As the Government pushes ahead with plans to open up conservation land for mining, Isaac Davison finds the combination is already causing trouble in the Bay of Plenty.
At the end of a winding rural road, beyond lush orchards, is the beginnings of a quarry where mining machinery has ground to a halt.
It is the site of ongoing impasse between a small Te Puke mining company and the Department of Conservation which culminated in the alleged sabotage of an environmentalist's car.
Te Puke Stone Enterprises is determined to dig further, which would involve open-cast mining in the dense bush of the valley. But it has failed to win the support of DoC, which is a steward for the land.
Forest and Bird Protection Society said the quarry, 12 kilometres south of the Te Puke township, was a dark scar on the mountainside and a threat to a unique species of frog.
The organisation said DoC's struggle to contain the mine's developments rang a warning bell for proposed ventures on its most protected land.
As the Government announced its intention to open up more protected land for mining, quarry owner Con Puckey had a message for DoC.
"They have to realise that they own 70 per cent of mineable land. They claim that [the Te Puke site] needs to be conserved but I don't see the conservation. It's full of rampant weeds, which get worse all the time, and lying under it is valuable minerals."
DoC area manager Andrew Baucke said the owner had failed to comply with conditions of his permit. Therefore his annual mining licence could not be renewed.
But Mr Puckey said DoC and Forest and Bird were blocking him from providing much-needed aggregate which could be used for road metal.
Te Puke Stone Enterprises received a permit from the old Mines Department more than 30 years ago.
The owner initially mined 30,000 cubic metres from the western end of the quarry. He aimed to extract rock from the northern end of the site, but a long-running battle with DoC meant he hadn't mined on the land for 21 years.
Last year DoC warned him there was too much unused machinery and infrastructure on the land. It also said his excavations were too close to a stream and criticised the signage he had put up prohibiting access.
Forest and Bird central North Island field officer Alan Fleming said that Mr Puckey's earthworks were ruining the habitat of a genetically distinct Hochstetter's frog which lived in the Raparapahoe stream.
The terse conversation over the frogs' survival allegedly led to the miner letting down Mr Fleming's car tyres when the officer visited the site last year.
Is it believed the miner received diversion in the Tauranga District Court for unlawfully tampering with a vehicle.
"It's not a good relationship." said Mr Fleming.
He added that the area was covered in valuable vegetation, which provided a habitat for robins, whiteheads and other birdlife. Mr Puckey said when the environmental factors were weighted against economic value, the value of the land was in its minerals.
"The frogs are tiny, almost camouflaged, and only a few people care for them. And the land is overrun with gorse."
A Department of Scientific and Industrial Research geologist measured two million cubic metres of minerals on the land, which Mr Puckey estimated would fetch $15 per cubic metre.
With the nearby Tauranga Eastern Link made a priority by the Government, he said his mine could provide high quality base core for the roading project, with few transport costs.
Te Puke Stone Enterprises was granted a mining licence more than 10 years before DoC or the Resource Management Act existed. Mr Puckey said the old mining inspectors were "wonderful", but under DoC's jurisdiction he was tied in bureaucratic knots.
He echoed a statement by one of his neighbours: "The land is doomed. And meanwhile there is a great demand, a huge demand for quality aggregate."
Mr Baucke said the strained relationship between the department and the mine was an isolated case.
He did not see the compliance struggles as a sign of things to come if more mining sites were opened on the conservation estate.
But Mr Fleming pointed to a report by Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, which was released four months ago.
Dr Wright said that more than 100 licences were given out before the 1991 enactment of the Resource Management Act and the Crown Minerals Act.
She said the licences were based on outdated regulations "fraught with difficulties and inconsistencies", and provided inadequate protection for a fragile ecosystem.
Mr Fleming said the Te Puke quarry's problems mirrored the concerns in the report. He said it was difficult for DoC, Environment Bay of Plenty and the regional council to cohesively monitor the site.
Meanwhile, the impasse continues. Mr Puckey said the land is crumbling in slips. "I have my machinery sitting here, getting rusty. It's such a waste of a resource, a waste of life."