03 May 2011

Blackfish Ltd DOC Porter Heights Crystal Valley land swap

Crystal Valley is an east-facing valley in the bottom or southern end of the Craigieburn Range in Canterbury. It's immediate neighbour to the south is the Porter Heights skifield, which enthusiastically markets itself as "Christchurch's closest ski area".

Blackfish Ltd, a company financed by Australians and Russians, has some well-advanced expansion plans for Porters Heights. They want DOC to give them the title to Crystal Valley and some adjoining areas in return for a bush remnant on Banks Peninsula. They want to expand the skifield and build a 3000 bed lodge.

Claire Browning gives the full background in Crystal Valley, and the conservation state and reports that Al Morrison the Director-General of DOC has agreed to swap the land. Claire asks (roughly) how could the landswap achieve a net gain in conservation values when the land that goes to Blackfish gets made into skifield? And why are DOC proposing to swap land that the Nature Heritage Fund painstakingly purchased specifically for DOC from a pastoral leasee, the Castle Hill Station?

I wrote to Kate Wilkinson the Minister of Conservation and asked in terms of the Official Information Act for copies of Al Morrisons decision and the advice from DOC. My requests were answered last Friday 29 April, after 19 working days.

They sent me the DOC report to Al Morrison (DOC_report-to-Morrison-Blackfish-21-02-2011.pdf ) and (Morrison-Blackfish-11-03-2011.pdf).

I have scanned them and uploaded them to Google Docs.

* the DOC report to Al Morrison DOC_report-to-Morrison-Blackfish-21-02-2011.pdf 7749KB.

* Al Morrison's decision on the landswap Morrison-Blackfish-11-03-2011.pdf 1778KB.

Things that stand out on my first reading.

1. DOC is proposing to swap land that is not even conservation land!

Crystal Valley is not yet conservation stewardship land under the Conservation Act. The Nature Heritage Fund purchase, the surrender of the pastoral lease and the transfer to DOC have not been completed. Crystal Valley is still crown land with a pastoral lease held by Castle Hill Station and administered by LINZ. see para 8.1, page 7 of the DOC report to AL Morrison.

2. When Crystal Valley is gazetted as land held for conservation purposes, which is why former Minister of Conservation Chris Carter signed up for it, it will also be gazetted as a conservation park under s 18 of the Conservation Act. Which is the whole point of plugging the gap between Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park and the Craigieburn Forest Park. A conservation park cannot be swapped. DOC have put a paper to Kate Wilkinson to have Crystal Valley not gazetted as conservation park.

3. Under section 16A of the Conservation Act, DOC has a discretion to swap 'stewardship land' (land held for conservation purposes but not classified as conservation park or wildlife area (see section 2 Interpretation) Arguably, DOC has no jurisdiction to swap crown land under pastoral leases.

4. Given the arguable lack of jurisdiction, why did DOC engage in a lengthy iterative process with Blackfish? Why didn't DOC say to Blackfish "We can't look at your landswap application, we have no authority over Crystal Valley until it is legally held for conservation".

5. The two specialist biodiversity reports commissioned by DOC (one by DOC botanist Nick Head, the other by consultant Markus Davies) concluded that the land swap would result in a net loss of biodiversity.

6.However, through a use of further offers of easements and encumbrances on Crystal Valley back to DOC, deft prose and dense matrices/tables, the report to Al Morrison concludes that the swap will "enhance the conservation values of land managed by the Department".

7. Consultation with Ngai Tahu and the Aoraki/Canterbury Conservation Board look formalistic. "We told them what we were doing and we ignored their response". Definitely not following the Kaikoura whale-watching case.

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