Image of the October 2016 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
October 2016 Issue
Home / Articles / 25th Anniversary

Making millions from high country ‘farming’

Leasehold stations on the flat lands of the Mackenzie Country are being freeholded with little land set aside for conservation/ Photo: Ceasar Gonzalez Palomo / Creative Commons

Tenure review has resulted in some excellent gains for recreation – but at huge cost.

By Ann Brower

South Island high country tenure review has been going for as long as Wilderness has been printed; since 1991.

It’s a two-way split of Crown pastoral land, between conservation and freehold. Tenure review affects 10 per cent of the nation’s landmass – 2.4 million hectares along the eastern slope of the South Island’s Main Divide. The area is slightly larger than Israel and just smaller than Belgium. At its inception, those few who were watching were supportive because it had something for everyone: farmers received freehold title; conservationists saw sheep removed from hilltops and new parkland; recreationists secured access to the backcountry for fishing, hunting and tramping.

Over 25 years, the Crown has sold freehold title to 370,981ha to the former leaseholders of over 100 stations. By law, the Crown freeholds productive land most ‘capable of economic use’, usually at lower elevation and often on lakeshores or along roadways. Former leaseholders paid the Crown $65.2 million for freehold title (averaging $176/ha).

At the same time, the Crown bought pastoral leasehold rights to 330,854ha. By law, the land to which the Crown buys rights is the land with recognised conservation and recreation values, which is usually the least productive, steeper, higher and more remote land. The Crown paid leaseholders $116.8 million (average $353/ha)

One affected property, Alphaburn, is on the south shore of Lake Wanaka, on the road to Treble Cone. Until 2002, the 4579ha station was owned by the Crown and leased for ‘pastoral purposes only’. The Land Act 1948 prohibited subdivision and industrial development, which is why the shorelines of the southern lakes – Wakatipu, Wanaka, Hawea, Tekapo, Pukaki – have remained so quiet during the day and so dark at night.

In 2002, under tenure review, the Crown sold freehold title to 3365ha of Alphaburn to the leaseholder for $265,500. At the same time, the Crown bought the leaseholder’s remaining leasehold rights to run sheep on the less productive, higher altitude land with conservation or recreation values.

The Crown bought the pastoral rights to 1214ha for $202,500 and transferred the land into ‘stewardship land’ in anticipation of its conversion into a conservation reserve. The former leaseholder subdivided the new freehold land, selling 193ha for $10.1 million, or 658 times the per-hectare price paid to the Crown.

Readers of Wilderness will likely notice three things about tenure review. First, the Crown has paid leaseholders $52 million more than leaseholders have paid the Crown.

Second is the fate of the land after freeholding. As of mid-2015, nearly a third of the new freeholders had subdivided and on-sold 74,000ha, about one-fifth of what the Crown sold to them for $65 million. This land has since been sold for $275 million. Those who have on-sold land have received, on average, 693 times the Crown’s selling price.

Third is increased recreation access. In each tenure review, the Crown buys at least one access easement across the new private land to the new conservation land behind. One such easement, at Mt Pisa Station, has been in the news recently. In 2002, the Crown purchased pastoral rights to 4260ha of the former Mt Pisa Station, for $290,000; it sold freehold title to 4633ha (with an access easement across it) for $413,000. Since then, freehold owners of Mt Pisa have subdivided and onsold about 100ha, all up, for just over $4 million.

In January 2016, the station closed the easement to protect would-be trampers from the hunters on the conservation estate behind. In June, they re-opened it, under threat of legal action – a paragon of public access.

– Ann Brower is a senior lecturer at Lincoln University and author of Who owns the high country