An academic is calling for public debate on public access to Crown-owned farmland, saying the law governing access is ambiguous and is begging for further clarification.
The Crown owns more than a million hectares of South Island high country, the bulk of which is leased to farmers through pastoral leases which can be perpetually renewed.
University of Canterbury senior lecturer Dr Ann Brower said historically the law governing pastoral leases did not give farmers exclusive possession of the land, but only the right to graze it. This would imply the public has greater rights to access these high country stations. But she said decades of lobbying had created a perceived right of exclusive access.
“Other parts of the Land Act have ‘exclusive’ rights written into it, but it’s conspicuously absent from the law regarding pastoral leases,” Brower said. “If lawmakers had meant to say exclusive, they would have said it.”
The law was tested in 2008 when Fish and Game went to the High Court to seek a judgement on whether farmers had the exclusive right of possession, however, the court found in favour of high country farmers.
But Brower said the decision was “muddy” and was “begging for further clarification” through a government review.
“The government has the power to legislate and can amend the Land Act to say ‘exclusive’, or they could make Crown land explicitly more open to access. It’s time for a public debate on this.”
Another option to clarify the law would be if “a brave trespasser” was taken to court for tramping on farmland, forcing the leaseholder to prove their exclusive right of possession.
Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) president Peter Wilson disagreed with Brower’s interpretation of the law and said access to high country farmland is the best it has been in years. Trampers already had access to large swathes of the country and a law change wasn’t necessary, he said.
“Forty-five per cent of the South Island is conservation estate which has free access,” Wilson said. “If you add in river beds, lakes, council reserves and parks, you’re looking at 50 to 60 per cent which has public access.”
The best way forward was to work with farmers, not against them, he said.
“Litigating for a right to roam won’t help. It will generate a backlash from farmers, which may take years to resolve and farmers might be inclined to lock the gate because they’re being taken to court again. It also risks seeing the law go further against the public interest.”