Tenure review of South Island high country pastoral leases is achieving a range of conservation, public access and farming outcomes for the Crown, the public and leaseholders.

More than 2 million hectares of high country owned by the Crown have been leased to farmers, who have exclusive and perpetual rights to that land and have farmed it for 150 years.

Tenure review, a voluntary process under Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998, enables leasehold land capable of sustaining a range of commercial uses to be freeholded.

At the same time, areas with important inherent values - conservation, historic, landscape, cultural, recreation and public access - can be restored to Crown ownership as public conservation land.

Tenure review under the act has resulted in agreements for another 117,500ha of high country to be opened up as public land.

A further 45,500ha of former pastoral lease land has been secured through the government Nature Heritage Fund, which offers an alternative to tenure review.

This is a net gain of more than 163,000ha of public land for nature preservation and recreational activity since the legislation came into force. Over that time about 162,000ha has been freeholded, making it an almost equal split between conservation land and freehold land.

Of the 304 leases under the 1998 Act, 198 are in the tenure review programme, and 53 of those near completion. Because interest in the high country does not lie solely with farmers, tenure review is a consultative process. Land Information New Zealand consults with the leaseholder, the Department of Conservation, and iwi on each tenure review proposal. Preliminary proposals are advertised and public submissions invited.

As managers of the tenure review process, Land Information NZ is required under the act to balance the competing views of all of those with an interest in the high country. This is no small task.

All the views expressed through consultation and public submissions are fully considered and published on the Land Information NZ website.

This Government's objectives for the high country include securing public access, establishing a network of parks and reserves, and fostering sustainability of communities, infrastructure and economic growth.

Tenure review is one of the processes that contribute to these objectives. It was acknowledged after the Government adopted the high country objectives in 2003 that competing interests need to be balanced.

Not everyone would get what they wanted, not all land capable of economic use would be freeholded, and not all land with inherent values would be returned to the Crown.

Another process for achieving the objectives is whole-lease purchase through the government Nature Heritage Fund.

Birchwood Station was acquired this way and became the core of Ahuriri Conservation Park.

It's also worth noting that a separate contribution to the parks network came last year when the 180,000ha Molesworth Station was transferred from Land Information NZ to Department of Conservation management.

Tenure review has resulted in diversified land use on freeholded areas. It has also contributed substantially to protecting land for distinctive and rare ecosystems and as habitats for endangered species, and for the development of areas such as the Ahuriri, Eyre Mountains and Ruataniwha conservation parks.

Rural communities are gaining through, for example, tourism activities made possible by tenure review.

The public benefits from secure legal access to the high country and from the recreational and biodiversity gains realised when areas with important inherent values are added to Conservation Department land.

Land freeholded in tenure review still has to comply with the Resource Management Act 1991 and district and regional plans that provide the means for communities to determine appropriate land use. Until now, local councils have not had to focus on how these lands should be sustainably managed in the future.

* Mathew Clark is tenure review programme manager, Land Information New Zealand.