The Standard has been sent copies of documents (1,2,3,4) released under the Official Information Act which show that one of National’s first acts in government was to trim a Conservation Park at the request of a mining company, ignoring local concerns and official advice, to let the company dig up the land for coal.
The Oteake Conservation Park was created out of existing conservation estate and other Crown land. The purpose of a conservation park under the Conservation Act is to ensure the land’s “natural and historic resources are protected” and “facilitate public recreation and enjoyment’ of our natural environment.
The Park was to have included the upper Manuherikia valley, which is DOC-owned. Located close the the Otago Rail Trail, the upper Manuherikia valley is a popular site for picnicking, tramping, and other excursions.
Apart from being an area of outstanding beauty, it is also the site of head waters that supply Falls Dam, which supplies both irrigation to the farms at the mouth of the valley and hydroelectric power, as well as water for the Hawdun-Idaburn Irrigation Scheme and drinking water for the town of Naseby. The river valley is also home to several rare species of native bird and fish. One of the reasons given for including this catchment in the conservation park was to improve and protect the flow of water downstream.
On the 3 December 2008, a mere week after the Key Government was formed, DOC officials were directed to prepare information on trimming the Oteake Conservation Park in anticipation of a discussion between Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee and then Conservation Minister Tim Groser. The area to be removed from the protection of conservation park status was the upper Manuherikia valley.
It just so happens that the area contains a substantial reserve of lignite and mining company L&M wanted to get its hands on. The company approached the government to have this public land excluded from the protection afforded for land in conservation parks by the Conservation Act so it could make some cash digging up the coal:
[L&M] requested that a specified area of conservation land (215 hectares) in the upper Manuherikia valley overlying part of the Hawkdun lignite deposit, be excluded from the park. L&M Mining also submitted that the proposed location of recreational facilities for the park would further compromise the mining opportunities
But officials advised that the conservation significance of the valley was significant and was “critically important”
The upper Manuherikia valley is one of the few places where Oteake park can include basin floor or “lowland” components. Including such components enables parks to better protect and represent the full range of high country environments, ecosystems and landscapes, and offer a wider range of recreational opportunities
Mining in the upper Manuherikia valley threatens not only the public’s enjoyment of the natural landscape but will have downstream implications for water use. This advice and the outrage of locals was ignored for a shady deal with mining interests. After Brownlee met with Groser, the land was quietly removed from the Oteake Conservation Park, ready for L&M to come and take the coal. And all this in the Key Government’s first days. I’m not sure I remember mining conservation land being in the 100 day plan.
November 2008 was the start of severe global economic problems, yet from Day 1 the Key government’s priority was secretly helping mining interests. After the revelation on Q+A yesterday about Key’s shareholding in Jackson Mining, you’ve got to wonder: What was the rush?
We have to start to ask questions about how a small mining company can get National to put aside more pressing concerns and override advice from officials and the wishes of locals to grant it a special favour. Given National’s headlong rush to open up more public conservation land to mining interests, we have to take a harder look at National’s links to those interests.