A court ruling issued today could mean council-run natural reserves around New Zealand are better protected from mining, an environment group says.

This afternoon's decision by the Court of Appeal meant Buller District Council had to protect the special features of the Westport Water Conservation Reserve, which had been slated for use in the controversial Te Kuha opencast coal mine proposal.

The mining company Stevenson Mining Ltd had argued that protection of the natural and biological features was only one matter that the council had to consider and that it could weigh this against the economic benefits of the mine.

But, ruling in favour of Forest & Bird, the court found the council could not enter into an access arrangement that was incompatible with the primary purpose of the reserve, and had to protect the natural and biological features of the reserve.

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The group's general counsel, Peter Anderson, described the reserve, southeast of Westport, as a "pristine" area of intact forest, home to threatened bird, lizard, invertebrate and plant species.

"So it's fantastic news that the Reserves Act will be able to fulfil its purpose in protecting the natural features, as the public of New Zealand would rightly expect."

In a separate decision in July, the ministers of conservation and energy refused permission for the mining company to include 12ha of conservation land in the mine pit.

The mining company has said it will seek a judicial review of that decision.

Forest & Bird has also taken a case with the Environment Court appealing the resource consents granted to the company for the mine.