated. At Woodpecker Bay, a small comma-shaped parcel of forest at the centre of the picture is stewardship land, while the remainder of the area behind the ridgeline is part of Paparoa National Park.

Mackay then returned in 1858 with authorisation to purchase the entire West Coast from them for £200, and to leave the iwi with 200 hectares in reserves. His offer was met with the contempt it deserved. Chief Werita Tainui dismissed it as the price of a horse.

When Mackay returned with a marginally better offer, he was well aware of the value of the land: there was significant demand for it, and the possibility of goldfields. Under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Crown had a duty to act in good faith, and had committed to actively protecting the chiefs’ ability to exercise chieftainship over their lands. As the Crown’s agent, if Mackay was aware of this conflict of interest, he didn’t let on. He made the Crown’s final offer: £300. The chiefs agreed—in part to assert their mana over the land in the face of Ngāti Toa’s claims.

The price might not have mattered if Poutini Ngāi Tahu had been able to reserve from sale whatever lands they chose—a right guaranteed under Te Tiriti. The 151,757 hectares they wished to keep would have protected rights to pounamu and provided an economic base for future generations. But with few Māori on the Coast at the time and the balance of power tipped firmly in favour of settlers, the chiefs settled for a little more than 4000 hectares scattered across 58 reserves. (The Crown later described this allocation as “the bare minimum”, with “scant consideration” for future needs.) The chiefs did manage to insist on reserves at Māwhera (which later became Greymouth) and the banks of the Arahura, and secured ownership of the Arahura riverbed up to its source.

Despite its dunking in the river, the Arahura Deed stood. The Crown acquired and then began to sell the land.

Goldfields, mining, farming and logging built towns and a measure of prosperity for Pākehā. Meanwhile, many of the reserves, including the one at Māwhera, were taken from the iwi’s control and administered by government trustees.

The trustees made some leases perpetual without the owners’ consent, and later fixed rents. Some land was sold off against the owners’ will. Parts of the Arahura Reserve were taken for roading and the railway line without compensation, because until well into the 20th century, the law didn’t require compensation to be paid when taking Māori land for public works. Other ancestral landscapes, such as Kaniere and Mahinapua, were put into scenic reserves.

Today, 87 per cent of Poutini Ngāi Tahu’s takiwā is managed by DOC. Ngāi Tahu had little, if any, say in any of this.

Ngāi Tahu is now in a position to insist on its rights. Socially and politically, there are signs of change as well. The law is now clear on the need for DOC to work with iwi as Treaty partners: section 4 of the Conservation Act requires DOC to give effect to the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi—the strongest incorporation of the Treaty into any of New Zealand’s laws. A landmark Supreme Court case, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki v Minister of Conservation, affirmed DOC’s Treaty responsibilities in 2018.

Porter Heights Skifield and ski basins, showing Crystal Valley to the right, site of a controversial stewardship land swap. In 2004, the Nature Heritage Fund bought the area for $3.5 million to put into Craigieburn Conservation Park. In 2011, with the area still classified as stewardship land, DOC agreed to freehold 196 hectares to skifield developer Blackfish in exchange for 56 hectares of rare coastal forest on Banks Peninsula.

When Eugenie Sage was Minister of Conservation, Ngāi Tahu and DOC worked together to establish a framework for the reclassification of stewardship land. An election and two ministers later, that work was discarded, and the reclassification process announced in May 2021 was new. Yet again, decisions were being made without consulting the tribe, which may have been in breach of the Treaty partnership and the law.

That’s when the lawyers were called in.

[Chapter Break]

Negotiations led to the withdrawal of the legal action, and the creation of a mana whenua panel to assist in the process.

The panel is led by Francois Tumahai, Chair of Ngāti Waewae, with members Paul Madgwick, chair of Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio, Maurice Manawatu, Cultural Pou chair of Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura, and Gail Thompson, representing the tribe’s central council. They bring expert local matauranga on history, whakapapa and whenua to bear on the process, advising the national panel on mana whenua values and interests in each parcel of stewardship land. The overarching goal is for the national panel to recommend the appropriate revised land classification “based on conservation values and Māori cultural values identified”.

