New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2020) 44(1): 3405

South Island high country: let’s get it right this time

Research Article
Ann L Brower 1*
Michael AC Harding 2
Nicholas J Head 3
Susan Walker 4
  1. University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140
  2. PO Box 51053, Arthurs Pass 7654
  3. Christchurch City Council, PO Box 73014, Christchurch 8154
  4. Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930 Dunedin 9054
*  Corresponding author

New Zealand has a unique opportunity to reshape the future of 1.2 million hectares, or 5% of the country. Since 1990, land clearance and development in the South Island high country have removed large areas of native vegetation, destroying already tenuous endemic species populations, and rare and threatened ecosystems. Important ecosystems and ecological values have been subtly or dramatically degraded through tenure review, discretionary consents, and invasions of plant and animal pests. Natural heritage has been transferred from public to private ownership, and a pest management burden created for future generations. Here, we argue that high country land administration has followed the ‘give-hope-defend’ model of governance. For 25 years, successive governments gave decision-making power to officials in Land Information New Zealand and Department of Conservation. Governments then hoped officials would follow ambiguous statutory direction. All the while, governments ignored their governance responsibilities by assiduously defending officials’ freedom from public accountability for decisions that the public found nonsensical. Indeed the Commissioner of Crown Lands, with whom the proverbial buck stops, is accountable to neither the Minister nor the public. We conclude that if the government wants enduring stewardship in the high country, revised legislation needs clarity of purpose and accountability to the public.