Don't Sell Middle Earth, New Zealand Conservationists Cry

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Many scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy were filmed in the high country of New Zealand's South Island. These lands were once owned by the Crown on behalf of all New Zealanders, but in the largest land privatization exercise since New Zealand's early colonization, the government is selling out over the objections of the country's largest conservation organization.

The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand has draped a banner on its Wellington building saying “Don’t Sell Middle Earth - Stop High Country Privatisation,” and is lobbying for an end to the privatization process, known as tenure review.

In August 2003 Ben Ohau Station, near Twizel, became the first tenure review to be implemented under the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998.

Ben Ohau Station provided the plains of Rohan, where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue the Orcs at the start of the second film in the trilogy, "The Two Towers." The Rohan villages that were destroyed by Saruman's armies later in "The Two Towers" were also set there.

Ben Ohau

Ben Ohau, where scenes of the horsemen of Rohan were filmed, is situated in the Mackenzie Basin, in the South Island's Southern Alps. (Photo courtesy Ben Ohau Station)
Eastemnet Gullies, filmed for the third movie, "The Return of the King" was also based at Ben Ohau.

The government says farmers, hikers and the public will all benefit from tenure review. Land Information New Zealand Manager of Crown Property Paul Jackson says leaseholder farmers who have never owned their land freehold get freehold title to part of it, the public conservation estate is increased, and the public gets access to land they have never had formal access to before.

At Ben Ohau, the leaseholder received title to part of the land and the New Zealand Department of Conservation formally took over management of a portion of the property as new public conservation land. Formal public access to the conservation areas of Ben Ohau was permitted starting last November.

But while the tenure review is leaving some land in public ownership, it is not enough to satisfy the conservationists. “Parts of the Lord of the Rings were filmed in the South Island’s most spectacular high country landscapes," said Forest and Bird’s Conservation Manager Kevin Hackwell. "Tenure review on pastoral leases is resulting in publicly owned Crown lands important for conservation and recreation being freeholded and locked up in private ownership.”

“To date, some higher altitude lands have been protected," Hackwell acknowledged. But he objects that significant areas with high conservation and recreation values at lower altitudes and around lake shores have been, or are in the process of being, privatized.

"Leaseholders can make windfall profits from subdividing and on-selling their newly freeholded land," he points out.

Of a total of 306 Crown Pastoral Leases, 158 are under tenure review. The Department of Conservation has purchased one property and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), a government agency, has purchased one more.


In the Cameron family since 1897, Ben Ohau is award winning station that raises merino sheep. (Photo courtesy Ben Ohau Station)
Tenure review is complete on 16 properties, Ben Ohau and 15 others. Jackson says the tenure review process will permit formal public access to more than 40,000 hectares of high country land as the 15 tenure reviews of South Island high country lands are completed.

"All the final proposals for the 15 tenure reviews have been accepted by the leaseholders," said Jackson. "Once a leaseholder accepts a final proposal, LINZ implements it. We survey the land and fence off the conservation area. Given the large areas of land involved and seasonal weather factors, that can take up to 12 months."

In addition to the 15 final proposals that have been accepted, a further 13 proposals are now being prepared for leaseholder consideration, says Jackson.

The people of New Zealand are losing the underpinnings of their biodiversity, warns Hackwell. “Spiraling land prices can make farming a less economic land use, encouraging more intensive uses such as viticulture and subdivision. This can dramatically change high country landscapes with a loss of their indigenous plants and open and expansive natural character, so important for films like the Lord of the Rings,” he said.

Conservationists say the situation is worsened by overseas interests prepared to pay very high prices for pastoral leases as trophy properties or to develop for tourism or more intensive farming. Two properties adjacent to iconic landscapes like Canterbury’s Porter’s Pass a popular ski area close to Christchurch, are now fully or partly owned by absentee overseas interests.

Hackwell said, “Rising prices for pastoral leases make it extremely difficult for government agencies and the Nature Heritage Fund to afford to buy out the lessee’s interest for recreation and conservation. Opportunities to protect important habitats and open up land for public recreation and access are being lost."

Forest and Bird is urging the government to take time out from tenure review to develop new policy criteria and guidelines and to put a moratorium on the sale of pastoral leases to overseas interests until the review of the Overseas Investment Act is completed.