But what, precisely, will be included as Māori cultural values? Protecting historic and spiritual sites like Mahinapua seems straightforward, as does finding ways for mana whenua to have leadership roles in the care of local conservation areas, including restoration of mahinga kai sites. Then there’s the customary harvesting of kai and resources, like plants for rongoā or weaving, that is essential for cultural survival, but which is only permitted on conservation land on an ad hoc basis.

Beyond these customary conceptions of Māori culture, there is the question of economic and commercial use. One of the core principles of Western conservation—protecting land against human intervention—does not map to Māori values regarding the natural world. You descend from the land through whakapapa, and your livelihood and survival depend upon that land, too.

In the modern world, this aspect of the culture can take the form of iwi businesses, whose profits go back into each tribe. The preference is for those businesses to happen on ancestral land. Why? To combat urbanisation, and fragmentation. Places of cultural significance—your home marae, where your dead are buried, where knowledge is passed on—those places are often a long way from good jobs. On Te Tai Poutini, the median annual income is $26,400, and the total population decreased between 2013 and 2018.

Creating business opportunities on ancestral land is a key way to ensure cultural survival, so young people don’t have to move away. And if 87 per cent of a tribe’s ancestral land is managed by DOC, then providing cultural advice on land use will naturally involve this economic aspect of culture as well. “There’s an opportunity for us to assert our rangatiratanga and improve the outcomes for our whānau and our communities in these decisions,” says Lisa Tumahai.

Yet it’s not clear if any of the classifications the panels can recommend—from scenic, scientific or government reserves to conservation or national parks—are capable of meeting Māori aspirations. Those types of conservation land, and what they do or do not permit, were created with no regard for Māori relationships to place. “These are stepping stones,” says Tumahai.

[Chapter Break]

Neil Clifton was off the west coast of D’Urville Island, at the helm of his beloved classic launch, when he got the call.

“Hello? What?”

Between the wind, spray and dodgy reception, it took a while to figure out what the call was about. Something about a panel. An assessment. Stewardship land. Something on the West Coast? Clifton indicated his interest in the job, whatever the job was, and said he’d call back when the sea wasn’t so rough.

That job ended up being chair of the national panel of experts tasked with assessing all stewardship land on the West Coast in a timeframe of eight months. “I knew it would be a big task, but I was intrigued,” Clifton told me, “because I really enjoy the Coast, I enjoy the people of the Coast, and I knew there’d be tensions in a process like this, but I could see that would be a good opportunity to be involved in working through a longstanding issue.”

Clifton was there when stewardship land was invented, and he spent 13 years based in Hokitika, so he had a clear sense of things. He says tensions between conservation and extractive industries are much diminished compared to the tumultuous late 1980s, when DOC got Crown lands with conservation value and state-owned enterprises got those with economic potential. But it would be fair to say those tensions still exist—especially on land that meets both criteria.

In 1987, the year DOC was created, CoalCorp came into being as the corporate reincarnation of the State Mines Department. That same year, on the high-altitude Denniston Plateau, just north of Westport, CoalCorp staked out the area that would become the Stockton Coal Mine. The surrounding areas to the north, south and west went to DOC as stewardship land.

Stockton, now operated and majority-owned by Bathurst Resources, is the largest open-cut mine in the country, extracting coal for steelmaking. The plateau has been a flashpoint for decades, with protest camps, legal challenges, expansions of mining, rare species relocation, and various proposals for further mining operations. When the national panel releases its 500-odd draft recommendations in early May, the proposals for blocks on the Denniston Plateau will be among the first many will check.

From this vantage point looking up the Whataroa River to the Butler Range beyond, all visible land is stewardship land, other than a small parcel of river flats.

