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Deadlock breaks on plans for Mackenzie Country intensive dairying

Monday 13th May 2013

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Key environmental groups have signed up to a proposal which would allow both ecological restoration and intensive dairying to occur in the Mackenzie Country.

The newly unveiled Mackenzie Agreement is the product of three years' consensus-building led by Guy Salmon, a close adviser to Cabinet Minister Nick Smith and an architect of the collaborative process behind the Land and Water Forum.

While welcomed by the government, Labour's conservation spokesperson Ruth Dyson slammed it for favouring development over conservation, while the Greens are worried the accord relies too heavily on a new Mackenzie Country Trust, which would be funded by the government, donations and sponsorships.

Conservation Minister Smith and Environment Minister Amy Adams welcomed the agreement, whose recommendations to establish the trust by legislation it will now consider.

The agreement assumes nearly 10 percent of the Mackenzie Basin's 269,000 hectares of "flat and easy country" will be irrigated, with current small-scale irrigation on sheep and beef farms doubling to 15,000 hectares and some 9,600 hectares made available for intensive cubicle-style dairy farming on five properties.

The plan envisages 29 large, but marginally profitable sheep and beef farms being able to afford more conservation efforts, including better pest control, and less intensive grazing to allow restoration of tussocklands to recover, if allowed to increase small scale irrigation.

It notes all irrigation proposals will be dealt with under existing the existing Resource Management Act provisions, "which may themselves limit or reduce the proposed areas for irrigation."

The agreement came after the Environmental Defence Society successfully challenged resource consents granted in 2009 for intensive dairying in the semi-arid South Island high country setting, bordering the Southern Alps and several major lakes and attracting increasing tourism.

Three companies, Williamson Holdings, Southdown Holdings and Five Rivers, were behind the applications to build cubicle farms for around 17,000 dairy cows since the late 2000s. The intensive farming method controls nitrate runoff by capturing cows' urine before it heads into waterways.

Not all major irrigators in the area signed the accord, but EDS and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand are among 22 signatories, along with local governments, dairy industry lobbyist Dairy NZ, local Federated Farmers, and the Fish and Game Council.

A critical feature of the proposed trust's mandate would be "to protect water quality from the adverse effects of land use intensification."

This remains "a major outstanding issue" for the proposed trust to address.

"In principle, the forum can see potential in irrigation strategies, but their acceptability would depend on establishment and funding of the Trust."

EDS welcomed the deal as "unique to New Zealand", but the Greens warned a trust dependent on government funding, sponsorships and donations would not be able to guarantee environmental restoration in the area.

Labour's Dyson expressed concern that "the agreement specifically says the plan will not contain a map of land identified as being of value for conservation."

"Collaboration has been undermined by provocative tenure reviews and the Ecan legislation which changed all the rules for water conservation orders."

The plan for the area would include control of wilding pines and a "learning by doing" approach to restoring native vegetation in an area already heavily altered by the burning of forests by Maori settlers and farming since colonisation. Some invasive plants, such as hyeracium, could only ever be managed rather than eradicated, the agreement document says.

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