Brownlee said in the speech that an estimated 70 per cent of the country’s mineral wealth – which might include zinc, lead, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten – lies under the surface of DoC-administered land and that almost half of it is in Schedule 4 land, beyond the reach of exploitation and locked up for ever. And, with the agreement of the Minister of Conservation, Tim Groser, he has ordered a review of that state of affairs.
This is scarcely high treason. Governments routinely review and repeal laws enacted by their predecessors. They know that they misjudge the public mood at their peril – when Don Brash as Opposition leader was sprung suggesting that the ban on nuclear warships would be “gone by lunchtime” if he were PM, he felt the chill wind of public opinion very quickly – but they are not elected to administer the decisions of their political opponents.
It was perhaps predictable that Brownlee’s speech would be greeted with horror by conservationists. Typical was Kevin Hackwell, the tireless advocacy manager for Forest & Bird, who, in an op ed piece in the Herald, conjured the images of an open-cast mine on the bird sanctuary of Little Barrier Island and a large pit scarring the face of Mt Moehau at the top of the Coromandel Peninsula. Others, including former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, spoke of the Schedule 4 land as “the jewels in the crown” of the conservation estate, by implication characterising mining as an inevitably destructive process which must, by its nature, consume something of beauty.
Yet good sense must see this as an overreaction: plainly there would not be more than a handful of people who would countenance the idea of mining activity that destroyed wilderness of surpassing beauty and conservation value. But conservationists need to accept that these values do not inhere in every square metre of every piece of Schedule 4 land. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder: an unemployed worker in a small provincial town may detect less lustre than a city yuppie who wants somewhere nice to go tramping. In this argument, as in most, no value is absolute and the minister is entitled to raise the matter for discussion.
As I said, it should be considered on a case by cases basis. What is the projected economic value of a specific area, and what is the environmental value of that specific area.