The Government is actively involved in giving away freehold title to a fifth of the South Island. This is perhaps a bigger privatisation than Telecom because the assets have huge innate value. Yet, the Government is not getting any money from the process and it is forgoing future rental income. Amazingly, it is paying privileged individuals to freehold thousands of hectares for nothing.

The Government, for example, has agreed to give the leasehold owners of Mt Burke Station 7358ha of freehold land. The happy people have, in return, to renounce the use of 2658ha designated recreational reserve. Mt Burke has gained 35km of frontage on Lake Wanaka, perhaps our most beautiful lake. There are other examples.

Is it not paradoxical that in the high country the Government is perhaps over-scrupulous in respecting property rights and John Tamihere is emotionally attached to the run-holders, who have farmed there for a century and "have put down deep roots"? They have, he says, a strong connection with the land, and are "kaitiaki" or guardians of the land.

Yet the tangata whenua who have customary rights to the foreshore and seabed (at least in some areas), are getting short shrift.

It looks like Maori will not establish property rights in the eyes of the Crown, but the property rights of high country runholders, even if they bought them last year (as some did), are being slavishly accepted.

So what is happening? Land Information New Zealand is negotiating with pastoral leaseholders to divide their property into freehold or conservation estate. The freehold part can be used as the owners wish (subject to the law and planning). A lot will be subdivided into lifestyle blocks or even ranches.

The conservation areas will be administered by the Department of Conservation, and huge efforts will be made to extend conservation and recreation.

Not all pastoral leaseholders will want to enter negotiations, but half of them are in the queue because this has all the aspects of a fire sale with bargains galore.

I am outraged when I think of the changes that are going to take place in some iconic high country areas that I deeply love. I am sure that I am not alone in this passionate love of the land portrayed in the art works of Colin McCahon, Grahame Sydney or Austin Deans or the poetry and prose of Brian Turner.

It also amazes me that the Government is using a shonky process. Usually it gets consultants in to advise on sales. It uses a transparent process of auction, tender or a float on the stock exchange. In this case, it is dealing only with the leaseholder.

It is giving away the freehold of about 60 per cent of the runs in return for leaseholders renouncing their perpetual right to the areas that will enter the conservation estate.

Since half of the pastoral leases are being negotiated, lessees expect that the land is cheap. Nice for them, but where do we come in? What is the public advantage of this privatisation? Why are we selling the family silver?

There is no single coherent explanation but the spin is that the public's access is improved and the pastoral families will get the same right as the rest of us to enjoy their freehold title.

Normally one would expect there to be an argument from the Ministry of Agriculture or the Treasury for the change, perhaps using a cost-benefit analysis to show that the change of tenure will lead to greatly enhanced production. There is no such argument.

The ultimate stupidity is that Mr Tamihere boasts that the Government has "paid to the leaseholders of the dozen tenure reviews completed this year so far a total of $7 million". How many of us wish the Government would pay $500,000 to accept the freehold of thousands of hectares.

So what will happen? The big change will be subdivision and development, and many of these ranches will be marketed overseas. There are already advertisements of the investment opportunities in New Zealand on the web, where the high country is eulogised for its trophy fish and game.

Moreover, land is cheap, there are no capital gains taxes and income tax for expatriates is only 10 per cent. Well-managed ranches will return 10 per cent a year.

Perhaps my fears are unfounded. But no one can foretell the consequences of the privatisation. There has been no research, although there should have been an investigation by a commission.

The only coherent voice on the issue is Forest and Bird, which predicts enormous windfall gains to a lucky few who will sell or use the land for lifestyle blocks, grape-growing, golf playing and residential subdivision.

The first completed review is of Ben Ohau, near Twizel. We do not know how much money, if any, changed hands. But the Cameron family now have 4210ha of freehold land which they can develop for their own profit. A further 1516ha has been fenced off for recreational and conservational purposes. The conservation area is the habitat of some of our most endangered birds, including the black stilt, bittern and marsh crake.

Some people will say that the changes that follow the sales will not be great because of the power of district plans and the Resource Management Act. But the act is not effective in ensuring sustainable development.

The 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act is a disaster. It is giving assets away and will despoil our high-country landscapes. This vast area is priceless as the font of the identity of South Islanders.

Our forefathers wanted an egalitarian country, devoid of the aristocracy from which they escaped. It is ironic that a Maori minister of a "people's party" is destroying their ideals.

* Neville Bennett teaches economic history at Canterbury University.