Clifton is also well aware that local authorities “have expectations” of this process. Councils can’t charge rates on the conservation estate, meaning only 13 per cent of the land in their jurisdiction is rateable. Any transfer of DOC land to private ownership would boost councils’ ability to fund services.

Scrutiny from media and from environmental and recreational non-profits has also been high, given how much beloved land is at stake. Pointed questions have been asked about whether the panels can be thorough in the time allocated, whether the guidelines and data are adequate, and whether a once-in-a-generation opportunity like this requires more care than speed.

“It’s got to be impeccable,” says Jan Finlayson, president of Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), and the driver of their influential Forgotten Lands campaign. What has come to dominate the debate is an underlying fear that superficial assessments combined with political pressure could see blocks sold off for mining.

Allan Brent, senior legal adviser with the Environmental Law Initiative, points to what he calls “evidence of an accommodating attitude towards mining” within official communications, including proposals to allow existing mining access arrangements to persist on reclassified land, and legislative reforms seemingly designed to facilitate efficient disposal of numerous blocks. He asks what signal is being sent by the fact that miners seeking access to stewardship land can pay to have the panel assess their desired parcel first. (At the time of writing, no company had taken up this opportunity.)

Bruce Bay coastal forest at Maori Beach, looking inland to Pakihi Swamp and Lake Kini with Bannock Brae Range left, Douglas Range – Mahitahi River centre.

Fears about mining have alighted upon the chair of the mana whenua panel, Francois Tumahai, who, on behalf of his hapū, has responded fiercely to conservationists in recent years in debates about land use. As well as being chair of Ngāti Waewae, he is a director of Bathurst Resources, which operates the Stockton Mine, and is a vocal supporter of the traditional Coasters’ agenda of mining, development and jobs.

Tumahai has previously told media that he is acutely aware of professional boundaries when representing his iwi, whānau and whenua in multiple roles, as many Māori leaders have to. His role on the mana whenua panel was to advocate for Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae, and ensure the Crown understood the history of the land it was making decisions about.When you dig into the inference that Tumahai’s presence could have a negative effect on the process, the suggestion quickly becomes absurd. He would have to convince the rest of the mana whenua panel to advocate for disposal of high-conservation-value land at Denniston, who would then have to convince Clifton and the national panel to make this same recommendation, despite what their terms of reference say. The national panel would then have to ignore the likely furious public feedback when draft recommendations were released, and hold their nerve to confirm that recommendation to the Minister of Conservation, who would then have to sign off on the sale, and stand behind the decision through the inevitable legal challenges.

Another, perhaps more rational explanation for such fears is a Pākehā unwillingness to give mana whenua voices any role in conservation at all. When I ask Finlayson if she supports the principle of mana whenua panels in this process, the silence stretches to five seconds, then six, before she says: “I’m not sure.”

Everyone is fighting for the land they love, and everyone fears its loss. But fear of change will never achieve what’s best for the land.

[Chapter Break]

On an autumn afternoon in early March, I pull off State Highway 6 just south of Hokitika, into the carpark at Mananui Bush. Powerlines stretch overhead, curving north across fields of fodder beet. Lake Mahinapua lies across the highway to the east, hidden by thick coastal bush. Through the open window, in the quiet after I switch off the engine, I hear the faint boom and hiss of Te Tai o Rehua, the Tasman Sea.

A group of Pākehā men and women stand waiting in the small clearing beneath a fierce sun. Between the laughter and the bags of kai lined up in the back of a nearby van, they could be friends on a package tour except for the hefty spiral-bound books in their hands and the two huge maps spread on the ground.

Clifton is kneeling on the ground, pointing at the map. The others, ranged in a semicircle, are conservation ecologist Bill Lee, veteran conservation leader Jo Breese, archaeologist Katharine Watson and landscape architect Philip Blakely. COVID-related work disruptions have kept mātauranga expert Marama Muru-Lanning (Waikato, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Whātua) in Auckland today. On paper their depth of experience is intimidating; in person they’re attentive and intelligent, though a little fatigued. It’s their final day together in the field—they’ve visited around 90 per cent of the stewardship land parcels, and flown over those too big to take in on foot. They’ve travelled from southern Kohaihai in Kahurangi right down to Fiordland. I ask how it’s been.

