By Emma Hatton of RNZ

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is defending its decision to lease out almost 200 hectares of wetlands to a farming company.

Of the Queen Elizabeth Park's 637 hectares, 397 falls within the farming lease and a local conservation group says a big chunk of this is actually ancient wetland, that if given a chance, would regenerate.

Russell Bell from the Kapiti Coast group Friends of Queen Elizabeth Park said it was unbelievable that in the midst of a climate crisis, wetlands were being farmed.

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"Greater Wellington, having declared a climate change emergency ... these are great climate change opportunities. They'll become fantastic carbon dioxide sinks, and they will help our biodiversity.

"The other thing is in Wellington, we've only got 2 to 3 percent of our wetlands left compared to 10 percent nationally. So, Wellington's got this great dearth of wetlands."

The Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) said there were no wetlands of significant value being farmed, but Mr Bell said that was because they had been drained for so many years they no longer had wetland characteristics.

He was also concerned that native flora and fauna was not being protected as native rushes had been removed with herbicides.

"The purpose of each reserve is defined. QEP's purpose is recreation. You could remove native vegetation to achieve the purpose, but otherwise not.

"The purpose could be (but is not) to show people farming techniques. If it was, that would mean the farm would have public access and engagement. Then they could remove native vegetation to develop the farm."

Mr Bell said the farming operations should be retired and the drains blocked to allow the land to become wet again. He said walking paths could be caved out through the sand dunes to fulfil the park's purpose of recreation.

The GWRC said the long term direction for the park was environmental restoration and it no longer used herbicides on the rushes and the use of chemicals in other parts was a last resort.

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Council responds

Spokesperson Amanda Cox said the land was not being harmed by being farmed in the meantime.

"All cropping/pasture plans are developed by professional agronomists and reviewed by our land management advisers; they are specifically designed to minimise environmental impacts. Waterways and other sensitive areas are excluded."

Any re-wetting of the land needed to be carefully considered, she said.

"For the future management of the park, GWRC needs to invest ratepayer money sensibly. Any proposal to block [key waterways] needs to be carefully considered because this may create significant flood effects for nearby residential areas and adjacent roading infrastructure.

"The waterways are important habitats for native fish, and identified as culturally significant. The water table rises and falls with the seasons and the north Whareroa waterway does not flow permanently, as it is rain and stormwater-fed.

"It is not clear that blocking the waterways would achieve the desired effect."

Ms Cox said 25 hectares of the Raumati wetland had been retired from farming and another 23 hectares had sheep grazing on it as a less intensive activity and for weed-control.

She said on the other land farming helped keep weeds like gorse and blackberry under control as it would be harder to regenerate land that had been left uncontrolled, however, Mr Bell said if the land was re-wet, the gorse and blackberry would eventually die out anyway.

Ms Cox said the GWRC would be formally consulting on its parks early next year, which was when the direction for Queen Elizabeth Park would be made clear.

But for some, that was not soon enough.

GWRC candidate Thomas Nash said the fact there was potential wetlands being sat on by the council was mind-boggling.

"Wetlands are crucial for our biodiversity. They're crucial for our water quality and water health. And they also are really important carbon sinks, they soak up four times more carbon than terrestrial forests.

"So idea that Greater Wellington is leasing land to be farmed which could be wetland, it's pretty mind-boggling actually."

Mr Nash said given the council itself had recently declared a climate emergency, it should be acting on a precautionary principle and wanted to know why the lease was allowed to go on.

Ms Cox said a key challenge until the farming lease expired in 2025 would be maintaining stakeholder and community support while ensuring that the park management remained affordable.

The GWRC did not respond to questions relating to financials and if the GWRC could afford not to have a working farm on the land.

RNZ and NZME join more than 250 media organisations from around the world in the Covering Climate Now (CCN) initiative by committing to heighten climate coverage in the week leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019.
- RNZ