The Greens are urging the Government to stick to its commitment to ban new mines on conservation land as it looks to accelerate the reclassification of stewardship areas.
Stewardship areas are parcels of land with conservation value given to the Department of Conservation in 1987 but yet to be afforded additional protections. DoC has a role to reclassify the land - which makes up 30 percent of the estate - but it's complex and time-consuming, involving surveys, an analysis of species and ecosystems present, and consultation with Treaty partners and the public.
Dr Ayesha Verrall, the minister currently in charge of the conservation portfolio while Kiri Allan is on leave, announced on Friday night that the Government is looking to accelerate that process.
"The Government intends to progress legislation to streamline, speed up and simplify the process so land with conservation value is identified and managed appropriately, while land with low or no conservation value can be considered for other uses," she said.
A Bill isn't expected to be introduced until 2022, but in the meantime, the Government is establishing two independent panels to assess some of the areas and provide recommendations to the minister.
"There is considerable confusion over stewardship land status and ongoing debate over whether it is appropriate to allow economic activity in these areas," Dr Verrall said. "These new measures will remove ambiguity and provide clarity as to what conservation values are present and how much protection the land has."
That debate has been viewed as a hurdle to progressing the Government's 2017 promise to ban new mines on conservation land. Last term, Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens were unable to find consensus over whether the policy would apply to stewardship land.
The Terms of Reference for the new panels notes that delays to stewardship land reclassification "has led to uncertainty about its status and public controversy about if or when it is appropriate to allow economic activity or development on it, or conversely, to protect it".
"The Prime Minister signalled before the 2020 election that the reclassification of stewardship land would be a priority. The Minister of Conservation has communicated that it is also her priority to have this work completed."
The Green Party's Eugenie Sage, who was the Minister of Conservation last term, says "stewardship land is conservation land" and the Government must stick to its original promise of "no new mines on conservation land".
"New Zealanders want our conservation lands and waters, with their stunning natural and cultural landscapes and indigenous plants and wildlife, protected from bulldozers and diggers," Sage said.
"The Government must make sure the reclassification process is not hijacked by mining and other commercial development interests, which will push for precious public conservation land to be sold off or removed from the conservation estate for their own economic gain."
Dr Verrall told Newshub last week the promise remains "one of our priorities".
"It is complex and we are working through that. We are working through the policy issues."
With New Zealand First out of Government and Jacinda Ardern recommitting to the policy during last year's election campaign, there was hope among activists that the ban would quickly be progressed.
Asked if it would be implemented this term, Dr Verrall again repeated it was a focus for the Government.
"It was in our Speech from the Throne and it remains one of our priorities for the term."
'Complex policy questions'
A briefing to Allan from DoC in November obtained by Newshub via the Official Information Act explains that the policy "had not been defined at the time of announcement, leaving key complex policy questions open to interpretation".
"Different government departments involved had different priorities for this work, particularly around impacts on economic development," the briefing says. "There was little recognition across government of the values contained on public conservation land where mining is often sought".
It says the need for multiple approvals and decision-makers to be required for mining activities creates confusion "and at times, disagreement across government officials".
"As cross-Government agreement was not achieved on the scope of the policy, no purposeful public or stakeholder engagement had occurred. Despite this there was significant public and stakeholder interest in what the no new mining policy would entail."
DoC says in the briefing that there's been "significant public commentary that stewardship land should be open for mining as it was presumed (incorrectly) that it had low conservation value" and that work is underway to review the land.
"Depending on the position you may hold on whether stewardship land should be included in a no new mines policy the existing position on stewardship land review may need to change".
While a draft consultation document and regulatory impact statement had been prepared at the time, "progress towards public consultation on the policy was halted due to a lack of cross-ministerial agreement".
Much of the briefing was withheld on grounds that advice is still under consideration.
Ardern said last year that she was "confident" issues around stewardship land would be worked through. She recommitted to the policy while visiting the West Coast, where locals have been vocal about their frustration with the proposed ban.
West Coast Mayors wrote to the Government in 2019 calling for the region to be excluded from the policy as conservation land makes up 84 percent of the region. There have also been protests against the ban in the region, which has a substantial mining industry.
West Coast MP Damien O'Connor - who is also a Cabinet minister - said last year that the policy had been parked before the general election.
He told Newshub last week he is aware of little progress on it since.
"That has been sitting around for a while. There are a whole lot of issues that still have to be worked through. There has been no discussion recently on it. I am not aware of any progress in that area," he said.
"[West Coasters] have concerns about it. But we are also committed to working through and sorting out the stewardship land areas as well. There are a number of things that are kinda lingering and need to be sorted through."
Allan told Newshub earlier this year Cabinet had "yet to make any policy decisions in regards to no new mines this term", but it was "on [her] radar".
"The Government wants to ensure that mining happens in the right place, in the right way. There are still some key policy questions that need to be defined and clarified before any policy can be implemented," she said.
Straterra, the mining industry body, said in a briefing in December that it opposed the policy as it believes "it would not deliver the conservation benefits sought but would lead to extra costs on miners, lost investment opportunities and unintended consequences".
"Importantly, a ban is unnecessary because minerals activities on conservation land are already strictly regulated in terms of their effects on the environment and conservation values".
It says not all conservation land "is of high conservation value" and only a very small amount of conservation land is currently minded. The ban would hurt the West Coast economy, reduce Crown revenue, increase "carbon miles" due to the need to truck resources further distances and require more minerals to be imported, Straterra says.