Forest & Bird (F&B) has pulled the plug after a two-year legal battle to stop Bathurst Resources' new Buller coal mine.
F&B announced this morning that it would not appeal the Environment Court decision allowing Bathurst Resources to mine on the Denniston Plateau.
In return, as part of an agreement signed yesterday, Bathurst will create and permanently protect a special 745ha reserve on the plateau. It will be referred to as the Denniston Permanent Protection Area (DPPA).
F&B top of the south field officer Debs Martin said October's Environment Court judgement had only required Bathurst to employ its ``best endeavours'' to protect this area.
F&B had sought a stronger outcome through the agreement.
"By doing this, we are ensuring Bathurst won't just have to try - they'll have to deliver on their undertaking.''
Ms Martin said the decision not to appeal the Environment Court judgement was a hard one.
"We consider the Denniston Plateau to be one of the most precious parts of the conservation estate.''
Until last month, the Environment Court's view had been that the case was 'finely balanced', which meant F&B's case was a good one, she said.
It was clear the court had now largely accepted that the mine would proceed.
"While an appeal may have been successful, it would not have actually stopped the mine,'' said Ms Martin.
Bathurst managing director Hamish Bohannan said he was very pleased with yesterday's agreement and it was fantastic for Westport.
The agreement was a significant milestone for the Escarpment Mine project.
"It gives Bathurst increased certainty and the company now has a much greater level of confidence around being able to commence mining activities as soon as possible.''
Although Bathurst had previously committed to a protected area, F&B had helped provide a far greater understanding of the importance of various flora and fauna on the plateau.
The two groups had also been able to work with other agencies, including the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Crown Minerals, to give the protected area permanence.
The appeal period for the final resource consent decision would close technically on November 18.
Bathurst was continuing to work with DOC, iwi and local councils to process the management plans required before production activities could start.
Bathurst was still on track to start employing for the Denniston project in the new year and to start shipping coal in the first quarter of next year.
F&B said it would strive to protect what would be left of the Denniston and nearby Stockton plateaux from coal mining.
Ms Martin said DOC had put the Denniston Plateau on its list of the top 50 most ecologically significant sites on mainland New Zealand.
"Scientists have highlighted its incredible range of endemism, which means many of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth. Under previous governments of both shades, DOC would have gone to court to protect Denniston.
"But the department was not present - which is why community groups like ours have been saddled with the high cost of legal action to protect those values.''
F&B hoped DOC would do what was required of it by law and ensure the plants and animals on what would be left of the Denniston and Stockton plateaux were saved from extinction.
"This case has been a significant one for Forest & Bird,'' Ms Martin said. "While we have not been able to prevent Denniston from being opencast mined, we have made some good gains for conservation.''
If F&B hadn't been involved, Bathurst wouldn't be legally committed to creating the reserve and most New Zealanders would still have never heard of the Denniston Plateau.
"New Zealanders would be none the wiser in regards to the new animal species that were discovered on the plateau during the course of our campaign,'' she said.
Mayor welcomes decision
Buller Mayor Garry Howard says he's excited by the agreement between Bathurst Resources and Forest and Bird to create a special reserve on the Denniston Plateau.
Mr Howard said he was pleased the long-running appeals process from F&B had finished and excited about the prospect of the mine proceeding.
But Bathurst still required approval from the Buller District and West Coast Regional councils for 27 operational and procedural plans.
"I'm not aware of why those should hold up mining going ahead, but I can't pre-empt the process they are going through.''
He said the permanent reserve represented a win/win situation for both parties.
"There are some lovely niche areas on Denniston and it'll be nice to have some of them protected as a virgin area.
"I just hope it's not at a compromise of future mining operations.''
However, Mr Howard's enthusiasm was tempered by how long it had taken for negotiations to reach this point.
"I think the process has been far too long. I think it's unfortunate that this type of face-to-face negotiation, which they've had with Bathurst, hasn't been able to reach such a settlement a lot earlier. But it is a good result.''
Despite the lengthy appeals and negotiations process, F&B had shown it was willing to compromise, he said.
"I don't think Forest & Bird is a totally unreasonable organisation, I do feel they bring very valid points to the table and they need consideration.''
However, he said that sometimes the organisation could be "bloody-minded''.
West Coast-Tasman Labour Party MP Damien O'Connor also welcomed the agreement, saying that good things took time to happen.
"But it's a shame that the money used on legal battles wasn't used for better protection of the flora and fauna...in an agreement that probably could have been reached a long time ago.''
He had understood from discussions with Bathurst, that for a long time now it had been prepared to undertake environmental protection and create a reserve.
"It would have saved members of Forest & Bird and shareholders in Bathurst a lot of money to have arrived at that decision earlier.''
He hoped that after the long and arduous legal process the mine would now go ahead, with jobs created soon.
Regional lobby group Go West Coast's interim chairman Brent Oldham said the last obstacle to the mine proceeding had been overcome, but he did not agree with creating a reserve.
Most of the plateau was already "pretty much a write-off'', he said.
Locals had been dismayed by the length of the appeals process, and F&B leaving until the last minute its decision on appeals.
A survey carried out last year showed many Coasters regarded themselves as conservationists. "I consider myself a conservationist, as do the majority of our (Go West Coast's) members.
"We don't want to see it destroyed but we know also in order for this region to develop and sustain itself it needs people.''
The only way it would do that would be through jobs and industry, said Mr Oldham.