A case for new mines on conservation land

recent opinion piece claimed that “mines continue to destroy public conservation land”. I disagree.

For starters, a sense of proportion. Since the Department of Conservation was created in 1987, access arrangements for mines have had a combined footprint of about 3512 hectares, or 0.04% of our country’s 8,838,470ha conservation estate.

The impact of these mines can diminish over time. The restoration of the Globe Progress goldmine near Reefton is an example of modern mine restoration.

By December 2023 OceanaGold staff and contractors will have planted more than a million trees over the 282ha area. DOC staff have called the restoration so far, “world class”.

In 2010 Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright published a report, Making difficult decisions: mining the conservation estate.

Wright outlined the impacts of introduced pests, and the need for pest control, writing: “Current and projected funding will not be enough to stop pests wiping out much of our unique biodiversity. Commercial use (including mining) of the conservation estate offers an opportunity to address some of that funding shortfall.’’

She noted that mining could benefit native wildlife, saying, “… there is potential for a win-win. The greatest threat to New Zealand’s unique biodiversity on the conservation estate is not mining but introduced pests, both plants and animals’’.

‘’Without active pest management kiwi chicks have a one in twenty chance of making it to adulthood, and many of our most precious species such as kōkako and native mistletoe would face almost certain extinction,” Wright reported.

In 2014 Wright told an audience of resource management lawyers that the “impacts of mines are localised though can sometimes be very important. But pests – possums, rats, stoats – and a host of others are everywhere. Let us fret less about mining on conservation land and focus on knocking down pest populations”.

Again, to get a sense of proportion, it’s estimated possums, rats and stoats inhabit 94% of New Zealand, and eat most of the 26.6 million native bird chicks and eggs killed each year.

Outgoing Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague lamented in 2021that “… in a good year we’re just triaging a crisis. The Department of Conservation’s budget to finance predator control covers only 500,000 out of 8.6 million hectares, a mere 6%. Winners and losers are painfully selected every year with only the top-priority areas, habitats of just a few of the species on the brink of extinction, getting control.”

While acknowledging a funding shortage, Hague was no more enthusiastic about mining than his successor, Nicola Toki, who recently listed some native species found in the 106ha impacted by Bathurst Resources’ Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau.

What wasn’t mentioned was Bathurst Resources’ commitment to 35 years of pest and predator control over 25,000ha of Kahurangi National Park. This targets pigs, goats, possums, rats and stoats, along with weed species. Inhabitants also include kāka, whio, great spotted kiwi, powelliphanta snails and short and long-tailed bats.

The miners also committed to 50 years of pest and predator control over about 4500ha of the Denniston Plateau and surrounding beech forest.

OceanaGold’s plans for an underground gold and silver mine beneath conservation land at Wharekirauponga, in Coromandel, have been drawing controversy due to concern for the Archey’s frog.

The main threats to Archey’s frogs are mice, pigs, stoats, hedgehogs, possums, cats and introduced frogs. Goats, deer and pigs can also damage their forest habitats.

Archey’s frog numbers are growing in Waikato due to sustained predator control. Any resource consents or land access for OceanaGold will likely be contingent on increasing the Archey’s frog population, as well as other native species in Coromandel Forest Park.

These opportunities to increase predator control won’t be possible if New Zealand implements a policy of “no new mines on conservation land”.

Miners can only access conservation land by satisfying legislation such as the Crown Minerals Act, Resource Management Act, Conservation Act and Wildlife Act. If doing so means improving areas hundreds of times larger than the areas disturbed, what is the benefit in forbidding people from even lodging applications?

Short of raising taxes on people in the private sector or diverting money away from other public sector agencies, I see few other alternatives to increase conservation funding.

If you care about protecting native species, I urge you to consider the potential for a “win-win” from new mines on conservation land.

It’s worth thinking about.