“Intense,” several say at once.

“Bill is our resident scientist,” Breeze says, “and he’s been recording our entrances and exits to vehicles. Our record is 54 movements in a day.”

“Be careful how you phrase that,” Lee says to me, straight-faced.

The grazed area in the photograph above is stewardship land, at the mouth of the Karamea River, at Māori Point. It’s blocks like these that are potential candidates for an assessment of low or no conservation values, which could lead to their sale. Climate advocates argue such blocks should be reforested instead.

That intensity has largely come from the volume of complex information. “We rely heavily on these,” Neil says, brandishing his Conservation Value Report for the area: a compendium of DOC’s information about each block, grouped into sections such as mātauranga, ecology, landscape, recreation and heritage. Depending on the dominant values in a block, different experts have taken the lead, as the group analyses the values against what they find on the ground, debates the merits of different classifications, talks the issues through with local DOC rangers. I ask how it worked if they needed more information.

“It doesn’t,” Lee quips. Everyone laughs and looks at Nicole Kunzmann, the DOC staffer in charge of the process, who is doubled over, laughing and groaning.

“We give it to Nic, and Nic chases it up,” Clifton says cheerfully.

Mananui Bush is relatively small, at 9.4 hectares, and bounded to the north and south by paddocks. But the panel’s draft recommendation will be a straightforward classification of scenic reserve, as it easily gets over the threshold of whether it has low or no conservation values. The block contains rare, intact coastal-margin forest. There’s a beautiful forest walk, well used by locals, which we later wander along. Apart from the highway, the bush is continuous with the scenic reserve at Lake Mahinapua, and provides a link to the beach for an ecosystem that begins all the way back at the main divide.

As we talk, the panel members frequently refer to taking “a modern approach” to conservation. First, that means a whole-of-landscape focus. “We can look at the individual parcels of land, but how do you scale that up, and look at the landscape as a whole?” Lee says. “The legislation treats each piece as discrete, but we’re looking at it as a network of biological processes and interconnected ecosystems.”

Back when Clifton started as a ranger here, the landscape was divided up between Lands and Surveys and the Forestry Service, with different ideas about how to care for, and make use of, the mountains, glaciers, rivers and foothills, while coastal ecosystems were largely ignored. The panel see theirs as a unifying role, looking at the earlier patchwork of conservation areas and the underlying rationales, then reclassifying the surrounding and intersecting stewardship land to create a unified whole.

From a Māori perspective, there’s a dull irony to the idea that seeing the landscape as a unified whole is a modern innovation. (It’s also worth noting that one of the stupidities of the Mokihinui saga was that DOC couldn’t include the river in its conservation values assessment of the gorge, because they didn’t administer the riverbed—Land Information New Zealand did.)

The second aspect of the modern approach to conservation is valuing and including mātauranga, and mana whenua values. The national panel has clearly enjoyed working with the mana whenua panel, and the two groups have done a number of site visits together. I’m mindful of the history just across the highway at Mahinapua, and curious what classification Butlers Conservation Area, which borders the lake bed, will get.

One of the challenges the panel faces is finding classifications capable of expressing these modern conservation values. The statutes they’re working with date back to 1953. While most of the values under discussion—heritage, ecology, recreation and so on—find their expression in a type of reserve or park, mātauranga and mana whenua values do not. Are the available classifications fit for purpose, I ask?

Everyone laughs, and looks at each other, but no one answers.

Then Clifton pipes up: “With, say, finding a classification for dynamic landscapes, like a dynamic river system, we’ve had to get creative. But I think we’ve found something that’ll work.”

