One wealthy foreigner’s investment in the South Island high country promises a great conservation return — if we don’t mind relying on overseas buyers to save our iconic landscapes and wildlife. In the first of two reports, Geoff Cumming looks at two sides of the foreign investment coin.

If your stance on foreign ownership of prized New Zealand countryside is black or white, the case of Robert "Mutt" Lange reveals issues that are far from clear-cut.

The Swiss-based multimillionaire music producer has gained control of a slice of South Island high country so big Auckland's entire built-up area could fit in it.

In less than 10 years, Lange obtained Overseas Investment Office approval for four Crown pastoral leases covering most of the rugged highlands between Queenstown and Wanaka. It began with the joint purchase of Motatapu and Mt Soho stations for $21.5 million in 2003. Glencoe followed in 2009, then Coronet Peak in 2011, taking Lange's investment somewhere north of $30 million.

The first purchases drew unwanted publicity - largely due to the celebrity factor of his wife at the time, Canadian country songstress Shania Twain. The OIO approved the deal only after the couple undertook to increase access to the property - building a walking track to form part of the national walkway, Te Araroa. There was a backlash when, to maintain their privacy, they ensured the path steered clear of their compound (a luxury house and associated villas) in the Motatapu valley, forcing trampers on a more arduous route. There was further fuss over the main house's prominent ridge-top location.

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Media interest waned around the time the marriage ended and Twain decamped, citing Lange's infidelity. But Lange's commitment to our high country only grew - his subsequent purchases took the total holdings of his vehicle, Soho Properties, to around 55,500 ha.

What's unfolded is likely the most ambitious individually-funded ecological restoration effort undertaken in New Zealand: destocking the high, sub-alpine pasture, replacing cattle with sheep on lower productive land, waging war against wilding pines, goats, stoats, weeds and other pests, planting hundreds of thousands of native trees and shrubs, and building walking tracks and huts for public use.

Though he makes frequent visits, Lange has entrusted day-to-day supervision of the project to a Kiwi farmer, Arrowtown-based Russell Hamilton. "The aim is to try to reinstate a pristine environment with native flora and reintroduce native species," Hamilton says. "The important thing is to get the habitat restored first - to create an environment they can survive in."

Now, Lange is placing covenants - legally binding documents preventing activities that might harm landscape, ecological or heritage values - over most of this vast estate. Only about 3000ha of lowland slopes and valleys will be retained for farming. The public will be able to experience much of this stunning environment, with 21 tracks (some already built, others to come) through the conservation areas.

The covenants, administered by the QEII National Trust, ensure future leaseholders are bound to follow Lange's vision. The Mahu Whenua (healing the land) covenants will take formal effect next weekend after a ceremony attended by the Governor-General - timed to coincide with the annual Motatapu multi-sport event which brings around 3000 runners and mountain bikers to terrain which varies from river valleys and wetlands to snow-capped peaks and plunging gorges.

The four stations are bordered by three of our best-known skifields (Coronet Peak, Cardrona and Treble Cone) and QEII trust chairman James Guild says their proximity to Queenstown, Wanaka and Arrowtown will increase adventure and eco-tourism options.

But the main beneficiaries promise to be native birds and other threatened species in restored high country habitats. Forest remnants, including mountain beech, grey shrublands, alpine tussocks and wetlands provide habitat for vulnerable birds (grey warblers, silvereye, riflemen, bellbirds, torea, kea) and other species including threatened skinks, tussock insects and butterflies. But they are under siege from exotic pests and weeds including wilding pines, goats and stoats while the alpine slopes are highly erosion-prone.

Unveiling the proposal last August, Guild termed it the country's first private national park. At the time, the Government was enduring a pre-election storm over farm sales to foreigners. Nick Smith, who was then Conservation Minister, hailed it as proof of the benefits that overseas investment in rural land can bring, arguing that foreign ownership should be judged on its merits. "Sometimes these overseas people can be incredibly generous, at New Zealand's gain."

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While Smith drooled over the size of the deal and Lange's extraordinary generosity, one aspect was glossed over: covenants are traditionally used to protect valued habitats and landscapes on private land (mainly farms) held in freehold, not on Crown pastoral leases. Under the 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act, the preferred method for protecting conservation values on these big stations is to go through tenure review - a negotiation in which conservation areas (often marginally-productive land on higher slopes) end up with DoC and leaseholders gain freehold title to more productive farmland.

Covenants have never been used on this scale. Since 1977, about 4000 open space covenants have been registered, covering 120,000 ha; Lange's move boosts the area covered by around 40 per cent. The QEII trust is understandably delighted and keen to see more use made of the mechanism - conservationists are not so sure.

"When a leaseholder says 'I'll covenant these areas and keep ownership of them', we think that's not what the act says," says Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell.

"He's keeping a very significant piece of what could have become public conservation land. The [restoration] package he's creating looks great but it relies on his goodwill [and subsequent lessees] in the future." Federated Mountain Clubs vice-president Peter Wilson says the covenants will effectively prevent Lange's land ever going through tenure review with conservation areas resumed by the Crown, ensuring full public access.

"Covenants have their place for patches of bush on private land or areas you can't join up to other areas," Wilson says. "But they are not necessarily good outcomes for whole properties. They don't give the same freedom for the public to roam.

"Landowners like them because they still retain control rather than Crown control."

But though the pair have reservations about the mechanism, they applaud Lange's ecological ambitions.

Soho's Russell Hamilton says tenure review would have resulted in less protection on the properties than the covenants will bring. "Covenants can be for limited purposes - in this instance we stiffened them up.

