Haste vs Heal
The government has appointed national commissions to assess the land and make recommendations to the minister. Cabinet documents show that the assessments were meant to be a “true technical assessment” of conservation values.
But the panels are due to report their recommendations across Westland by next month, before moving on to other areas at a similar speed. The need for speed has never been explained in light of the care required for this unique task in a generation.
The signs replace the statutory reclassification and advisory functions of the Conservation Councils and the New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA) – without changing the Conservation Act. The process was never subject to consultation.
The terms of reference for the panels are loose, with expertise not entirely overlapping with conservation councils or the NZCA. The information used by the panels and the stakeholder consultations they undertook have not yet been made public.
The conservation values that signs should assess have not been clarified, despite long-established guidelines.
More importantly, buried in the cabinet document, the minister gave interim guidance that commissions should prioritize “assessment for reclassification of any stewardship land where applications are being sought for settlement agreements.” mining access”.
Any provision for mining will automatically compromise subsequent assessments of the conservation values of the surrounding lands, resulting in lower classifications. This could pave the way for the fragmentation of ecosystems on the fringes of protected lands such as Kahurangi, Paparoa and Westland/Tai Poutini National Parks.
In the South West of the country, any low classification or removal for mining in the Te Wāhipounamu/South West New Zealand World Heritage area would jeopardize its very status.
The Environmental Law Initiative (ELI), of which we are a member, raised these and other concerns directly with the DOC.
We believe that, when combined, these flaws undermine the valuation process and could open the door to vested interests. This can lead to low classifications, the sale or dedication of public conservation lands to mining interests. Although stewardship lands can only be disposed of if they have little or no conservation value, if there is no true valuation this seems more likely.
No more mining on protected lands
Our concerns are reinforced by key questions in a current DOC consultation on improving the process for reclassifying and disposing of stewardship lands through legislative reform.
This consultation puts elimination on the table by proposing to remove a key barrier from the Conservation Act. This would facilitate disposal of the land before any assessment of value has been made.
In other propositions, the hand of vested interests is clear. The DOC proposes not to affect commercial activities, including mining proposals, on the reclassified lands. This means that if the stewardship lands were to be designated as a national park, this reclassification would have no effect on existing leases or mining permits.
In our view, this could undermine the very conservation values that the reclassification process is meant to protect. It would also allow even more mining to take place on protected land, decisively ending the Labour/New Zealand First government’s 2017 policy of ‘no new mines on protected land’.
The current proposals would also cement the ousting of the conservation councils and the NZCA, and shorten the timeframes for public consultation. The combined effect of these proposals is that the public will have less say in the fate of large tracts of public land.
We call on the government to slow down the reclassification and increase the transparency of the process, especially with regard to vested interests. Failure to address these issues will likely lead to years of delays, serious legal challenges, and possibly even new mines in pristine areas.
Dr. Matthew Hall is Senior Fellow at the Environmental Law Initiative (ELI) and Visiting Fellow at the Faculty of Law, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
Allan Brent is Senior Legal Advisor, Environmental Law Initiative, and Visiting Scholar, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.