Mining giant OceanaGold has applied for permission to mine underneath Coromandel Peninsula conservation land, rather than on it.
The Waihī gold mine operator's application involves a permit at Wharekirauponga, a stronghold for the endangered Archey's Frog in the Coromandel Forest Park, 10km north of Waihī and south of Whangamatā.
The Archey's frog tops the worldwide list of 972 amphibians that scientists describe as EDGE, which stands for evolutionary distinct and globally endangered. The creature is New Zealand's only land frog and has features such as muscles for tail wagging, no croak and no eardrums.
Coromandel Watchdog spokeswoman Augusta Macassey-Picard said there was still strong opposition to mining on conservation land. A large anti-mining demonstration planned by the group on March 17 was cancelled after the mass killings in Christchurch.
Macassey-Picard questioned what OceanaGold was doing applying for mining permits on land "that they know should be protected".
Over the past 18 months, the OceanaGold disqualified at least 40 potential drilling sites in the area due to populations of the critically endangered Archey's frog - described by scientists as 'living dinosaurs'. Among the strict conditions for access, a helicopter was used to install the drilling equipment on the sites which are about 150sq m.
In February, the company announced it had identified a high-grade mineral resource at Wharekirauponga.
OceanaGold senior community advisor Kit Wilson said the company ruled out any surface mining within conservation land boundaries due to important environmental, recreational and cultural values of the area.
However, the company was confident there was the potential to tunnel in from outside the park to gain access to the minerals, he said.
"What Government has proposed is no new land and what we're saying is 'we're not on conservation land, we're under'.
"After 15 years of exploration, we have identified mineralisation that could sustain mining. That means the next step is to apply for a mining permit and conduct technical, social, cultural and environmental studies that will tell us what that underground mine might look like and whether mining is going to be acceptable in that location," Mr Wilson said.
The primary land use at Wharekirauponga is conservation "so we have a lot of work to do before we apply for additional approvals and consents to develop an underground mine".
"We believe our approach, which rules out surface mining and enters underground from land off the conservation estate, will work within the Government's 'no new mines on conservation land' policy, as we understand it."
If granted, the new permit would replace the company's exploration permit. The next steps would be study and analysis.
Wilson said the project presents opportunities for the region in addition to its operation at Waihī, "sustaining an industry that is a significant long-term contributor to the region, and the broader economy".
This week, Hauraki District Mayor John Tregidga was highly critical of Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage, after she blocked a Waihī land purchase by OceanaGold for a tailings reservoir and storage facility.
The purchase was in preparation for a mine expansion beyond Project Martha, which is due to end in 2028, and promises more than 350 people jobs in the Waihī area for another nine years.
He has not been supportive of mining on conservation land.