Claims that the Government is giving away a fifth of the South Island to privileged individuals in a process that will despoil the high country twist the facts about a process that will ultimately transfer vast tracts of land back to the Crown.

The litany of half-truths about the current tenure review was repeated by Neville Bennett in his recent article.

First, the facts about the review. About 300 farming families have leases over farms or "runs" in an area stretching along the mountainous backbone of the South Island, from Marlborough to Southland.

The high country is vast - of the 15 million ha that make up the South Island, about 6 million is in the high country. Of this amount, nearly 2.2 million ha is in pastoral leases, while 3.5 million is already in conservation estate.

During the 19th century, the high country was regarded as unwanted wasteland and was the last area to be settled. It was farmed under short-term leases with no security of reissue, little or no compensation for improvements, and no incentive to invest in land management.

After 1948, farmers bought more formal arrangements known as pastoral leases. To this day, leaseholders pay an annual rent for the land.

A pastoral lease runs 33 years with an automatic right of renewal. That means the land is permanently alienated - or separated - from full Crown control.

Tenure review is not a simple freeholding exercise. Many farmers would be delighted if it were.

It is a negotiated trading of rights between the Government and the farmer, the two parties to the lease contract. In return for giving up the lease, the farmer receives some of the land freehold, with the rest returning to the Crown.

Assuming the tenure review process is completed, another 1 million ha - about 7 per cent of the South Island - will be added to the 50 per cent that is already in conservation estate. About 1.2 million ha will become freehold - 8 per cent of the South Island, well below the 20 per cent claimed by critics.

This lease-for-land swap is of enormous benefit to people wanting to view the rugged beauty of the high country. Currently there is no automatic right of access to, or use of, this land. People rely on the good grace of the leaseholder.

Claims that farmers are falling over themselves to give up leases for a cash bonanza are grossly inaccurate. After 10 years, only half the 300 farmers have decided to enter the tenure review process. Only a handful of the most willing have completed or are close to completing under the current process. All have called it very stressful.

Statements that farmers want to move to freehold so they can turn a fast buck as developers of housing subdivisions is emotive claptrap. Those claims ignore the Resource Management Act.

All freehold land is subject to a local authority's district plan, which falls under the auspices of the act. Opponents to tenure review should read some of these onerous district plans. Development is not easy.

One misperception concerns the settlement of the recent Mt Burke tenure review. It's been said that the leasehold owners of Mt Burke have gained 35km of frontage on Lake Wanaka.

The truth is the exact opposite. Under the terms of the settlement, the leaseholders will lose the 35km of lake frontage enjoyed under its pastoral lease to a margin that allows automatic public access. This will happen with all river and lake frontages under the tenure review process.

There are few other examples of a tenure review settlement. But the outcome at Quailburn in the MacKenzie resulted in 70 per cent of the land being transferred to the conservation estate. Another high-country farmer who has received initial proposals for tenure review stands to lose 95 per cent of his leasehold land.

A fact conveniently overlooked by critics is the economic impact. Millions of sheep and other livestock will be taken off the land, meaning less rural income, and less foreign exchange earnings for New Zealand.

Some also claim that farmers are not paying enough for freehold title. The reality is that some farmers pay significantly. In some cases, where it gains substantial benefits, the Crown pays the farmer. The amount depends on the balance of rights traded. If the farmer pays to gain freehold title, the Government gets cash as well as land at no cost.

Through tenure review the public will gain control of a large chunk of South Island land with high conservation and recreation values, and a better network of access to public estate. This land has huge commercial tourism potential.

Farmers gain more secure title and increased flexibility of land use. There is no doubt farming will remain the predominant activity, but there are huge opportunities to integrate tourism into the mix.

To maintain sustainable management we need robust, viable businesses, and to achieve this we must integrate a range of commercial opportunities. To do anything less is to shortchange ourselves, our families, our communities and the environment.

* John Aspinall is a high-country leaseholder whose family has farmed Mt Aspiring, near Wanaka, since 1920.

Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment

Related links