Many of the remaining tussock grasslands of the South Island high country are on government-owned land leased out to farmers. In the 1990s, the government began a voluntary tenure review process for this leasehold land. Farmers can negotiate freehold ownership of some parts of their runs – usually the more productive areas at lower altitudes. In return, less modified areas – mostly at higher altitudes – are returned to government ownership, to be managed by the Department of Conservation for public benefit, use and enjoyment. These are important for conservation and recreation, and as water catchment areas.
When tenure review began, in the early 1990s, the government of the day predicted that about one million hectares (of a total 2.6 million hectares of leasehold land) would be added to the conservation lands.
Of 347 pastoral leases held in 1992, tenure review had been completed on 121 by June 2017. The Crown had purchased leasehold rights to about 330,000 hectares, while about 370,000 hectares had been converted to freehold
The High Country Accord (a runholders’ association) advocates conservation using private covenants, but other groups believe this is much less satisfactory. Opponents argue that under such covenants, public access is not guaranteed, conservation management is piecemeal, and emergency grazing during droughts could interfere with ecological restoration.
Reserves and parks
In addition to tenure review, the government has bought some entire high country properties and added them to the existing conservation lands. Four high country conservation parks were set up between 2000 and 2006:
- Korowai/Torlesse (21,000 hectares) in mid Canterbury
- Ahuriri (49,000 hectares) in south Canterbury
- Te Papanui (20,882 hectares) in eastern Central Otago
- Eyre Mountains (65,160 hectares) in northern Southland.
The government also transferred control of the largest high country property, Molesworth Station (180,476 hectares), from Landcorp to the Department of Conservation in 2005. It is to be managed as a reserve, with grazing in certain areas. These larger properties extend over a variety of altitudes, and help protect lands and biodiversity in unbroken stretches from lowlands to the high country.
The government’s high country policy aims to establish some 22 parks and reserves. These will be available for public use, with opportunities for recreation and tourism. They will allow soil, water and nature conservation, and maximise water production for human needs.