A decision all but made by DOC’s Director-General Al Morrison to give 198ha of conservation land in Crystal Valley freehold to Australian ski field company Blackfish is being criticised by tramping and conservation groups.
Crystal Valley is a high alpine circular basin near the Porters Heights Ski Area and was purchased by the Natural Heritage Fund in 2004 to remain as conservation land in perpetuity due to its conservation values.
But DOC’s Morrison has agreed in principle to a land exchange agreement proposed by Blackfish so the company can turn the valley into a ski resort with ski fields, 3400 bed accommodation, access roads and underground car parks.
In exchange for the protected land, Blackfish is giving DOC a 70ha block of rare coastal lowland forest at Steep Head Gulley on Banks Peninsula. The company would also return a further 320ha of leasehold land in Porters Valley to DOC.
Morrison said the proposal offers DOC the chance to secure the future protection of a rare piece of coastal native forest on Banks Peninsula.
“Protecting remaining costal forest blocks like Steep Head Gulley is a conservation priority – bringing this forest under public ownership improves the quality and extent of land DOC manages,” Morrison said in a statement.
“With public access and conservation values also preserved in the Porters Valley, the overall impact of this proposal is a net gain for conservation.”
But Forest and Bird conservation advocate Nicola Vallance criticised the exchange saying it sets a dangerous precedent.
She said DOC has given the Crystal Valley land to Blackfish freehold so the company can secure loans to finance its proposed ski resort development.
“If DOC can carve off a pristine piece of public conservation land that was purchased for New Zealanders in perpetuity so a foreign-owned company can bankroll its investments, where does it stop? What if a company decides it needs a piece of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park?”
Vallance, who used to be a media manager for DOC, described the touted conservation benefits of the exchange as spin.
“The proposal to swap Steep Head Gulley is apples and pears – it’s silly,” she said. “For starters, the land area is smaller and secondly Steep Head Gulley is already protected by the Banks Peninsula District Plan and is also protected by virtue of its topography.
“I don’t understand how swapping an alpine circ basin in New Zealand’s beautiful alpine habitat with a small piece of coastal forest can even be considered a sensible swap,” said Vallance.
Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board chair Steve Lowndes agreed. “If you place these two pieces of land side-by-side it’s difficult to see how the Director-General has come to the conclusion that this is a ‘net gain for conservation’,” he said. “We’re talking about a whole eco-system in Crystal Valley.” Lowndes said DOC could lease Crystal Valley to Blackfish for a period of 50 years instead of giving it freehold.
“The path DOC has chosen to go down – to freehold the land – means that it basically abrogates responsibility for what happens on the land,” said Lowndes. “The department is pandering to the business interests of Blackfish rather than sticking with its knitting which is looking after the environment.”
The 320ha of leasehold Blackfish has proposed returning to DOC is “neither here nor there”.
“It’s a piece of land which they can’t use and which they currently manage,” said Lowndes.
Federated Mountain Club president Richard Davies, who represents the interests of trampers, also said he is worried about a precedent being set that allows “land swaps” to enable other major projects to happen.
Davies points to Meridian Energy’s so far unsuccessful attempts to swap land with DOC for the Mokihinui River Valley so the company can build a dam.
Davies said the ski field may be good for recreation and may open more ski touring opportunities, but agrees the land did not need to be given away freehold.
“It seems like a win for the ski field and a loss for the taxpayer. After all we paid for it through the Nature Heritage Fund,” said Davies.
DOC’s Al Morrison declined an interview with Wilderness because a spokesperson for DOC said it might prejudice the process and decision he still has to make about the exchange.