The afternoon is ticking on, and the panel members have flights to catch. Everyone is tired. But first, I’ve got three more questions.

What difference would it have made it they’d had, say, 18 months instead of eight? “We’ve talked about that a lot,” Breeze says. The consensus is that the concentrated period has been positive. While longer would have meant more site visits, with more time at each, the intensity has meant they’re in conversation with each other the whole time, able to maintain focus and momentum, with the chance to rethink overnight, come back with fresh questions, hammer things out. Going from site to site each day has helped with the whole-of-landscape approach.

To photographer Rob Suisted, this forested parcel of stewardship land (left) looks like it belongs in a Keith Haring painting as much as in the conservation estate. The forest, McLeans Creek Conservation Area, maps streams among dairy paddocks beside the Greymouth landfill.

Then there’s the question of whether the panel has felt scrutinised or pressured. At first they’re quick to disavow the idea. “No,” Clifton says. “We have our terms of reference, and we rely on them and the information provided, and the conservation values, and on the strength of that we can defend our recommendations.” Lee is surprised by how few emails he’s been getting; he almost seems disappointed. After a little more discussion, Clifton and other members do acknowledge an awareness of the level of public interest, which isn’t surprising, but are clear that everything comes back to the terms of reference. They can only recommend disposal if the site has low or no conservation value. They’re not considering alternative, non-conservation uses of the land—like mining. They can’t recommend selling a block because of an alternate proposed use.

“We’ve remained focused on the job at hand,” Breeze says. “Speaking for myself, I feel we have a serious duty to do this job really well. By and large we are increasing the protection of the land.”

Last, there’s the ever-present question of what is meant by low or no conservation value. What sites are they putting forward for sale? It’s too early in the process for them to discuss specific parcels, but they are willing to speak generally. “They’re areas that have been developed, like grasslands in a farming context,” Clifton says. “Or in and around river margins, where the river is stable, and the grassland is indistinguishable from surrounding farmland. Many are urban—say, Crown land that’s in town sections—and they tend to be much smaller blocks as well. If you’ve got a section in bare grass with exotic trees, and a licensed building in it—there’s no conservation value there.”

He may be speaking generally, but I suspect he’s thinking of the Carters Beach Conservation Area—home of the Westport Golf Club.

“And some,” Lee deadpans, “have been claimed by the sea.”

[Chapter Break]

It’s time to go home. The panel members say their farewells and climb into their van, bound for Hokitika along with the milk tankers and campervans. Soon, they’re going into a two-week lock-in to finalise their draft recommendations.

The process from here is a little hazy, because everyone is clearly making the road by walking, but despite this it seems like the national panel are largely having a ball. They’re being driven around places they love, having meaty discussions with people they respect, and they feel like they’re contributing to something worthwhile. Given their evident passion for conservation both old and new, if they are in fact part of a conspiracy to carve up the conservation estate, they’re hiding it well.

At the time of writing, decisions have yet to be made about controversial and complex blocks. By the time you’re reading this, public notifications will likely be out. Feedback, public hearings, final recommendations, decisions and possible appeals await—and this is just for the first slice of the country. Larger philosophical and legal questions remain, not least whether the process can meet Māori aspirations. Sorting out who will be on mana whenua panels in other regions remains.

In a sense, though, the mana whenua and national panels are working together to trace a whakapapa of whenua in this country: from original Māori values and ideas about land and its care through the different phases of Pākehā conservation and colonisation, then starting to envisage what coming full circle might look like: to a modern conservation that integrates landscape, people and cultures. One that enables rangatiratanga for mana whenua in the protection, care and use of ancestral land—without having to resort to the courts.

Lake Mahinapua was the site of a major battle in Ngāi Tahu history, Tāwiri-a-te-makō. While the lakebed belongs to Ngāi Tahu, the iwi was allocated no land providing access to it. A small section of stewardship land on the lakeshore represents the chance to gain rangatiratanga and access to this sacred place.

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