When people come north to Wellington for tramping…

Date: 14 June 2014.
Trampers: Too many to name.
Location: St Johns Hall, Willis & Dixon Street.
Trip Type: Enlightening Policy Discussions.
Author: Mike McGavin.

Saturday 14th June was a typical sparkly, sunshiney Wellington day and so I was naturally surprised that nobody else from Tongue and Meats* was spending it where many other trampers of New Zealand had decided to spend it: inside a conference centre for the Federated Mountain Clubs Annual General Meeting and Conference Open Day.

Okay, so maybe that type of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but not to worry. Those who have met me could have detected that I’d probably find this sort of thing interesting (because it is interesting!). FMC is a central organisation with which most New Zealand tramping clubs, including Tongue & Meats, are affiliated. It produces an excellent quarterly FMC Bulletin. It also advocates for recreation values on behalf of clubs at national and often local levels. The open day was attended by delegated representatives from many clubs throughout New Zealand.

The event began with an AGM. It ran like clockwork and there’s not much to report, except that congratulations should go to Ian Harrison who’s been awarded the supreme prize for the New Zealand wide FMC photo competition in 2014. With no WTMC delegates present, I gleefully collected a cheque on the club’s behalf.

Next, the themed conference day began. FMC’s main theme for this conference was the launch of its Forgotten Lands campaign: A directed effort to push for the assessment and ultimate re-classification of Stewardship Land. A press release and website update went out some time in the morning, and during the lunch break (with a free lunch!), FMC President Robin McNeill was already standing outside, on his phone speaking to media.

You can read all about the campaign on FMC’s website, or check out last year’s report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, but a summary of the issue is that:

  • 10% of New Zealand (about one third of the conservation estate) is still classified as Stewardship Land under section 62 of the Conservation Act.
  • Stewardship Land is like the “to be filed” tray of the Conservation Estate. It was always meant to be properly assessed and re-classified to a more appropriate level of protection, but this has never happened. This means that much high value conservation land still has a relatively low and ambiguous level of protection.
  • Recently, this has resulted in lengthy and expensive legal controversies. Land which might have been worthy of classification as (for example) a Conservation Park, National Park or Reserve, has been subjected to applications for potentially inappropriate use, justified by the claim that it isn’t any other classification.

The presence of un-classified Stewardship Land has been a major factor in several recent high profile controversies on conservation land. Notably the Snowdon Forest monorail project (finally denied), Meridian’s effort to dam the Mokihinui River catchment (abandoned after much expense on all sides), Bathurst Resources’ application to open-cast mine the Denniston Plateau (permission granted just as coal prices plummeted), and a controversial land swap to enable a ski-field in Crystal Basin (permission granted).

As the land involved was Stewardship land, the ability of DOC and the Minister of Conservation to give weight to various factors, which might otherwise be very relevant when considering applications, has often been severely limited. Getting the assessment phase underway so that land can be properly classified, whether it’s high value or low value, should make it much easier to ensure that genuinely high value conservation land can be more reliably kept protected.

FMC’s campaign is focused on eight specific blocks of land which it believes need to be given higher status, but the overall intent of the campaign is that Stewardship land eventually needs to be properly assessed everywhere.

After the AGM

First up for the day were several speeches from invited politicians. Namely Nick Smith (Minister of Conservation), Ruth Dyson (representing the Labour Party) and Eugenie Sage (representing the Green Party). Lou Sanson (current CEO of DOC) also gave an ad-hoc but lengthy question and answer session.

The good news for Stewardship Land is that potential Ministers on all sides are actually keen to push for a programme to classify it properly after the upcoming election, but there’s still a need for feedback (such as from FMC) about how it should actually work, what constitutes “value” in land, and all those sorts of messy questions which could impact what we end up with from any process. Countless further issues were discussed, but some more notable ones were:

  • pest control, generally accepted by everyone to be one of the biggest and most important challenges for the Conservation Estate and with aerial 1080 generally being accepted as the only realistic option in the immediate future;
  • climate change, for which adaptation is being treated by DOC as another very critical and important challenge for the future; and
  • difficulties when modern tourism clashes with risks on the conservation estate (in the aftermath of a recent death on the Milford Track).

The second half of the day was sequentially made up of four workshop-style discussions, aimed at discussing which views (if any) FMC should take on certain issues when it represents clubs. I won’t write about the details here because much was said in-confidence and decisions weren’t arrived at on the day, but the topics were:

  • What FMC should recommend with regard to its advocacy of re-classifying Stewardship Land.
  • Whether FMC should be promoting the use of aerial 1080 for predator control in the back-country.
  • How can we make partnerships with DOC work for everyone?
  • How should FMC deal with Kauri Dieback Disease?

If you have well considered views on any of these, now would be a good time to invent a time machine, return to the day of the conference, and attend it. But if you can’t do that, your next best option would be to contact someone on the FMC executive to discuss your ideas.

This is the first FMC event like this which I’ve attended, and I’m glad that I took advantage of it being held locally. It was nice to match faces to many of the names which I’ve either known or simply read about for a long time, plus it was enlightening to be in a room full of people who simply knew so much stuff about what’s currently happening in the conservation estate.

*Tongue and Meats is a long standing nickname for the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club stemming from a meat packing company that long ago shared our WTMC initials.

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