You can read what you will from the Minister of Conservation’s recent statements. For me, one of the important topics he’s referred to is Stewardship Land.
Why is this important? Because right now, roughly one third of all conservation land, about 10% of the whole of New Zealand, is in limbo.
Stewardship Land is the to be filed tray of conservation land. Much of it is land that was handed to DOC during its formation in 1987, without already being a National Park, Forest Park or Reserve. The rest was obtained afterwards. The intent was always for it to be assessed and either given an appropriate legal designation or perhaps disposed of. Some is definitely well suited for National Parks or Conservation Parks, or various types of Reserves, and is often already being used as if it is. Some might be best disposed of and put to other uses, but 27 years later it’s still waiting for something to be done with it. Nobody’s ever prioritised the research and paperwork for deciding what it should be.
Stewardship Land is loosely protected, but only loosely. For management, DOC is required only to manage it “so that its natural and historic resources are protected“. In practice, much Stewardship Land is still managed according to what’s informally known of its actual value, even if this value has never been formalised in law. DOC will coordinate pest control if needed and as resources permit, and also maintain recreational tracks and huts if appropriate.
The diminished legal status, however, means diminished protection. Even if some land’s conservation value is very high, whether for environmental reasons or recreation reasons, the lack of status restricts criteria on which DOC and the Minister can consider applications for concessions. This is because the land’s not on record as being protected for any specific reason. Furthermore, as long as certain criteria are met, Stewardship Land can be sold or traded for other land. The trading clause was designed with the specific intent of enabling minor adjustments of land boundaries, but this intent was never written in law. Significant controversial land trades, which have nothing to do with shoring up land boundaries, have already occurred.
Recently, the Snowdon Forest monorail project (finally denied) was mostly about Stewardship Land. Meridian Energy’s desire to dam and flood the Mokihinui River catchment (eventually abandoned) was largely about Stewardship Land. Bathurst Resources’ application to open-cast mine the Denniston Plateau (permission granted) was also about Stewardship Land. The trading of the Crystal Basin for a private land block on Banks Peninsula, to enable a private company to develop a ski-field, was about Stewardship Land.