An Australian mining company has been given Department of Conservation permission to enter public land at Puhipuhi and Russell State Forest for early-stage minerals exploration.
De Grey Mining applied to DoC's Whangarei area office on February 26 to access five sites for "minimum impact" activities, which include sampling and surveying using hand-held methods only. The area office manager granted permission on March 18.
The move has alarmed conservation groups and local people who say mining would involve toxic practices. All five sites in the application are part of complex water catchments that drain into Bay of Islands, Whangaruru Harbour, the Helena Bay area, Hikurangi swamp, Northern Wairoa river system and Kaipara Harbour.
Concerns had also been raised that De Grey wanted access land subject to unsettled Maori land claims before the Waitangi Tribunal, said Dean Baigent-Mercer, chairman of Far North Forest and Bird.
"It's inappropriate for mining companies to be on conservation land at all," he said.
He said local people had been visited by De Grey agents asking for access arrangements to minerals under private land.
Under the minimal legislative requirements, that could be considered "consultation", and current owners' permission would apply regardless of who subsequently owned the land, Mr Baigent-Mercer said.
The De Grey application is still being processed by DoC at a national level. The Whangarei area office has provided comments and conditions regarding kauri dieback, historic assets, impacts on land values and management, and sites of significance to iwi, a spokesman said.
The access application is part of a permit De Grey requested from New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, a section of the Ministry of Economic Development.
The Crown Minerals Act allows for public land to be used for minerals exploration and extraction unless it has the highest protection afforded by schedule 4.
Northland has no schedule 4 land, but a process is under way to include part of Waipoua Forest. Puhipuhi is 30km north of Whangarei. The other areas are Pt Northland Conservation Park, Russell Forest (Addition No 2) Conservation Area, Waikiore Conservation Area and Pukekaikiore Stream Marginal Strip.
De Grey last year paid $1.27 million for a 100 per cent interest in the Puhipuhi project from Waihi Gold Company. The new Puhipuhi permits would surround the area which has been held under exploration permit 51985 since 2009.