"DoC estate is hugely costly to maintain. If you keep farming, you can do [restoration work] as part of farming. And it helps to keep people in the area. Tenure review brings more advantages for the lessee through the freeholding opportunities. We are achieving [conservation gains] on marginal land at no cost to the Crown."

The QEII Trust's Guild acknowledges that covenants give landowners more flexibility. "We don't take a purist view that everything has to be pristine. We may allow grazing to continue but we monitor it and adjust accordingly.

"There can be much more gains taking a partnership approach than saying 'you've got something we want to put a fence around to protect'."

The binding nature of covenants has recently been underscored by two court verdicts where new owners who ignored or sought to modify covenants were rebuffed. In one, a Canterbury landowner who cleared a covenanted area for development was required to fund its restoration.

Lange may be the most acquisitive, but he is just one of many foreigners to have grabbed a slice of South Island paradise since the 1990s - high country stations from iconic Walter Peak on Lake Wakatipu to those overlooking Wanaka and Lake Tekapo, from The Lord of the Rings landscapes of the Mackenzie basin to North Canterbury. Many are committed to ecological restoration; others have planted exotics or otherwise changed the land for the worse. Prominent New Zealanders have committed far worse crimes. With exceptions, foreign owners make good stewards of the land and bring jobs, says Guild, who farms in the Rakaia Gorge and counts them among his neighbours.

"I doubt that there's any [New Zealander] who has either the resources or the inclination to do what Mutt Lange's done," Guild says. "This is the counter-balance to the argument that we should protect iconic landscapes from overseas ownership."

Hamilton has a different take: "Nobody can own the land - you think you can own it but you are custodians of it. You get good custodians and bad custodians."

Hamilton and Soho lawyer Willy Sussman are as close as we can get to Lange, who shuns all media contact. The clean-living vegetarian who looks much younger than his 66 years won't be at next weekend's ceremony - recognition would not appear to be his motivation.

Sussman describes an unpretentious, friendly client, "altruistic beyond words". "He is very concerned about the preservation of the planet, whether it's this land or global warming or plastic in the sea."

Hamilton, who farmed for 40 years in north Wakatipu, first met Lange 12 years ago when the legal firm preparing Lange's first OIO applications sought an adviser on farming aspects.

"Restoring the natural ecology is something which evolved. He has done this elsewhere but nothing on this scale."

Inspecting just a small portion of the property, over Skipper's Saddle in the southwest corner of Coronet Peak Station, hints at the enormity of the challenge. The landscape is dramatic: alpine peaks, schist rock outcrops, the Shotover River canyon. The odd rabbit ducks for cover on the bone-rattling descent in Hamilton's ute into Long Gully, the one-lane gravel road clinging to sheer rock faces. Gold miners built the first pack track in the 1860s - there were 27 pubs along it at one time. More recently, the area was left to the goats - thousands have been killed here and on Glencoe.

"You can never say with assurance that it's [goat-free] but we've got them down to very low numbers." Then Hamilton points across the gully to his true nemesis: wilding pines, mainly douglas fir, and sycamores spreading faster than rabbits.

"They terrify me ... They're a nightmare ... I hate them." "It's staggering how quickly they grow and spread. This was an area where there were no trees." He points out dead stands where wilding pines have been aerial-sprayed. But higher up, fresh wildings are marching up the slopes.

"We've had ground staff go in and they keep coming back. It's an exercise in futility - you've got to get rid of the seed source or it comes back."

There is strong local support, notably from the Wakatipu Wilding Conifer Control Group. "If it's not done all over, this will all turn into exotic forest. It totally changes the environment."

Wildings don't just replace native vegetation and change wildlife, they suck up rainfall so stream and river levels drop. The trick, he says, is to keep coming back - clean out an area, leave it for 3-5 years, then return.

"Each time you get more, then you go again. We are talking about a 20-year programme."

On Motatapu and Mt Soho the landscape is gentler before river valleys and rolling pasture give way to 2000m peaks. Native replanting - about 3000 a week for 8-9 months a year - extends about 15km into the Motatapu valley. Elsewhere, areas cleared of stock are regenerating. "It's surprising how quickly it comes back. A lot of birds are coming back."

But why on such a massive scale? If restoration is to succeed, a whole of catchment approach is needed, Hamilton explains. "With wilding trees, cleaning up one side [of a slope] and having it all get away on the other side didn't make much sense."

Buying Coronet Peak in 2011 extended the project to the natural boundary of the Shotover River, reducing the risk of reinfestation by animals and plants.

The planting also has an impact on erosion and sediment build up in streams and rivers including the Shotover, blamed for serious flooding in Queenstown and, further downstream, coastal sedimentation.

"Slowing the erosion cycle in the Shotover is of huge importance. If we look after our alpine areas and wetlands then soils retain more moisture and you are less vulnerable to drought." Hamilton says the QEII covenants won't alter the restoration programme - but Lange is wary of what might happen after he is gone.

"He has done amazing work in the past and then moved on. Then people came in with bulldozers so he didn't want that to happen again.

"The covenants are in perpetuity and are almost impossible to change.

"Mutt's very keen that if we give the public something some future owner won't come in and take it away. Essentially, this just guarantees it going forward."

Mutt Lange

Born 1948 in northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) and raised in Durban, the son of a South African father and German mother.

Lives in a chateau in Switzerland.
Fortune stems from music production and songwriting credits. His big "arena" sound and meticulous attention to detail are behind mainstream hits for 80s and 90s acts including Def Leppard, Foreigner, The Cars, AC/DC and Bryan Adams.

Co-wrote Adams' 1991 monster hit (Everything I Do) I Do It For You.

Took (then) wife Shania Twain to mainstream success in 1990s.

Still occasionally produces for artists including Muse, Maroon 5 — even Lady Gaga.